By this everyone will know you are my disciples…

Lessons of the Day: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

When I was in high school, I drove a gray 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Yeah!! Sadly, I also remember when my parents bought the car…new. I was about seven or eight and I remember that my parents had to order the car because of some features that they wanted – special wipers and probably an eight-track player. At some point after the car purchase but before it arrived in Melbourne, my parents had to return to Cleveland. My grandfather came to look after my brother and I while my parents were away. And so it was that he took the call when the car arrived.

I went with my grandfather to pick up the car. It was shiny and new, sparkling in the Florida summer sun. We got in the car and took deep fills of the new car smell. Despite the fact that it wasn’t either of ours, both me and my grandfather took great pride in driving that new car home. We got in the car and my grandfather turned the ignition. We listened to the purr of the engine (though in retrospect it likely more of a roar) as we drove the shiny, new, very clean car off the car lot.

Then, as if on cue, the skies of the sunny Florida summer opened up! Rain was falling heavy on the new car. As we drove, a large truck passed us just at the right moment to splash from a muddy pothole, all over the new shiny car. The ten minute storm passed. Though the new car was a little wet and some mud splashed on the doors, it wasn’t too bad. Then we turned the corner, just in time to drive under a flock of seagulls taking flight after the storm. Those birds pooed all over the shiny new car.

By the time we got home, the shiny new car wasn’t so shiny any more. But don’t worry,  my grandfather made my brother and I wash that car so that it was indeed shiny and new for my parents when they got home.

Maybe by now our bold and joyful Easter refrain, “Alleluia!,” has lost a bit of its shiny newness.

The bright dawn of Easter Sunday has passed, and the news of our Lord’s triumphant resurrection has begun to settle into our hearts and minds.But as was the case with the first Christians, the full magnitude of Easter takes more than a day or two to settle in. Christians who follow the liturgical calendar observe the season of Easter for fifty days. We have fifty days to spread the Good News; fifty days to proclaim resurrection to the world; and, fifty days to travel to far-away places with the message that God is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ.

It was during the first Easter season some 2,000 years ago that the disciples discovered that the rumors were true – that Jesus Christ had in fact been raised from the dead. They wasted no time spreading the Good News.

Today’s readings situate the early church within the Jewish culture of first century Judea. The passage from the Acts of the Apostles depicts Jesus’ early followers as observant Jews and the beginnings of the Church as rooted within Judaism struggling to define what this new way of life means for them.

The writer of the Revelation to John is also situated within the Jewish tradition and in these writings we have an example of Christian visionary literature built on the foundations of Jewish apocalypticism. The image of the divine throne and the precise layout of the heavenly city contain echoes of Ezekiel 1 and Ezekiel 40 – 42, while the new heaven and a new earth and the absence of weeping and crying are echoes of Isaiah 65. Indeed, even the reference to the holy city Jerusalem supports an essentially Jewish frame of reference. The text as a whole is a glorious act of worship, telling a story of God’s enduring presence in the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. The vision ends on a note of hope and faith.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus announces his impending death to his disciples and offers comfort and instructions for how they should behave when he is gone. “You will look for me,” Jesus says to the disciples, possibly to tell them of new ways in which they will find him after his departure. Jesus emphasizes how his followers are to behave when he is gone in the famous words of John’s Gospel:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

John 13:34-35

These instructions form the basis of pastoral care and service in Christian life and community, from the time of the earliest Christians forward. The Rev. Bruce Morrill, SJ, writes:

“What distinguished the followers of Jesus and successive generations of Christians was their outreach to the poor and sick, the practical love they demonstrated in openly forming fellowship groups (local churches) that actively reached out in service to the poor, the hungry, and the sick.” ()

Bruce Morrill, Divine Worship and Human Healing: Liturgical Theology at the Margins of Life and Death. Liturgical Press: 2009, 137

An element of early Christian practice that impressed pagan observers was their shunning of social boundaries in caring for the sick and needy in times of trouble.

These early Christians were called to follow Jesus’ instructions: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In fact, according to sociologist Rodney Stark, poor Christians in the ancient world were healthier and happier than their poor pagan neighbors. Christians cared for one another. They took up collections to support their elders and orphaned children. They offered each other simple nursing care in epidemics. They offered strong community in chaotic times.

“To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity and hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate fellowship. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.”

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, Princeton University Press: 1996, 161

These early Christians were called to follow Jesus’ instructions: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Can we say the same today, of our churches, in our cities? Are we taking care of one another? Offering charity and hope? Providing fellowship to newcomers, strangers, orphans and widows?

The beautiful language of the King James version of today’s passage from Revelation contains the words:

“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away.”

Revelation 21:4

How can the promises of Revelation be applied in a pastoral context? How can we aid and comfort one another? Certainly, we can’t take away all sorrows, old age, chronic pain, death. We are unlikely to alter the path of armies or the destruction of natural disasters. Can we bring a note of hope and faith in the midst of pain, chaos, despair? Can we reach out to victims of destruction and exile?

Certainly what we can do is reach out to our neighbors, remembering that the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles as well as the circumcised. We can love another. We can assure one another that we are all integral parts of a living community, a community both within and without our church walls. By worshiping together, praising God as our Jewish and early Christian forebears did, we join in community and are strengthened in faith as we are soaked in trust and love for one another. In liturgical worship, gathered in Christ’s name, we form the basis for worshiping God in ethical service. These manifestations of God’s glory are distinct yet vitally related works of the same Holy Spirit. Our liturgical worship is both an end and a means. Our communities can stand as a witness to our neighbors of our spiritual commitment and joyful determination to love and serve. We are sent out by the Holy Spirit to love one another, to pastor to one another, to reach out to those whom we may serve, in ways great and small.

We are twenty-nine days into our Easter season and maybe that new car that we experienced on Easter…maybe it’s a little dirty; maybe the new car smell has begun to evaporate; maybe the freshness of Easter is wearing off just a little and we need to be refreshed, once again, with its newness and its majesty. We need to be reminded, perhaps, of the why of the whole thing and the reading from the fourth Gospel does that this morning: “Just as I have loved you…” Jesus endured the agony of Good Friday because he loved us too mightily; he loved us to the end; he loved us to his end. And God raised Jesus from the dead for the same love, a love out of which was borne the gift of his son: that those who believe in him, those who live in fidelity, those who remain faithful to him and his word might have everlasting life.

As the body of Christ here and now, we are called to fidelity to Jesus’ word: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Be in Peace. Remember the Poor.

The Lessons used were from the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year C: John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6

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