April 28, 2013
Big Oak Flat Road leaves the Merced River just before the entrance into Yosemite Valley and heads up to Tenya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass. Coming past Carlon Meadow the road goes through a dense conifer forest with deep gray granite boulders covered with dark lichens. Up ahead, sunlight illuminates a turn in the road. Rounding that turn opens a whole new world above timberline. Sunlight flashing off of brilliant white granite peaks above vivid green meadows laced with silver streams and jeweled with crystal lakes bounded by sturdy hemlocks.
Last Sunday you started to round a turn that will take you into a whole new world. Mike Snell will be your first new pastor in 25 years. You cannot see the full panorama yet, but you can see the road turning into a new landscape.
For three Sundays since Easter I have not preached for you: vacation in Wisconsin, youth Sunday and the choir cantata. The road for us is also turning around an unseen bend. Counting today I have five sermons in which to get you ready to welcome Mike Snell as your pastor. I feel the centrifugal forces as we speed down diverging roads.
In John 13:31-35 Jesus began his farewell to his disciples as his road turned toward the cross. At the Passover Feast that we know as the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and warned them that one of them would betray him. With a code that only Jesus and Judas seemed to understand at the time, Jesus dipped bread in the bitter herbs and gave it to Judas who went out into the night.
When [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.32[Since] God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This new commandment defines the entire discourse that follows in chapters 13-16. The word for “new” does not mean something different than what he has been teaching all along, nor different from the Hebrew Scriptures from Moses through the Prophets. Rather, this commandment is “fresh” with new vitality that they will need and that we still need in all its freshness. To love one another. Utterly simple.
The disciples were going to need to love each other through the grief of Holy Saturday and the confusion between Easter and Pentecost, and for the challenges of bringing the Gospel to a world they barely knew. In fact, Jesus made that love the driving engine of their mission. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
People in today’s fragmented world are also drawn to Jesus by the love between those of us who are his disciples. This word from Jesus is the seed of the vision of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.
Jesus’ new commandment was put to the test immediately with Cornelius. When word of Peter’s mission to Cornelius got back to Jerusalem, he was not congratulated for spreading the Gospel, he was criticized for eating with a Gentile.
This may be the most important single story in the book of Acts after Pentecost. Luke told the whole story twice: once as an objective historian and a second time in Peter’s own words. It is the turn in the road that took the Gospel out of the Church’s comfortable Jewish context into a whole new worldwide mission for all peoples.
With great patience Peter explained step by step how all this took place: the coordinated prayers and visions of Peter and Cornelius, the confirming testimony of the six who accompanied him on this mission, corroborating witness of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius’ household.
Though Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, for Peter to open the door was strategically important. In rather dramatic fashion God moved Peter into a new venue for ministry, just as God is moving Mike Snell to minister here with you. Though I don’t see it yet, God is also moving Candy and me to a new arena of ministry.
Luke gave Cornelius all this attention to set a new paradigm for the Church. From then up to now, the mission of the church outside is our natural circles of social contacts. God has sent and continues to send us to unlikely outsiders.
Acts 10:2 describes Cornelius as a devout man who feared God, gave generously to the poor and prayed constantly. The angel who appeared to him said his prayers had been answered and his generosity to the poor had ascended as a memorial to God. God had answered his prayers and accepted his offerings before he even heard Peter’s sermon about Jesus. I don’t want to push too hard on this except to say we can trust God to handle our ambiguities better than we can. I suppose that if someone had murdered Cornelius before Peter got there, he would still have inherited the resurrection to eternal life.
After Peter told Cornelius’ story step by step, his critics were silenced and perhaps with some reluctance praised God that even Gentiles had been given the repentance that leads to life. Gentiles were acceptable as long as there were only a few of them, but when Gentiles became the majority, the leaders in Jerusalem took Paul to task. Acts 15 recounts the struggle to recognize not only that the Church would be diverse, but God intended the Church to be diverse. Luke told this story to confront our reticence to welcome outsiders. In Acts 10 the story starts with Cornelius, not Peter. The star is the outsider, not the longtime leader.
So we come full circle, back to Jesus’ assertion that everyone will know we are his disciples if we have love for one another.
I call this the love magnet. People in today’s fragmented world are drawn to Jesus by the love between those of us who are his disciples. As a congregation you are an expression of the vision of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.
We may nostalgically grieve the loss of the 1950s. That was when the United States put “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. That was when nuclear families living in suburbia became the standard. That was when churches grew at an unprecedented rate. Those days are not going to return.
Just as Cornelius called the early Church out of its comfortable enclave, his story calls us to an exciting mission in the fragmented society of the 21st century. Those who claim no religious affiliation are the fastest growing demographic in the United States. Churches who grow will be those who welcome these outsiders who have no church experience or expectations.
The fragmentation of society is leading to polarization and tribalization of uncompromising hostility between groups. Rodney King’s words during the 1992 Los Angeles riots continue to echo, “Can we all get along?” Subsequent events shout, “No way!” Yet people are desperate for an alternative. This is Jesus’ mandate to us as his disciples in the 21st century. “Everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” In Matthew 5:46 and Luke 6:32 Jesus asked, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” People who are outsiders to the church will not only notice us but be attracted to Jesus when we love each other while we disagree about theology, ethics, worship styles, politics and economics, while we have different personal styles and personalities. They will be drawn to Jesus when we lovingly welcome outsiders who are different than we are educationally, socially, ethnically, culturally. It is up to the Church to be a living alternative to polarized hostility.
I know this congregation is poised to grow and wants to grow. I know Mike Snell wants to lead you to grow. That will inevitably mean growing pains, just as the Jerusalem church had with Cornelius. You will feel uncomfortable with some new things you’ll be doing. You’ll be uncomfortable with different opinions about Pastor Snell. You’ll be uncomfortable with some of the “outsiders” who become part of the congregation. When you feel those discomforts, listen carefully for the Holy Spirit to whisper the words of Jesus, “Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”