On the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Sunday 9th May 2004
Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35

It is often difficult to imagine how the familiar was once improbable. In a famous Bob Newhart sketch, he is talking to sir Walter Raleigh, the discoverer of tobacco, on the European end of a telephone line:

You got another winner for us? Tobacco ... er, what's tobacco, Wait? ... Like what are some of the uses, Walt? ... You take a pinch of tobacco ... and you shove it up your nose? ... And it makes you sneeze? ... Yeh, I imagine it would, Walt! ... Or you can shred it up ... and put it in a piece of paper ... and roll it up ... Don't tell me, Walt, don't tell me! ... You stick it in your ear, right? ... Oh! ... between your lips! ... Then what do you do, Walt? ... You set fire to it ... Then what do you do, Walt? ... You inhale the smoke, huh! ... You know, Walt, it seems that you can stand in front of your own fireplace and have the same thing going for you! ...

Come to think of it, the idea of domesticating fire must have seemed improbable. Some people would have seen it raging in distant forests or spewing out of volcanoes but to the people of the British Isles who had never seen either, its arrival must have been stunning; a whole new way of enjoying hedgehog!

At a more trivial level, think back to those explorers like Raleigh; what would our world be like without tea and coffee; would we be holding weak ale mornings for St. Christopher's? The round world was different from the flat world; the new world was different from the old world; the car was different from the horse and cart, the aeroplane from the steamer. As time has gone by and the pace of change has increased, our culture has become more used to the idea of newness. In our own time we have had to come to terms with heart transplants, women priests, men on the moon, television and mini skirts. This, of course, is the kind of newness which brings qualitative change to our lives; it's not the same as new shoes or a new car where we replace something with a similar and often slightly superior product. But, again, we are much more accustomed nowadays to having new things; I remember being struck very forcibly by JK.K. Galbraith's observation that it was as great an enterprise for a man in the 17th Century to acquire a new overcoat as it is today to buy a house.

So what was it like for St. Peter to find himself struggling with the idea that you could be a Christian without becoming a Jew first and that you could be a Christian without adhering to Jewish dietary laws? It is such a pivotal event that Acts tells it twice in succeeding Chapters: first there is the account of what happened; and then there is the account used verbatim by Peter to explain why he was willing to go into the house of Cornelius, a Gentile Centurion of the Italian Guard to make converts for Christ. for Peter to contemplate eating unclean flesh was as improbable for him as smoking tobacco or flying to Jerusalem.

Well, not quite. The amazing quality in Acts is the tangible presence of the Holy Ghost. Instead of being the first to stick his foot in his mouth which he usually is in the Gospels, Peter in ACts leads what we might call a 'charmed life'. He stands up in the Temple and preaches fearlessly, he is thrown into prison and is literally spirited out of it; he is thrown into prison again and an Angel comes to set him free. He has left his native land to preach the Word, he has had a row with Paul; and here he is struggling with the biggest issue for the early Church; was it only for the Jews or was it for all people? Peter settled the argument decisively by describing this vision. It was not the end of the argument but it was a turning point.

Yet this change of habit, this new way of living, was only a consequence of a much deeper change which we find in the passage from John. "A New Commandment", was given to the Disciples at the Last Supper and they probably were not entirely clear what was new about it; Jesus had washed their feet and offered the Eucharist and the Disciples would soon be running for their lives, hearing of the Crucifixion and then the Resurrection, enjoying the company of their Risen Lord, witnessing the Ascension and being filled by the Spirit at Pentecost. We know from accounts that they spent a good deal of time praying but my guess is that it was more intercessory than contemplative.

But we have two millennia of hindsight to enable us to be clear about the meaning of this New Commandment. The New commandment does not deny the validity of the old commandments; and it certainly does not mean that people did not love each other before the incarnation of Jesus. The Old Testament may be bloody and fiery in parts but it is full of examples of human beings selflessly loving one another and of their loving God to an extreme point, as when Abraham was willing to sacrifice His Son. Some of the passages take on an air of Greek tragedy, as in the case of Jephtha, but there is no denying that the Jewish tradition was as ethically rich as it was morally exacting. So when Jesus proclaimed His new commandment it was not a re-formulation of a set of standards which all his fellow Jews would immediately recognise; it was not the ethical equivalent of a new pair of sandals. The novelty lay in the second half of the sentence, the half we tend to treat as a coda; we all know that we must love one another but, in the words of Jesus: "As I have loved you". We are not only supposed to love each other; but we are supposed to love each other in the way that Jesus loved His Disciples.

