Sermon: How Wide is Wide?

“How Wide is Wide?”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1John 4:7-21 and Acts 8:26-40
May 3, 2015

Choir Anthem: “Your Love, O God, Has Called Us Here”

Sermon Audio

The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, designed to share the Good News that Jesus of Nazaareth is the Messiah of god. They are followed by the Book of Acts and the various epistles by Paul and others that are attempts to explain how faith in Jesus began with just a small group of frightened disciples huddled together in Jerusalem but then spread rapidly from one place to another, just as Jesus had told them it would on his last day with them. He had said “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.   Acts shares several stories of individual encounters that result in the spread of faith in unlikely places and to unlikely people. And in the letters we get a glimpse into various congregations that have particular problems understanding and living out what they have heard and now believe. Under the pressures of their daily lives, the groups are polarizing, with factions taking sides on various issues. So, the letters are mostly about problem solving. And the basis for solving the problems, as varied as they are from place to place, comes down to love for one another that reflects God’s love for them as revealed in Jesus.

Since this is a theme that runs through each of these writings, it shouldn’t be surprising that the same issues trouble us today. It’s one thing to love God; we can work up some enthusiasm for that and get pretty good at it. It’s another thing, however, to love other people. Linus, a character in the old “Peanuts” cartoon strip, summed it up beautifully when Lucy confronted him with his lack of love for mankind. “I LOVE mankind,” he replied; “it’s PEOPLE I can’t stand.”

Linus was on to something and he was honest about it. It is so much easier to “love” or accept or champion a concept, an abstraction, and idea, than it is to love or accept or support any one particular, individual, concrete example of it. The problems begin when the “ideal” meets the “real.” Consequently, as Peter Gomes has pointed out, the sad truth is often that our faith has developed only to the point of knowing how to hate, but not far enough to know how to love.[i]

But according to what we’ve read from 1John just now, loving God and loving neighbor or love the other, are inextricably bound up. We can’t love God unless we love our neighbor. It’s futile; it’s impossible; we are delusional, fooling ourselves, if we think we can, because Christianity is not so much a set of abstract beliefs, principles, or propositions that we give intellectual assent to as it is a relationship—an active, working relationship between us and God and us with each other and the world. Jesus didn’t ask his followers to think about him. He called them to follow him. We are to do as he did, to live in the world and relate to other people as he did. Jesus didn’t just talk about love in the abstract; he did love –with all kinds of people in many different circumstances.

And many of those circumstances involved people at the fringes of “polite” society, those outside the purity rules and the regulations of the law-abiding and pious. He healed many so-called “unclean” people whom the insiders shunned – the woman with hemorrhages whom he calls “daughter,” Bartimaeus, the blind man, the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter, the Roman centurion’s servant. Others he teaches, like the Samaritan woman at the well. And to others he offers eternal life, most notably the penitent thief on the cross beside him. Jesus’ love wasn’t kept for high ideals or lofty goals. His love didn’t hide behind the law: he touches the leper; he eats with the tax collector.

Jesus shows us that faith is not about separating ourselves from humanity in an upward ascent toward God, but it is the “joyful acknowledgement” that as we draw closer to one another, we draw closer to the heart of God. To love as Jesus did, is not to love in the abstract. Other people do not get in the way, keeping us from finding God; they are the way to God.[ii] Thus, as God’s love was made incarnate in Jesus, so we too are to incarnate that love in our individual relationships with other people.

Because of the uniqueness of each relationship, the Bible doesn’t give us seven easy steps to love. We are just told to use Jesus as our model, and then in each of our particular relationships and situations we are called to love the Jesus way. Sometimes that’s easier than other times because none of us is perfect, all of us are “human becomings,” still a bit needy perhaps, or rude, or stubborn, imperfect in some way. But that does not diminish our responsibility to be loving. Eugene Peterson writes that “Every act of love requires creative and personal giving, responding and serving appropriate to – context specific to – both the person doing the loving and the person being loved.”[iii]

Our reading from Acts that Katie shared earlier gives us one example of what that kind of creative, context- specific love looks like. There is a significant exchange between two men who could not have been any more different. The first is Philip, one of the deacons appointed by the Jerusalem congregation to care for the poor and hungry among them. Later he went from Jerusalem into Samaria, where he shared the good news of Jesus with the people with great success. From there he was led by the Holy Spirit to go to Gaza. As a Jew, he knew the law and traditions, and was familiar with scripture. Philip is an “insider.”

The second is his complete opposite. He is a Gentile, a foreigner, of a different race, rich and influential in his country, highly educated, and he is a eunuch, and as such he was barred from the Temple by scripture, law, and tradition. His gender differences and inability to fit into proper categories made him “profane by nature;”[iv] he simply did not fit; he is an outsider. But that had not stopped him from going to Jerusalem to worship, and seeking God, and now on his way home he was reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah. He reads a passage he does not understand just as Philip comes upon him on the road.

Now you might think they would pass each other without any kind of acknowledgement and conversation; they were so very different. But Philip hears familiar words from scripture; he asks – and who knows with what kind of attitude – “Do you know what you’re reading?” and the man answers honestly that he could use some help. So Philip teaches him that the suffering servant described by Isaiah has been fully embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus, and that Jesus’ death and resurrection has led to new life for all people.

This comes as great good news to one who had thought there was no possibility he could ever be included among the faithful. And so with great excitement he asks, “What is to prevent me from becoming part of this living, welcoming Body of Christ?” Well, nothing, of course, except what the Law says – no foreigners, no Gentiles, no black men, no eunuchs are to be included within God’s exclusive people. But what does Philip do? He does what Jesus would do – he baptizes the man; he touches the untouchable, he accepts the unacceptable.

Now most of the time when this story is told, a lot of emphasis is given to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch and his baptism. But this is Philip’s story too. And as such, it is our story too. We are more like Philip than the man from Ethiopia. Philip had to weigh everything he knew from tradition and the law, as do we, and then decide whether he would follow the letter of the law, or do something new, something that Jesus would have done, something that spoke to the heart of the law rather than the letter.

Philip had to decide if the Word of God is only for a select few. He had to decide if the Love of God was only meant for a handful. He had to decide how wide is God’s love and mercy. He decided to respond positively, not in spite of the man’s differences, but because the differences didn’t matter. The man’s excitement, curiosity, and love for God were what counted. So Philip sets aside the narrow confines of the law, and throws open the wide doors of God’s mercy and love.

Later Peter would do the same thing with the gentile Roman centurion Cornelius, concluding “Truly God shows no partiality.”

The love of God is wide and ours must be also. How wide is wide? As wide as necessary to make everyone feel welcome in the heart of God. This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Peter Gomes, The Good Life, 304.

[ii] Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves, 1987, 26.

[iii] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 2005, 327.

[iv] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch,” April 30, 2012