You have loved them

Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

We face this week remembering the 19 children and 2 teachers who died in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, as well as the 10 who were killed at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York two weeks ago. Their families are in our hearts and prayers. Each time the news tells us of another mass shooting, my heart breaks, not only for the new victims, but those who suffered a year ago, or two, or ten or twenty. And not just the families of those who died, but the children who survived, often watching friends die. A twitter thread this week reminded me that the survivors of 1999’s Columbine massacre are now parents themselves, watching their children be trained to protect themselves from the kind of shooting they had survived.

We all hope that we do not have to face what families in Uvalde and Buffalo have faced in recent weeks. But all of us will face grief. When people die, we grieve; our grief is intensified when death is unexpected. The death of children is particularly painful, as we imagine the lives they might have led. Watching a parent grieve the death of a child is the most painful thing I have ever seen. It’s not surprising that Michelangelo’s Pietà is such a powerful sculpture.

Where does this leave us in Easter season? As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, what do we do with our human grief when those we love and care for die? What, if anything, can today’s readings offer us? The Psalm reminds us (v. 10) that “The Lord loves those who hate evil”. It doesn’t say anything about those who are evil, but it asks us to hate evil deeds.

The story of Paul and Silas reminds us that suffering is not new. The account we read in Acts provides a graphic account of how they were beaten before being thrown into jail. The story of Paul and Silas singing in jail inspired those arrested on freedom rides and sit ins in the 1960s. It also, like so many of the passages from Acts we have read this Easter season, reminds us that the core of the Gospel, for Paul at least, was simple: “Believe on the Lord Jesus”. His jailer and his whole household are baptized immediately.

Revelation also keeps it (somewhat) simple this week: “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Jesus’ prayer in John 17 insists that “[you] have loved them even as you have loved me”.

We are not promised that nothing bad will happen to us. Certainly Paul’s life and that of the other disciples demonstrates that following Jesus was not an easy path. And grief is a part of that: John’s gospel tells us that Jesus addresses his grieving mother from the cross. There is a long tradition of art and poetry focused on Mary and her grief: we see our own pain in hers. But there is also another offer: that we are loved as God loves Jesus, and that anyone who wishes may take the water of life as a gift. There is grief, and there is God’s love. We hold on to the love to carry us through grief.

Michelangelo, Pieta (Photo by Juan Romero, CC BY-SA 4.0),St_Peter%27s_Basilica(1498%E2%80%9399).jpg

Sometimes it’s simple

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; john 5:1-9.

My first reaction to many questions is, “It’s complicated”. Is this really what God wants? Should I do it this way or that way? How does how we got here shape what I should do? Today’s readings remind me that it does not have to be complicated. Sometimes, you need to just do it.

Paul sees a vision, so he goes to Macedonia. Lydia urges him to come stay at her home, and he does. There’s no debate or weighing options. Paul sees a need and responds; he’s offered housing, he accepts.

Similarly, Jesus responds to the sick man at the Sheep Gate-who had been there 38 years-with a simple question. “Do you want to be made whole?” The man answers indirectly, explaining why he hasn’t been able to get into the pool. Jesus’ response is simple: “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” And the man did.

My challenge for the week ahead is to figure out when I’m making something too complicated. When am I overthinking? When is there a simple response? Maybe, sometimes, I can just do.

Who belongs?

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 11:1-18: Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Yesterday a young white man, who had bought into the theory of the great replacement, murdered ten Black people in Buffalo. The shootings of Asian women in Dallas earlier this week appear to have been motivated by anti-Asian racism. Other shootings in recent years have targeted Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Mexicans, as well as the LGBTQ community. These communities are targeted as outsiders, polluting (in some way) society. So it is a matter of good timing that today’s reading from Acts provides an account of the process whereby Peter came to include gentiles in the Church.

In Acts, Peter returns to Jerusalem and is criticized by the “circumsized believers” (the Jews) and asked why he went to “uncircumsized men” (gentiles) and ate with them. This is a question about purity, one that Jesus had faced as well. Peter describes his journey: he did not initially want to engage with the gentiles. When his vision orders him to get up, to “kill and eat”, Peter refuses, saying “‘nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth'”. The voice from heaven tells him, “‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'” This exchange is repeated two more times before the vision ends.

