The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:44-48; Ps 98
1 John 5:1-6; John 15: 9-17
I don’t tend to think of myself as a particularly jingoistic person, but I will go to the mat for the claim that the Book of Common Prayer approved by the Episcopal Church, USA, in 1979 is the best prayerbook in the Anglican Communion. This week’s collect is a case in point. The version we just prayed, which comes from the Canadian Book of Alternative Services, asks, in a lovely phrase: “Pour into our hearts such love toward you, that we, loving you above all things, may obtain your promises.” The American version adds four words: “that we, loving you in all things and above all things….” Do you hear the difference?
Properly understood, they would mean the same thing, but the love which Christ commands is rarely properly understood. If it were, the world would look rather different. The first prayer opens the door to a world-denying or even a world-disdaining faith. The second quietly affirms that God can be sought in and through the creatures of this world — not by worshipping them, but by honoring them as divine creations. That slight difference matters when we encounter readings like the ones which we receive this week.
These readings are challenging, and not only for the obvious reason: the call to be a friend of God. For me, the challenge begins in the first letter of John, when John calls us to have the kind of faith which can “conquer” the world. “Conquer” is such an ominous word: it conjures images of armies, crusaders, blood, and pain. Certainly, it has been understood that way, all too often. This language is the root of a militant faith, a faith which propels believers to convert others to their beliefs, even by force. A faith which allied itself with the imperial ambitions of princes and of emperors, allowing pride and greed to put on the mask of sanctity. Other versions translate this verse with “overcome,” but the Greek nika really does mean “to conquer.” What do we, who meet each week on the unceded territory of the Kanien’keha:ka, do with words like this?
We begin with humility. Humility is not the same thing as lack of confidence; it is a kind of groundedness — being grounded in what God is doing, not in what we, ourselves, may desire. Humility constantly checks our own impulses against the commandments and actions of God. Today’s reading from Acts is a case in point.
What we have in these few verses is a snippet from the end of one of the most important stories in Scripture — a story which is never told “whole” on a Sunday. The story begins with St. Peter, praying on a roof in Joppa, when he receives a vision from the Lord. In his prayers, he sees a sheet come down from heaven, filled with all manner of creatures: creeping things and crawling things and things with scales and hooves. And Peter hears a voice saying, “Rise, Peter: Kill and eat.” Peter, being a good Jewish man, is horrified. He points out that he has never eaten anything un-Kosher; but God replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:13, 15) This happens three times. While Peter is still puzzling over what he has seen, messengers arrive from a centurion named Cornelius, who has himself seen a vision: an angel has told him to call for Peter, who has the words of eternal life. Now, Cornelius was a gentile; it was forbidden for Peter to eat with him, or even to visit under his roof. Nevertheless, compelled by his own vision, Peter goes with Cornelius’ men, and, when he arrives, proclaims the good news of Christ, saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35) This is the point where our reading today picks up: while Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his household, and Peter baptizes them.
The church reveres Cornelius as the first gentile convert to Christ, although an Ethiopian eunuch, whose name has not been preserved, seems to have been baptized a few chapters earlier. In both cases, the process of conversion was the same: each man was a seeker, one who was hungry to learn the ways of God. Cornelius sent for Peter; the Ethiopian was reading Isaiah when Philip came upon him. The disciples, then, did not impose their faith on anyone; rather, they noticed people whom God was already moving in their direction. They offered what they had in response to the spiritual hunger that they saw.
Second, in offering their faith, the disciples were changed. Their own certainties were upended. Peter, the devout Jew, had to leave his enclave of belonging and move into the space of people he had been taught to avoid. Philip baptized a man who was not only a gentile (and a black man), but was also a eunuch — one who was ritually impure according to the law of Torah. Both had to wrestle with the truth which Peter spoke: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28) God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. It’s a stunning revelation, one we struggle with each day: no one is inherently unworthy of God.
Here is where we face into a great reversal. We are accustomed to thinking of religion as what defines the profane and the sacred, the clean and the unclean, just as many ancient traditions did. But it is more often the world which teaches us whom to emulate and whom to despise. So one way to “conquer” the world is to hold onto this teaching, to be willing to see the hand of God at work even in the lives of those who make us uncomfortable or who challenge our assumptions or whom we have been taught to disregard.
If this were all, it would be the work of a lifetime, but the call to be friends of God requires us to go further. Even a cursory reading of history will show us that the judgments of the world are likely to be flawed. Kierkegaard tells a parable about a man who broke into a jewellery shop and, rather than stealing anything, shuffled around all the prices. When the store opened the next day, no one could tell what was valuable and what was costume jewellery. Rich people were paying fortunes for fakes, while the poor were going home with treasures. Discernment, then, lies at the heart of our work, for if God blesses all people, God does not bless all behavior. Friendship with God involves knowing not only whom to love, but what to reject.
Two weeks ago, I saw a film which had been commended by my spiritual director, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. It is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer living in the 1930s who refused to serve in his nation’s military because he would have been required to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. The film depicts the pressures well: the gradual consensus in the man’s town that “foreigners” have taken over their country, controlling the economy and leaving so-called “real Austrians” disempowered and broken. The gathering forces of nationalism and hatred, coming not only over the airwaves, but from people who have been Jägerstätter’s friends all his life. The power of love for his wife and small children, who will suffer if he continues to refuse, but who never play that card. The threat to himself. The complicity of the church, which preached service to the fatherland to keep its own priests out of jail. Against all those forces, the farmer had only his own intuition as a person of faith: “Don’t they know evil when they see it?”
For Franz Jägerstätter, “conquering” the world meant losing it: what was beautiful and good as well as what was evil. He loved Christ above all things. And there are times we may be asked to make this choice. For us, however, conquering the world is more likely to involve the small, hidden, daily choices which can preserve it. The choice to live with integrity, even when that costs us. The choice to live with gratitude even during difficult times. The choice to pay more for food or clothing that is ethically or sustainably sourced, so that our spending will be aligned with our values. The choice to consume less, to tend our needs rather than our desires, knowing that the resources of this earth are finite. The choice to see that the big evils of history are not disconnected from our small daily compromises, but, rather, that those daily capitulations are what weaken our soul. They undermine our capacity for reverence, and reverence, ultimately, is what will save this earth. It is the capacity to love Christ in all things which alone allows us to honor Christ above them.
[You did not choose me, but I chose you]