During this season of Easter we are reminded over and over again that to live the resurrected life is to live a life of love. In our readings from the Book of Acts we have learned a lot about the early church during the time that immediately followed the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are given glimpses into the early days of ministry for both Paul and Peter. As much as Peter was impulsive and sometimes said or did the wrong thing when Jesus was alive, we now see how he evolved into the role of leader that Jesus commissioned him to fulfill.
In our first lesson last week he had the courage and conviction to follow the example set by Jesus and raised Tabitha, a disciple who was devoted to good works. Luke tells the story in a rather matter of fact way, but it really was quite amazing that Peter had such faith in the power of Christ working through him that he had the courage to say to her, “Tabitha, get up.” He believed that God would make it possible for Tabitha to rise and resume her earthly life.
In our first lesson for this week we learn how Peter managed to not only explain to the other leaders in Jerusalem why he broke Jewish law which they still followed, but he also convinced them that what he was doing was the will of God. In order to fully understand the story we need some background. A man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, was stationed in Caesarea. Many Romans were religious, but they were usually devoted to the pantheon of Roman gods. Some of them, particularly those stationed in Palestine, also became believers in the God of Israel. Many just included God along with their own gods; but some, like Cornelius, began to worship just the one God. Although they did not convert to Judaism, he and his family were known for their devotion to the God of Israel, giving generous donations to people in need and praying constantly. One day an angel came to Cornelius in a dream and directed him to send for a man named Peter who was staying in Joppa.
Cornelius obeyed the angel and sent some of his men to find Peter and ask him to come to his home with them. Meanwhile, Peter also had a vision, which he describes in our first lesson. In the dream, there were all kinds of animals that were considered unclean by the Jewish dietary laws, forbidden to be eaten. But in the vision God tells Peter to eat those animals. So when Peter goes to the household of Cornelius, he not only instructs them in the faith and baptizes them, he also shares meals with them. That was quite scandalous, because prior to this, gentiles had been required to convert to Judaism before becoming Christian. When the leaders in Jerusalem heard about it, they called Peter to account for his behavior.
Peter tells them the whole story, concluding that God does not exclude gentiles from being baptized into the new faith; rather they are to be included just as they are. They do not have to convert first to Judaism, and follow Jewish dietary laws; they can become Christian with instruction and confession of their faith. This does not sound like much to us, but it was a revolutionary new idea for those first disciples. Jesus was Jewish, they were Jewish, they were circumcised and followed Jewish law, so it was natural for them to believe that first one should be Jewish and then become Christian. Peter himself had always held to that same belief.
It is difficult for us to understand the shock this must have caused among the disciples. Yet we see that Peter had developed such strong convictions and was so eloquent in sharing them, that the others found themselves agreeing with Peter, that God shows no partiality between Jews and gentiles, but has truly come for all people. Peter had grown fully into the commission given to him by Jesus, leading the others into a new way of thinking and acting. This story illustrates the inclusion of all the things that Jesus taught them into their thinking and acting.
In our gospel reading we are reminded of Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us. The command to love God and neighbor has always been the most important rule in Judaism. But this is a new command for believers to love one another in the same way that Jesus does. This gospel reading takes place right after they have shared their last meal with Jesus. During that meal he told them to remember him always, through the sharing of the bread and wine. Then he washed their feet, a sign of the humility and service they should demonstrate towards others.
Jesus spoke about loving one another immediately after Judas, the one who was to betray him, left the room. So this isn’t some easy pronouncement of love. This is Jesus’ command to love one another in the presence of evil and betrayal, because it is under those circumstances when we most need to be reminded to choose love. When people that we thought were close and in whom we could place our trust, abandon us. Even when the actions and words of others clearly come from hate and suspicion and prejudice, Jesus commands us to choose love.
Jesus says to us “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That does not mean we are members of some sort of exclusive club. Quite the opposite, this is the kind of love Jesus is asking us to live — not for guarantees or for reciprocity, but for the sake of a different way to live in the world. In that way the world will come a little closer to knowing God’s love. The way we treat one another will look attractive to others.
Choosing love is not only a different way to live in the world, it is a different way to see the world. When we love, we can more easily see the love that surrounds us, and recognize acts and expressions of love. Love can often be overlooked, taken for granted, or dismissed when we are not used to living in love. “Love one another as I have loved you” is not a reference only to the foot washing, it was meant to remind the disciples of everything Jesus taught them. While the miracles were certainly signs of Jesus’ love for them and for the world, simpler signs of love likely permeated Jesus’ everyday life with his disciples. Just imagine what it would be like if all those less obvious acts of love became a way of life.
The new issue of AARP Magazine tells a story of an extraordinary act of love. During the Korean War, Lt. Tom Hudner was a pilot in a six airplane flight led by Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African American Navy pilot. When Brown’s plane was hit he was forced to crash-land. Hudner had to make a decision. He decided to crash-land and try to save Ensign Brown, who was a good friend to all the airmen. He knew he could be punished, but he did it anyway. He thought he could pull Brown from the wreckage and call the rescue helicopter. But he could not free him, and even when the helicopter arrived with an ax, they could not break through the wreck. Brown asked Hudner to tell his wife how much he loved her. Hudner promised to return with better equipment, but he saw that Brown was slumped forward, no longer breathing. As they lifted off they saw Chinese troops heading towards the wreck. Trying to save his friend was an act of pure love in defiance of Navy protocol and common sense. To give the Navy credit, Hudner was awarded a silver star for his courage and compassion.
That story represents a bigger moment that requires a new way of thinking, like Peter accepting Cornelius and his family for their devotion and faith to God, refusing to put unnecessary obstacles and requirements in the way of joining the faith community by baptism. Lt. Hudner defied regulations and put his own life in danger in an attempt to save Ensign Brown. These were new and radical ways of loving one another. May we have the courage to take advantage of any opportunities we are given to follow Jesus’ command, both in the ordinary and the extraordinary, in order to reveal our love for God and others. Amen.