Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

May 5, 2007

St. Agnes. Cincinnati

(Based on Acts 14:21-27; Psalm 145; Revelation 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a, 34-35)

“Behold, I make all things new!?”

We’re drawing near the end of the Easter season and coming to the high point of the church’s year with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the great feast of Pentecost. And in preparation for that gift the church challenges us with a searching question in today’s readings: do we believe that our God can make all things new?

All things? Really? As we look around at the state of our world and our country and our city? All things new?

During these Easter weeks the second reading has been taken from the Book of Revelation. Today we reach almost the final words of the last book of the New Testament

and John shares with us his great vision of where it is all heading, the fulfillment of all the Lord’s promises. He sees a totally renewed city. Jerusalem stands for the city of the whole world and its has finally become what its name signifies: the city of peace. Imagine a city where all dwell in harmony together, where there is no more war, no more suffering or pain or death. The sea for the people of the Near East was the place of danger, of fierce beasts and shipwrecks – and that, too, is gone.

He presents the picture with a lovely image. We have all been present at that moment when a bride dressed in her bridal gown is presented to her future husband. It’s a hushed moment; it’s sacred, a moment of fulfillment and hope.

Can our God create that kind of a city? Can we believe that our God can make all things new?

It’s a magnificent vision, corresponding to our wildest hopes. But we know it’s far off, it’s for the end times. Can it have any reality for us? Well, the readings from the Acts of the Apostles, the account of the early development of the Jesus movement, take place in real time and we can see the workings of the Lord there..

Today we see Paul and Barnabas out on their first missionary journey. They are going from city to city founding new communities of believers. As today’s story opens they have just come from the towns of Iconium and Lystra, where they converted many people — but where their success also stirred up the animosity and envy of the Jews. They had actually been stoned and driven out of those cities. I’m sure we can’t possibly imagine what it must be like to run for your life with people hurling rocks at you to kill you.

And now they are planning to return to their home base in Antioch. But before they leave they choose to do an amazing thing: they return to those two cities! You can imagine their friends saying, “You’re going back there? Are you crazy?” And why do they go? To encourage the people not to lose heart, to stand their ground in the face of persecution.

Then they get in a boat and you can imagine the excitement when they are sighted at the coast. They’ve been away for three full years. We all know what it’s like when some member of the family or a friend shows up after a long absence. And remember, they weren’t flying in on the 5:36 flight from Crete! No one could have anticipated when they might show up. Then when that first person cried, “It’s Paul and Barnabas!” the word would have spread through that town like a fire. What is the most natural thing to do? Gather the whole community of believers to tell the Good News of what God had been doing through them. This is internal evangelization—not preaching to outsiders but building up the faith of those who are already believers. It’s what we need to do for one another all the time: be witnesses to God’s work in us.

And the natural question comes up: what’s new? And they proceed to tell an amazing piece of what’s new: “The Lord has opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.”

New? It’s a piece of news so incredible that it will produce one of the greatest changes in world history. It’s incredible, unthinkable. It goes against all that the people had been taught to believe for centuries. If you were to ask a faithful Jew in those days: suppose God were to bestow grace on the Gentiles, many would have said “No way!”

And indeed, although there were people who rejoiced at this good news, it did provoke fierce resistance. “You mean we have to accept them into our community and worship alongside of them?” The struggle went on for years all during Paul’s life. And even then, people said, “Well, OK, but only if they’re circumcised! Only if they only eat food that is clean, if they know what foods to put in what dishes and how to dress.” The barrier has been there for centuries, it’s too much to overcome.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us it’s all about love: having to learn, ever so slowly, step by step, what is implied in those three simple words of the Lord’s commandment: “Love– One–Another.” The whole story of salvation history is the story of how our God has had to stretch our hearts and break down each barrier and limitation we continually erect to avoid facing the full meaning of that one simple command.

It begins in our earliest beginnings as a human race. You are to love your neighbor, and that’s literally the person who lives next to you. Your family and members of your clan. Everyone else is an enemy, the ‘pagan’ who is literally the person from outside. Then it means your tribe, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, then the whole people. Everyone else is to be feared.

