Today is an exciting, scary day in the life of Grace Church. After nearly nine months, after several iterations of plans, after dozens of meetings, hundreds of conversations, thousands of emails, we will finally get to see the master plan that has been developed by Vince Micha and his team from Kubala Washatko Architects. Many of us are eager for today’s worship to conclude so we can get on to the main event. Others, I’m sure, are either totally unaware what a master plan might be and how it might affect Grace Church, or don’t care one way or another. Some of you might be thinking that to focus on bricks and mortar is a diversion from what the church really ought to be about. That’s a legitimate concern and unless our renovations are connected to our mission in the world, if our renovations are only designed to make us more comfortable, then we are falling far short of the people God is calling us to be.
Today’s readings challenge us to think about mission, in the sense of the purpose for which God has called us into being. Today’s readings also challenge us to think about what it means to be the community of God’s people, the body of Christ. They also challenge us to think about the nature of community—what sort of community we ought to be.
The reading from Acts is Peter’s retelling to the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem of his experience with the centurion Cornelius. Cornelius, a Roman, a Gentile, and a god-fearer was told in a vision to seek out Peter. At the same time, Peter also received a vision—as he was waiting for lunch, and presumably as his appetite peaked, Peter saw a vision of a cloth coming down from heaven, in it were all manner of animals, reptiles, birds, seafood. He heard a voice from heaven tell him to take and eat. Three times the voice came, and three times Peter refused, although he also heard the voice say, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” So Peter went to Cornelius’ household, began to preach, and as he preached, witnessed the Holy Spirit descend on the gathering, descending on Gentiles, on unbaptized people. Peter concluded that he could not prevent the Spirit “blowing where it wanted” and baptized all in attendance.
For most of us this story is little more than a historical curiosity. We are the products of two thousand years of Jewish and Christian division; nearly two thousand years of a Christianity that has defined itself in part in its not being Jewish (just as Judaism has defined itself similarly over against Christianity). We do not understand the depth of the problem faced by the earliest followers of Jesus, most of whom were Jewish. They confessed Jesus to be the Messiah; but they were also Jews, most of them good Jews. And for them the crucial question was how they might relate and incorporate in their community Gentiles who also came to confess Jesus as the Messiah. We know how that issue was resolved so it’s hard for us to understand what was at stake in the first century and how deeply that question, and how it was answered, changed the nature of the faith.
It seems to be the case that in the first-century Roman empire, Judaism held a certain popularity among Gentiles. People attended services in synagogues; they were attracted by the monotheism, by the high moral and ethical standards of Jewish teaching. What kept them from conversion were a number of things but at the top of the list were the dietary laws and especially circumcision.
But there’s another interesting tidbit in the story. When Peter comes back to Jerusalem, he is confronted with a question, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Think about it. There’s been a tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the other disciples don’t care about that. What matters to them is whether Peter is keeping the dietary laws, whether he is playing by the rules.
It’s easy for us to look back at these stories in the book of Acts, knowing how things would turn out, and criticize those who asked Peter that question. It’s easy for us looking back to know the arc of history and know that those who would have required everyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah also to be circumcised and to keep Jewish dietary laws were wrong.
It’s much more difficult for us to think about our own context and not recognize the barriers we put up against those who would join us, who are seeking the love of Christ. Often we don’t even know that we put up such barriers—but I will point out just one now. In a culture with growing secularism, in which 20% of our population claims no religious affiliation and the number of young adults in that category now reaching 40%, how many of them would never think of entering a church in their search for God or the sacred? If they’ve never been inside one, what would lead them to come inside in the first place? We may claim that we are open to all, that we are welcoming, but often the barriers we have created are invisible to us and seem impenetrable to outsiders.
The reading from Acts challenges us to think about the barriers we put up that prevents us from sharing God’s love. In today’s gospel, we are challenged to think about the nature of the body of Christ in a different way, but it’s equally difficult. We are back at the Last Supper with this reading. Jesus has just washed the feet of his disciples, a ritual we commemorate on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week. Immediately before these verses, Judas had left to betray Jesus, which occasions Jesus’ statements here about being glorified. Then he gives them this new commandment: “that you love each other as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
We often think of mission as going out and converting non-believers, working in foreign lands. Such an image makes Episcopalians uncomfortable. Equally uncomfortable is the notion of evangelism, talking to others, our co-workers or neighbors, about our faith. Here, Jesus is talking about mission and evangelism, but in a very different way. People come to know him through the love the disciples have for one another. To put it another way, the nature of Christian community, in and of itself, out to be a beacon of hope, a sign of welcome to those outside of it. We might ask ourselves, how do our neighbors experience the love of Christ through us?
Now, that’s a hard question, too. It’s hard because being together in community involves conflict as well as peace and unity, and sometimes there seems to be more conflict than peace. It’s hard because it can be hard to get along with other people. As we get to know them, we get to know all too well their weaknesses as well as their strengths. But remember, Jesus said these words just after one of those he loved departed to betray him. He said these words knowing he was going to be crucified. He said these words knowing full well how hard it is to love one another.
Still that’s what we’re called to. That’s who we are called to be. A community of Jesus’ disciples gathered together loving one another; a community gathered together reaching out to others, sharing Christ’s love; a community, breaking down the barriers within ourselves, dissolving the barriers between ourselves and the world, that prevent others from experiencing the love of Christ. If we do that, if our master plan helps us do that, everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples.