(RCL) Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
Collect: Almighty god, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know thy Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.Amen.
The Collect for today asks for us to be able to know Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life that we may follow in the way that leads to eternal life.
Once there was a church that had the phrase “I am the way, the truth and the life” on a sign above its iron gate. The church and its message intrigued a young man, so he decided to go there on Sunday. He was not welcomed. No one spoke to him, or smiled, or offered him a handshake. After the service he left in a puzzled state.
What Peter discovers in the reading from Acts for today is a revelation and a revolution. God reveals that nothing in God’s creation is profane, that the purity code is a limitation imposed by humans, not God, and that keeping that purity could in fact be hindering God. This was something obviously lost on the folks in the small church that the young man visited. They were uneasy with somebody they didn’t know, so they kept their distance.
Have you ever thought about what is going on in the world today in terms of Peter’s experience? Have you ever wondered why many are afraid of immigrants, legal or not? Do you understand that Sunday morning can be the most exclusive, segregated, and separate time of the week? All week long we work with, bump against, commute with, and eat with people who are not like us, but often on Sunday we attend a church that consists mostly of people like ourselves.
There are exceptions, of course. But many of our churches do not look anything like the communities that we live in, the grocery stores we shop in, or the movie theaters we attend. Why is that? Do you ever wonder?
The writer of Revelation, our second reading for today, offers a passage often read at burials. The image of death having been vanquished, of mourning and crying being no more, and of God wiping away every tear is a powerful image, followed by the declaration that God is making all things new. One of those new things is surely the way we experience one another, as diverse gifts of the God who made us all. If we begin to think about people who differ from us in race or culture, then see them as gifts to us from God, that gives us a wholly different point of view toward the many people sent to us by God. We can turn away from them, but are we not then also turning away from God?
When we hear the gospel reading, Jesus’ own words call us to love one another, “Just as I have loved you.” This is not a phrase easily dismissed. Jesus’ entire ministry, including his passion and resurrection, hangs on this phrase. Jesus loved people in a radical way. Today he would be – and often is – in the supermarket talking with the checkers, the stockers, and the customers finding their way through a bewildering array of products. He is there because that is where all the community goes to buy food. He is there because that may be where a lonely newcomer to town gets a smile at the cash register, or even a query, “Are you new here? Welcome.”
But what about church? What about that Sunday morning experience that is often the place where we see only familiar faces, only people like us, only people we know? Is Jesus there? Of course he is, but he is there to welcome the stranger – whoever walks in that door timidly and tentatively looking for new community. Are we ready for that? Do we seek those persons? Would they be welcomed, truly welcomed here?
Not long ago the young man who had visited the church and was made to feel like an outsider was back in the neighborhood and walked by the church he had visited on that Sunday. It had been many years. The sign “I am the way, the truth, and the life” still stood above the iron gate. Then he saw that the church doors were boarded over, as were many of the windows. The church was obviously closed, and looked as though it had been for some time. He walked on, wondering what had happened.
We can draw our own conclusions, but if that church had welcomed him and others instead of being closed to what God was sending them on frequent occasions, the end of their story might have been very different indeed.-- Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island.