This is the sermon preached by Bishop Scott Mayer at St. Alban’s, Theatre Arlington, on Sunday, May 19, 2019.
St Alban’s 2019 5 Easter – Year C May 19
The most recent meeting of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church was held in Austin, Texas, this past summer. Several of us from the Diocese of Fort Worth spent nearly two weeks at convention.
The theme for convention was “The Jesus Movement: Loving, Liberating, and Life-giving.” (Our Fort Worth convention used the same theme.) At any rate, it’s not surprising that our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, preached a lot about love. He’s getting known for that, even around the world.
If you recall, last May there was a wedding over in England. It is speculated that just under 2 billion people tuned in to watch that royal wedding, and heard Bishop Curry preach about love.
And the reaction from the media was as if no one had ever heard that message from a preacher before. It wasn’t just “good news”; it was “news.” And the next thing you know, he is being interviewed on morning shows, and late-night shows, and cable news, and he is the subject of articles in publications ranging from Bride to Cosmopolitan. People are drawn to the message of love, partly because we hunger for love, and partly because deep down we know the message is true.
I suspect there are those who believe we are preaching an “easy” way, and easy Gospel which lets us “off the hook” from following commandments and so-called biblical teachings. And yet, I wonder how anyone who has ever shown love without conditions, or forgiven someone who didn’t deserve it or even ask for it, or shown grace to someone who didn’t earn it, could say that showing love is easier than following some rules.
I’m glad that Jesus chose to love us, rather than follow some rules like not healing on the Sabbath, or refraining from eating with tax collectors and sinners, or touching lepers. But if we recall, he was challenged and criticized for choosing love, as well.
One time he was challenged by someone who was very interested in commandments about the most important commandment. Using the scriptures, Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.” And then he said: “On these two commandments hang ALL the law and the prophets.”
That means everything flows from the Great Commandment to love. That means that doctrine and creeds are derived from and understood through love. That means everything we read in the Bible is read through the lens of God’s love. That means the mission of God to restore all people to union with God and one another is accomplished through love.
And all of this is not some new 21st century innovative idea; none other than St Augustine – 1500 years ago – claimed the same thing. Augustine wrote: “Whoever, then, thinks he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and neighbor, does not understand them as he ought.”
So, this is not new. On the night before he dies in his last words to his followers, Jesus says what is most important. Today’s Gospel places us in the Upper Room at the Last Supper on the night before Jesus dies on the cross. He has washed the feet of his disciples, and then gives a new commandment.
He says: “I give you a new commandment; that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I want to take a moment this morning to talk about this love – this gift of love. (After all, preachers are supposed to “preach about God, preach about love, and preach about 10 minutes. I suspect I’ll exceed the 10 minutes.)
I’m mindful of the prayers we say after communion (the post-communion prayers). Today’s prayer will say: thank you for “assuring us in these holy mysteries that we are living members of the Body of your Son, and heirs of your eternal kingdom.” And in the other post-communion prayer we say, “you have graciously accepted as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.”
In essence they say the same thing, but I am struck by the phrase, “graciously accepted.” Grace is a religious word meaning “gift” or “pure gift” – nothing which can be earned by good works or good behavior; nothing which is given with conditions attached. Total gift. God’s love is a gift. We are graciously accepted.
And the love that we, as living members of the Body of Christ, are called to proclaim and embody is unconditional. It is a radical grace, and it is meant for all people. All people are included in God’s love.
That is the shocking news to the religious insiders in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is criticized for crossing boundaries; for proclaiming the Gospel to Gentiles who are seen as “unclean”; for embodying God’s love by sharing a meal with them.
Peter is criticized by the insiders, so he shares with them his vision, his dream, in which he is called by God to a more expansive mission which includes all people. And it turns out, Peter is somewhat convincing. Today’s story concludes with his critics making a reversal – at least a partial reversal, saying: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Surely such a statement reveals their deep-seated sense of religious superiority over the unclean Gentiles – “even the Gentiles” are included – but it also reveals a new understanding that “the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind.”
I would suggest it’s not an accident that Peter is the one who spreads the good news that God’s love extends beyond expected boundaries. Peter himself is prime for such a vision, prime for personal conversion to God’s larger plan for humankind. For Peter has experienced the radical grace of God; Peter has experienced the power of unconditional love to raise the dead to new life.
If we recall, Peter was one of the first to throw down his fishing net when the Lord said, “Follow me.” Peter was the first to “get it right” when Jesus questioned the twelve: “And who do you say that I am?” Peter blurted out the answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
When Jesus reveals to the twelve that he must suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised, it’s Peter who boldly steps up and declares: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” It’s Peter who says to Jesus in the Upper Room: “You will never wash my feet.” Before the crucifixion Peter sees himself as strong, and loyal, and faithful.
So, when in the face of persecution Peter vehemently denies that he knows Jesus of Nazareth, and then remembers the Lord’s prediction as the cock crows, he breaks down and weeps – shattered and deeply ashamed. It’s no wonder that the angel at the tomb has specific instructions for the women at the tomb. The angel says: “Tell Peter. Jesus has been raised. You will find him in Galilee.” It’s as if the angel is saying, “especially, don’t forget Peter. Be sure to tell Peter.”
Clearly, Peter receives the message. In fact, Peter writes a letter (now included in the New Testament) describing his experience of the Risen Christ and his knowledge of God’s grace. He writes the letter as one who has experienced undeserved forgiveness and new life. And furthermore, he writes that this radical grace extends beyond all imagined boundaries.
Peter claims that there is no place beyond or beneath the reach of Christ. And we make the same claim every time we proclaim the Apostle’s Creed or recite the Baptismal Covenant. We say, “He descended to the dead,” or else, “He descended into hell.”
As tradition has it, that’s what happened on Holy Saturday, the day sandwiched between Good Friday and Easter Day, the day between crucifixion and resurrection. Christ descended into hell.
It’s Peter who made the claim – and put it in one of his letters – that Christ “went and preached to the Spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey” – that Christ descended to the dead to proclaim the Good News of God’s forgiveness and release to the captives, those who thought they were beyond redemption, beyond God’s reach, beyond God’s grace, beyond and beneath God’s love.
The Eastern Orthodox Church especially celebrates this Holy Saturday, this descent to the dead. Perhaps you’ve seen the Orthodox icons which portray the liberation from death.
In the Orthodox portrayal of the Resurrection, their icons reveal Christ in His glory trampling on the broken doors of Hell. And in one hand Jesus pulls up Adam from the darkness, and with the other hand he pulls up Eve. Adam and Eve and all of humankind are raised with Christ.
No place is beyond or beneath His reach. No one is beyond or beneath God’s grace or love: no hell, no tomb – public or personal – is beyond the reach of God’s love. That’s something Peter would know. And his experience takes on a ripple effect as his story is shared with twenty centuries of people who resonate with his story.
In the Upper Room at the Last Supper, Jesus says, “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Jesus tells his followers – those literally in the Upper Room that night, and all who have partaken of this Sacred Meal for over 2000 years – that we are to love one another, as he loves us.
I have no doubt that there are people in Arlington and beyond who would say, “I have experienced such love from the people of St Alban’s.” And also, true, I am pretty sure there are days when we fail. Certainly, I fail. And God forgives us.
God also invites us – graciously invites us – to His Table. And at God’s Table we become what we receive: The Body of Christ. We are graciously accepted as living members of the Body of Christ – called to proclaim and embody the Good News of God’s love for all people … in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.