A Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 11:1-18++Psalm 148++Revelation 21:1-6++John 13:31-35

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 13:34b-35)

There is a saying among some theologically-inclined Episcopal church people: lex orandi, lex credendi. It means that what you pray is what you believe, or, even simpler, praying shapes believing. When we come here week after week and pray the words of our Book of Common Prayer (which we do, even if you never pick up one of those books – it’s all in the bulletin) what we believe about God and Jesus cannot help but be formed by the words we say as a community and that I say on our behalf in the eucharistic prayers. When you pray the Lord’s Prayer or recite the Creed, that becomes a part of your faith, of your belief.

So changes to the prayer book can upset our understandings of faith. Of course, this “new” prayer book was revised in 1979, but people are still wrestling with parts of it to this day, even as the General Convention of the Episcopal Church studies the idea of a new version. (For those church history nerds among us, this is only the fourth iteration of an American Book of Common Prayer since our founding in 1789.) Liturgical renewal movements of the 1960’s culminated in this current book, and changes of our understanding of the theology we profess in this one is pushing the movement toward a new revision.

One of the biggest and most noticeable changes between the prayer book of 1928 that I grew up on and this one is the assertion that baptism is the full and complete initiation into the church and, therefore, those who are baptized are invited into full participation in the liturgies and sacraments, including eucharist. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer very explicitly stated, “And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed” (p. 299). Confirmation of young people was the rite of passage that allowed us to come to the table. What the new prayer book said is that it is through our baptism that we are full members and should not be inhibited.

Well, this set off a firestorm. “Children can’t possibly understand the meaning of holy communion,” some said. “They need to earn their way to the table, just like I did.” “Communion is nothing special if even babies can do it.” Oh, my, the arguments went on and on and, in some places, continue to this day. People who had grown up with a particular prayer book shaping their belief had a really hard time giving up on that and shifting their theology of baptism and confirmation and eucharist, whether or not they recognized that they were wrestling with theology or not!

Similarly, in the 10th chapter of the book of Acts, Peter has his well-formed theological world turned upside-down. As we have said over and over again, Peter is a good and observant Jew. He followed Jesus who was also a Jew, and he lived his life after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension as a Jewish follower of Jesus. Or so he thought. And in that Jewish context, anyone else who wanted to follow Jesus had to do things that Jews did – be circumcised, follow dietary and purity codes, in short, become Jewish first, and then they could follow Jesus. But in that 10th chapter of Acts, Peter has a vision of a giant sheet being lowered from the sky with all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds and “four-footed creatures” (Acts 10:12), and a voice says to kill and eat. But some of these animals were not considered kosher, so Peter argues and says that he can’t possibly eat something that is unclean. But the voice says to Peter three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15).

So we come to our reading this morning from the 11th chapter, and Peter is explaining himself to the leaders in Jerusalem, all those 1928 prayer book people, who are questioning him about why he socialized with unclean people, those who had not been circumcised, and ate unclean food. How could he? So he told them about this vision and how, once it ended, he went to the home of some Gentiles and ate with them and told them about Jesus, and lo and behold, they believed, so he baptized them all. And the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem were shocked to discover that God’s promises were even for the Gentiles, for those people.

Throughout the history of the Church, certain beliefs held as immutable have shifted and changed. It was once unthinkable that normal, everyday people could read the bible in a language they understood. Luther’s Doctrine of Justification by Faith upended centuries of belief that there are certain things one must do in order to be made worthy of salvation. Those who held people in chattel slavery beginning in the 17th century had only to point to scripture for support. Those who continue to refuse women ordination have only to look to scripture for support. Those who condemn LGBTQI persons have only to look to scripture for support.

So here we are, sitting at the corner of 7th & Washington in Hoboken, New Jersey in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, and for us, the very idea of slavery is an abomination. I am standing here as your first woman rector, and we openly affirm and accept people no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation. There are those critics who would say that we are following the culture rather than God. I prefer to believe that God has continued to move in and through creation expanding our understanding of context, or how texts have been written, used, and interpreted, that certain things that were acceptable in 1st century Palestine are not acceptable in 21st century America.

I also believe that we have privileged certain texts over others. For every passage of scripture that condemns someone for being outside the norm, there are several that talk about accepting and loving all people. Immigrants, refugees, strangers, widows, and orphans are always to be protected. How did some of us miss that? God has promised a new heaven and a new earth where God will live with us: “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life” (Revelation 21:6).

But perhaps most importantly is this new commandment of Jesus “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). It is very hard, if not downright impossible to exclude, to judge, to hate, to marginalize anyone if we love as we are loved. If our praying shapes our believing, then what we do here each week and what we teach our children and what we say in word and prayer and song – all of it must be grounded love for God and our neighbor, all of our neighbors – so that we might believe in love. The kind of love that can move mountains. The kind of love that loosens shackles. The kind of love that makes for peace. The kind of love that says that all are welcome in this place.

ASEPA Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas