“Including Everyone”

Sermon – 05-09-21 – Easter VI – Cycle B
Scriptures: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
Sermon Title: “Including Everyone”

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” These are the words of Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper before he leaves the Upper Room to go to the Garden of Gethsame to pray and be arrested.

Did you hear, “. . . as I have loved you?” Before this occasion, the commandment was to love one another as much as we love ourselves. Here the commandment takes a big twist: “As much as I love you!” Well, that will never happen but it is the goal: To love each other as much as Jesus loves us!

Jesus ties this commandment with joy. This joy is not something we can develop by working at it or by wishing for it. Praying will help. But still it needs to come from Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It is a gift. What about love? Last Sunday we sang “The Gift of Love.” If we stay connected to Jesus, the Vine, love is one of the fruits. The Holy Spirit enables these fruits when we stay connected to the Vine. Love and joy are the first two fruits of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22. Do you remember the third fruit of the Spirit? Yes, peace.

Will you picture yourself in a circle of space? Picture a circle like a drawing on a paper or yourself standing in a hulu hoop. The circle on a piece of paper can only be as large as the paper. The hulu hoop circle is quite small. This is not what Jesus has in mind. The Holy Spirit is not limited to circles on paper or a plastic hulu hoop. Why should we care about this small circle? It is nice and cozy. We don’t need to get along with anyone else because we do not let them in our circle.

Be assured, this is not what Jesus has in mind for us and for all of the people who could be in our circle of influence. Even though love, joy, and peace are gifts from Jesus and the Holy Spirit, we need to be open for them. Our circle needs to be bigger. That’s better. We have expanded our circle with the help of God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Now some people are with us in the circle. But think. Are these people we especially like? They do things we like to do and the way we like to do them. They think the same way as we do. They like the same politicians. They have the same philosophy about spending and saving money as we do. They believe in God just like we do with only a slight variation here and there.

Open circle, close circle. Who else gets to be welcomed into our circle? With whom would we share our possessions? For whom would we die? Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Notice, Jesus says “friends.” Hear what Matthew records Jesus as saying about friends and enemies.

From Matthew 5:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

Gentiles. In the time of Jesus, anyone who was not a Jew was a Gentile. At least some Gentiles worshiped God but not in the same way with the same rules as did the Jews. When Jesus comes along, the Jews become divided. Jesus is a Jew, born of Jewish parents. Some Jews break with tradition and follow Jesus. But after Jesus ascended forty days after his resurrection, his followers are not sure who to include or exclude in this new way of understanding God.

They start by telling the story to Jews who had not yet heard. But non-Jews, the Gentiles, what about them? Peter becomes the major spokesperson for the followers of Jesus Christ, called Christians after a bit of time. Peter is sure that people need to be Jews to be followers. New people would need to adapt to the Jewish rules. Strange that even the followers of Jesus cling to some of the traditional Jewish rules such as diet restrictions. So the circle of love around Peter
is closed to non-Jews.

But one day, while Peter is spreading the word about Jesus and is staying with friends in a town called Joppa, Peter goes to spend time in prayer on the flat roof of the house. God gives Peter a vision about opening Peter’s circle. In the vision, a large sheet of cloth comes from the sky filled with animals of all kinds. God says, “Eat.” Peter says, “No way!” Peter adds, “These animals are not clean.” God says, “If I say it is okay to eat these animals, it is okay!” Then the sheet is lifted into the sky again.

In a town called Caesarea lives Cornelius and his family. Not Jews. Gentiles. They are good people, praying, giving money to the poor, they worship God. But they do not know about Jesus and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. God sends an angel to tell Cornelius to send for Peter to tell them about Jesus. Cornelius has several of his people go to Joppa to ask Peter to come to Caesarea.

Peter does not know Cornelius or these people who have come for him. But God tells Peter to go to the gate of this home to welcome these people. They invite Peter to go with them to Cornelius. God says to Peter, “Go.” So Peter and some companions arrive at the home of Cornelius the Gentile. The greeting is very cordial. Peter starts to preach about Jesus, the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit. As he is preaching the gathered family and friends start speaking “in tongues.”

Peter and his companions are astonished and declare that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on these Gentiles and that there is no reason why these people should not be baptized and welcomed into the fold of Jesus followers, the Christians. So right then and there Peter baptizes this family and their friends in the name of Jesus. The companions of Peter are witnesses to this event.

Peter’s circle of love has expanded in a big way. Instead of Gentiles being excluded, they are included. We only have the end of this story in our first reading today. I needed to share the whole story with you. Think of our own lives. Instead of trying to be included in a circle that appeals to us but the circle is not showing signs of accepting us, we shall open our own circle to the people who are still in a circle by themselves. God wants us to invite them into our circle where there is true love and joy and peace because God gifted it to us and because these new people bring the gift of love, joy, and peace with them. Alleluia and Amen!

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