Sermon - 19th May 2019
All things new
Scripture - Psalm 148; John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
In the whole of recorded human history, there is one event whose significance and importance overshadows all others: the Resurrection of Jesus. Today, as we continue to celebrate the Easter season, we are going to look at four Biblical texts which tell of the radical message, God’s invitation that is open to all people.
Firstly, today’s Psalm, Psalm 148, opened our service in the form of the hymn “All Things Bright And Beautiful”, a song which invites us to see God in the created world around us. Some of you from other church traditions might know this Psalm in the canticle “Song of Creation” or “Benedicte”.
Let us consider the time when the Psalm was written. The peoples who were ancient Israel’s neighbours worshipped other gods: for example, the Egyptians worshipped the Sun (Ra) and others in the shape of animals. When we read Psalm 148, the Psalmist makes it clear that such things are not gods, but part of the one God’s creation.
For those who came to our “Bible 15@4” last week, when we looked at the creation story in Genesis 1, you will notice similarities in the list of creation and the list of the calls to worship here in Psalm 148.
As the Psalm draws to a close, it calls all people to praise God, drawing our thoughts beyond creation. As the Psalm starts and ends: Praise the Lord!
In the context of all creation and all people praising God, we come to our second text today. While the Psalm takes us to the heights of praise and celebration of worship, our second text, from John’s Gospel, describes a very fragile moment: Jesus’ immediately response to His betrayal.
<Reading 2: John 13:31-35>
Peter’s foretold denial of Jesus appears in all four Gospels. John’s account places this in the Upper Room; the other three place it slightly later in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts also echo the other Disciples’ resolve. We know what happened next: Judas betrayed Jesus; Peter denied Jesus; the other 10 ran away! The intimate meal they had just shared was thrown into chaos with a revelation of betrayal, emotions ran high.
Probably because we are so familiar with Jesus’ Passion narrative and that the four accounts blend into one in our minds, it is easy to overlook these verses unique to John’s account: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Here, the Greek uses ἀγαπᾶτε – ‘agape’ (sacrificial) love.
The brokenness we experience often stems from failure to love: others, God, even ourselves. In the middle of that painful scene in the Upper Room, Jesus focuses on love. Despite Peter’s denial, and as Philip explored in last week’s sermon, we know later from John 21 that Jesus restored Peter, where Jesus again focused on ‘agape’ love. Jesus’ command to love allows us to move beyond the denial and live once more.
Jesus’ words were not new: they can be found in Leviticus 19:18, where the command to “love one another” is found in a chapter giving examples of how to live a compassionate life.
In the Psalm, creation points us to God; and here in John’s Gospel, others are pointed to God by the example lives we live in our expressions of love as we live out the Gospel.
Our next reading is from the book which is a sequel to Luke’s Gospel – the Acts of the Apostles – it tells of how the Christian faith grew beyond the people and place of its origin, the Jewish people in ancient Israel.
<Reading 3: Acts 11:1-18>
The events we have just heard read to us were so important that the writer included them twice: firstly, in Acts 10, told as the events happened to the Apostle Peter; and secondly, as we have just heard, as Peter retold what had happened - to the church council meeting in Jerusalem and the important decision that the council made.
Matthew’s Gospel records these words of Jesus: “You are Peter. On this rock I will build my church.” (16:18). Because it was Peter whom God used to bring the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family to faith, Peter was able to lead the church to the conclusion that the Gospel is for all, and that to follow the Jewish law with all its requirements (including circumcision) is not necessary.
The three-time recurring vision emphasises the importance and God’s insistence that the Gospel is for all. Jewish culture of the time was guided by laws of being ritually clean and unclean. The three-time vision breaks down for Peter a life-time keeping of these laws, and it opens his mind and heart for the new thing which God is doing.
In some ways, our journey as Christian LGBT+ people has echoes of similarity with this account from Acts. Just as the Gentiles were seen as “unclean” and became declared “clean” and accepted, the Church is on similar journey with LGBT+ acceptance. Some parts of the Church, like the United Reformed Church are further on the journey, for which we give thanks to God, and we pray for those denominations whose divisions and messages still cause pain and alienate LGBT+ people.
The voice in the vision said to Peter: “Do not say anything is not pure that God has made “clean.” (v. 9) Peter’s conclusion at the Jerusalem council is one of the open heart of love, surrender to God’s plan, despite human tradition: “…who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (v. 17).
Who is this God that all creation points to in the Psalm?
What does God’s love gift of Himself in Jesus on the Cross give to us?
When we talk of Easter, we talk of the gift that had no end. The final book of the Bible, the Revelation to John, offers us a poetic insight.
<Reading 4: Revelation 21:1-6>
You may have heard this reading many times: it is also popular at funerals, as it offers comfort with a poetic vision of our eternal home. It speaks of a new creation. Like today’s Psalm, it echoes the themes in Genesis 1. Ancient peoples saw the sea as a place of uncertainty and risk, so there being no sea offers stability and safety.
Throughout human history, humankind has been drawn together in villages, towns and cities. The timeless vision of the City offers us being together in community. More significant is the restoration of the visible walk with God – “God Himself will be with them” - as Genesis 2 speaks of Adam and Eve walking with God.
In Matthew’s Gospel (11:28), we read Jesus’ invitation to all who are tired and burdened to come to Him. Here, we are offered the vision of a time of final release from these things: “there will be no more crying or pain”.
When we leave here today, we will meet many people this week. Let us use these opportunities to speak of what God’s love has done for us personally. Our stories will speak more powerfully than any theology.
In the vision from The Revelation, the voice on the Throne is Jesus’ voice: what He offers is water, a metaphor of both Baptism and Salvation, a gift which will be given “to anyone who is thirsty”. As our text from Acts also taught us today, “anyone” really does mean everyone.
This promise lies at the heart of the Easter message.