And Jesus comes along and breaks each one of those taboos, one by one. He sits to talk with a Samaritan, a woman. He eats and drinks with tax collectors who work for the Roman oppressors. He lets his feet be wiped with the hair of a woman who is a public sinner. He says that the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before the righteous religious elite. It’s all about identification with the hungry and the thirsty and the naked and the homeless and the prisoners. It’s seventy times seven times. Love without limits. It’s not a matter of human attraction and human interests. It’s a matter of loving one another “as I have loved you.” And we know how that is, too: loving to the point of laying down his life for us.

Can we believe that our God can really do all things?

And God’s saving power continues from those days of the early church right into our day. I invite you to think a bit just about our country’s story.

The American project began with the promise of life, liberty, and the possibility of happiness for all. Yes, for all. If “all” means all males. If “all” means all white folk. If “all” means you own property. If “all” means you’re a free person and not a slave.

Just think: there are men and women in this church whose grandparents (or certainly their great-grandparents) were slaves.

Just think: I remember talking with a bi-racial couple who were parishioners at St. Agnes some years ago and they told me that when they wanted to get married — only 40 years ago (and a lot of us can remember 40 years ago) — there were only 5 states in our country where they could be legally married. In the other states they would have been put in prison if they attempted to marry. And as a final indignity, even in Colorado where they were allowed to marry, the marriage register had to be written in two different colored inks, to show the whole world that this was a black man and a white woman.

Only a little more than 30 years ago we as a country were quite content to organize our society in a way which kept people with handicaps almost prisoners in their own homes. Why should they have to be able to go to museums and concerts and ball games like everyone else? Why bother to put ramps so they could go to church — or even cross the street in their wheelchairs? Today you wouldn’t think of building a new structure that is inaccessible. The Special Olympics are a product of our era, recognizing the gifts that people with handicaps are to us.

Just think: we speak today of the ‘axis of evil.’ And who were the original axis of evil? The Germans and Japanese and Italians, against whom we fought a brutal world conflict, and they are some of our strongest allies only 50 years later.

Our God has been at work, even in the time of our lives. The Lord continues to stretch the boundaries of our love.

Which brings us to our time, to this day. What are the barriers that still must be taken down?

Just think: We do a pretty poor job with our people who are in prison, especially when they leave prison and return to our society. We still have an uphill climb to achieve civil rights for our gay couples and the undocumented among us.

Let me pose a situation for our prayer: You may have read of the congregation out West where a fellow came to their door seeking to become a member of their church. They are a Protestant congregation and their custom is that any new member can’t just walk in and sign a book (like at St. Agnes); the whole community has to vote to accept each new member. Well, the man stands up before the community and tells them he is a sex offender. He’s paid his debt to society in prison and now he believes in Christ and wants to join them. If that were St. Agnes, how would we vote? At least we need to have empathy as they wrestle with the frightening demand love might ask of them. Their pastor is challenging them withe words of John’s Gospel: “This is the way people will know we are his disciples, if we have love for one another.” How would I vote? How would you vote? Loving with the breadth of Christ’s love isn’t easy, it can tear your heart in two.

And so we turn and look forward to Pentecost and coming of the Spirit. Because the truth is that we can’t love the way Jesus calls us to on our own. We can’t fulfill the command of the Lord to love without conditions, to put aside our self-interest and our security, to lay down our lives. It is only through the gift of the Spirit who breaks down all barriers and gathers the nations together in spite of their confusing tongues.

On Friday evening you may have seen a wonderful interview by Bill Moyers on PBS. He interviewed a back man who at the age of 21 was sitting in his home with his family watching TV at the time a woman was murdered some miles away. He was arrested and taken to a jail 17 miles away where his family didn’t even know he was or how to get there, so they couldn’t testify to his whereabouts at the time of the crime. He was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and spent 25 years of his life in prison before he was finally exonerated this year. And Bill Moyers was totally amazed at the man’s spirit. He said, “You’ve been imprisoned unjustly for 25 years and I don’t see any signs of resentment in you. How do you do that?” The man said, “I don’t have time for resentment; I’m just thankful to God I’m free.”

How do you do that? Not by your own power. Only with faith in God.

Can we believe that our God can make all things — including you and me — really new?