When three men arrive at the house where Peter was, the spirit told him to go with them, and “not make a distinction between them and us”. He follows the men to a house, where the host tells him that he had a vision that he should send for Simon, called Peter, for a “message by which you and your whole household will be saved”. Peter tells his critics that when he began to speak, “he Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning”.

As far as Peter was concerned, if they received the Holy Spirit as the disciples had in Jerusalem, they were included in the Church. And his critics were silenced, saying, “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life”. They were forced to see that God acted in ways they did not expect. It is hard to exaggerate what a transformative experience this was for both Peter and the other disciples in Jerusalem.

Today we still struggle, in both church and in the world, with questions of who belongs. Sitting in the Diocese of San Joaquin, where a former bishop tried to take the diocese out of the Episcopal church over the ordination of a gay bishop, we are familiar with these debates in the church. But desire for exclusion exists outside the church as well, motivating a wide range of political groups. Whether they are anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, anti-Black, anti-gay, or anti-trans, they seek to define some group or groups as outside the boundaries of “us”.

Who belongs? Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: love one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Or, in the two great commandments, those who love God and love their neighbor. In the words of our Baptismal Covenant, we should “seek and serve Christ in all people”. At the end of the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus asks his listeners, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). Here being a neighbor is not a fact, but an action. Similarly, for Jesus, love is an action, not a feeling.

In the account from Acts, Peter is taking the teachings of Jesus into a new context, bringing new people into the church. We, as Christians, are constantly challenged with understanding the Gospel in a world very different from the one Jesus lived in. Who belongs, in our church or in our community? How are we neighbors to them?

If we follow Peter, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, we find ourselves looking to behavior. Peter saw that his audience of gentiles had received the Holy Spirit just as the disciples had. Jesus saw that the Samaritan acted as a neighbor to a man in need. We too need to be neighbors to those in need.

Who belongs? Those who love God and love their neighbor. This is not, Peter tells us, passive. And he, as well as other Christians in Jerusalem, had to admit that their boundaries had been wrong.

We can be neighbors to everyone in need. But we can also say that if you are excluding people from your idea of neighbors, whether because of race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity or any other characteristic, you are not showing the love that Christ ordered us to show to each other.

Who belongs? From the beginning, the Church has struggled with this question. In today’s readings, both Jesus and Peter offer an answer. If we follow the Spirit, we know, like the early Christians in Acts, God has given “the repentance that leads to life” not just to “us”, but to those we least expect. And so we welcome all who will try, with us, to love one another.

With the disciples

Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus appears to be solitary. He is not alone, but while others hear the voice, only Paul saw Jesus. His companions lead the now blind Paul into the city, where there is a house where he can sit for three days. We don’t know anything about those three days, other than that he neither ate nor drank.

There are lots of visions in the story of Paul on the road to Damascus: the light that blinds Paul, his vision of Ananias coming to him, and Ananias’ vision of Jesus. The Lord asks Ananias to go help a known persecutor of his followers, and it’s not surprising that Ananias initially balks. But he is convinced, and goes to lay his hands on Saul. Saul/Paul regains his sight, is baptized, then eats. Then “for several days he was with the disciples in Damascus”.

Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus changed his life, but for the rest of the book of Acts (and in his letters) he is always in communities. Being a disciple is not solitary: you are always reaching out to new disciples, and connected to other disciples. The Christian life oscillates, for most of us, between the individual and communal. We pray individually, we have our own experiences of the divine, but we worship together, and we serve together.

All the appearances of Jesus to his disciples (after appearing to Mary in the garden) are to them in a group, whether all of them gathered in a room, two on the road to Emmaus, or the group hanging out at the Sea of Tiberias going fishing. Yet while Jesus is with a group, his interrogation focuses only on Simon Peter: Do you love me? Simon’s repeated assurances that he does lead to the commands to “Feed my lambs”, “Tend my sheep”, and “Feed my sheep”.

The question is always to us as individuals: do you love me? If you do, then you tend to and feed the sheep and lambs. For both Peter and Paul, that meant making their whole lives about proclaiming the good news; both suffered imprisonment and death. They were both alone and worked with other disciples.

How do we tend the sheep and feed them today? Our service and ministries are one way. Worshiping together is another. Other work of feeding and tending comes through our daily work. We do this, as did Peter and Paul, with other disciples, who tend to us and feed us, as we tend and feed others.

Do you love me? The question comes to us as individuals, but we answer it in community.