Peter knew how Jesus had loved him and it is hard to imagine that a day went by without his remembering the Last Supper when Jesus washed his feet and his denial that followed. Jesus had loved his disciples in a way that only a human being without sin could love; he had laid down his life for His friends; but even that was not the end of it. As we continue to celebrate the glorious Festival of Easter we are always mindful of the stone rolled away, of the empty tomb, of Peter, as the story prompts us to imagine, huffing and puffing behind the much younger John and brushing past him to enter the place where Jesus had been laid on Good Friday. "He has risen as he said ... and gone before you into Galilee". Such love that he not only died for his Disciples but he rose again through the power of the Father, as he said he would, to stand before them as the very essence on earth of divine love. And they were supposed to love each other the way that he had loved them? No wonder, we think to ourselves, no wonder that Peter caved in before the Divine logic of faultless love, death, Resurrection and now the ever insistent Holy Spirit.

Divine logic indeed; so why are we not caving in to it? I  am not asking why we are not perfect; none of us is perfect; Peter was not perfect, as we very well know; we recall the Disciples asking whether they might sit in Heaven on either hand of Jesus; we read of Thomas doubting the Resurrection; if those who witnessed the Resurrection continued to betray their faults; what chance do we have? No, the question is not whether we are perfect, whether we try and inevitably fail always to love each other and to love each other as Jesus loved His Disciples; the question is how are we still so upright, so purposefully self righteous in the face of this New Commandment?

Instead of caving into this unimaginable Commandment we argue about the fine points of ethics as if we were the authors of our own salvation. What's worse, we argue about the ethics of other people and presume superiority. "Lord", we say to ourselves in an echo of the Pharisee, "I am not as others. I worship regularly" ... and those people next door who ought to know better ...

So is the New Commandment impossible for us? How can it be impossible for us with the Grace of God, the enlivening of Baptism, the nourishment of Eucharist, and the good counsel of the Holy Spirit? God gives us the means and what we have to do is to will the end. We live on a permanent knife edge between reflecting God and turning away from Him in sin. We have the will to love Him as He has loved us or to neglect His love.

What does this mean? Well it does not mean that we should pretend to be less than we are; God did not give us so many gifts so that we could pretend not to have them. The point is to recognise our gifts and to remember that this is what they are; gifts. There is nothing wrong in being proud of what God has given us but everything wrong with thinking that our good attributes are somehow of and from us. It is possible to imagine loving each other as Jesus loved His disciples if we start with the truth that our capacity to love one another is a gift of God. The more we recognise the god given nature of our love, the more we will love because the less will we value ourselves and the less we will try to put a value on our love; it is not ours and so it is not a commodity to be traded; we do not love conditionally because god does not love conditionally; to love conditionally is not to love at all.

The first time I preached here I quoted the line of the Hymn: "My God, I love Thee not because I hope for Heaven thereby"; and last time I preached here I asked us to think carefully about who this neighbour is whom we are called upon to love, so it is consoling that the Third Reading for today, which you all know, is the passage in Revelation which begins: "And I saw a new Heaven". In a time of Christian persecution, hard pressed new Christians needed the consolation of the world to come as set out in the Book of Revelation. And so, I think, do we. As Jesus recognised, our very earthly comforts make it ever more difficult for us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We, at least in this part of the world, are not tortured and murdered for our faith, but we are deluged with promises of earthly bliss and credit to pay for it. We are not driven into the wilderness but to the Costa del Sol. Never has Satan worn a more winning smile.

But we have the means to wipe the smile off his winning face. We have a New Commandment, a New Heaven, a new way of looking at our life style, a new way of looking at ourselves. Here we are, renewed with the blessing of Easter. We, who are of God and like God, we who can love like Him because he gave us the gift of loving.

How blessed we are.