A sermon on Acts 10: 44-48; 1 John 5: 1-6 & John 15: 9-17 by Nathan Nettleton, 25 May 2003
The resurrection has broken open many old certainties, and our ethics must now be grounded in the new things God is doing, characterised by radically inclusive love, rather than in the old restrictions.
They say that the only two things that are absolutely certain in life are death and taxes, but we belong to a tradition of people who believe that even death is not all that certain. Perhaps that makes us the most uncertain people on earth! Or perhaps it makes us the freest! God has raised Jesus from the dead, and is calling us to follow him on the pathway through the depths and up into the promised land of resurrection life. God has raised Jesus from the dead and now even death cannot stand strong and immovable and everlasting. God has raised Jesus from the dead and many of the old certainties which ruled our lives with unyielding power have been broken open or forced to take a back seat to the new realities of life in the emerging reign of the Living Christ.
When Jesus broke free from the grip of death, everything was changed; everything was made new. When Jesus broke free from the grip of death, our old ways of living were rendered irrelevant, things of the past. When Jesus broke free from the grip of death, the old rules we had lived by to carefully hold death at bay and safeguard our acceptability to God were blown apart by the earth-shattering and life-giving power of Gods love. This has revolutionised our understandings of what God wants from us and how we are to relate to one another.
When death still reigned and the powers of evil had not yet met their match in Jesus, religious laws and commandments had a central place in our lives. We needed them to warn us off and guard us against sliding unthinkingly into hardheartedness and callousness and greed. And we needed them to be conservative and cautious enough that they kept us well back from the edges of the slippery slopes. In other words, we needed rules that played it safe and ruled out more than was strictly necessary in order to ensure that we didnt come within cooee of any avoidable temptation. And so the religious laws that are preserved in our scriptures had tight categories of right and wrong, of pure and impure. In Garrys sermon last week, he mentioned the rules that kept the Ethiopian eunuch from participating fully in the worship at the Jerusalem Temple. These rules were an example of play-it-safe ethics: interaction with gentiles might expose us to ungodly practices, so play it safe and exclude the gentiles. Interaction with those who are outside the sexual norms might expose us to some dangerous deviance, so play it safe and exclude the eunuchs and the homosexuals and the divorced. Play it safe; keep yourself pure; exclude anyone about whom there is some wiff of possible compromise, and it doesnt matter if it is only a long-shot guilt by association. Better safe than sorry. The power of evil is far too powerful and subtle to allow any risks, so err on the side of caution and exclude them all.
There are those who would turn Christian faith into just another version of the same approach. They approach every moral decision by looking for a biblical ruling for or against. They usually accept that some of the old purity restrictions from the law of Moses have been overturned by Jesus, but they either play it safe by only relinquishing the ones that are specifically overturned in the New Testament, or they treat the New Testament writings as a replacement set of laws and commandments to be strictly interpreted and carefully applied to every conceivable circumstance. They are equally concerned with the boundaries of purity, and with cautiously avoiding any contact with anything or anyone of suspect purity, lest they be contaminated and their own purity compromised. A couple of the readings we heard tonight offer them some favourite verses with which to justify their approach. In his first letter, the Apostle John says, the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And in his gospel he reports that Jesus said, If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Fathers commandments and abide in his love.
But to use such verses as a justification for reading scripture as a strict rule book with an answer for every moral dilemma is to wrench them out of context. For in the gospel, Jesus immediately goes on to say, This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. And in the epistle, John says that the commandments are not burdensome, for the faith that is born of God is victorious over whatever the world can throw at us.
Jesus Christ has not only taught us the way of love, but he has followed the way of love, even when it meant making the ultimate sacrifice in laying down his life for those he loves. And in continuing to love all the way to death, he has broken the power of hatred and death. In rising to new life he has disarmed the powers that enslaved us and held us in the grip of fear. He has set us free from the desperate need to win Gods approval by slavish law-keeping. Now we are free to follow Christ in living life with an exuberant and radically inclusive love. We can love one another generously without having to worry constantly about risks of contamination, because evil no longer has the power to tear us out of Gods hands. We are secure in the love of God, and perfect love has cast out all fear. Now we are made pure by being incorporated into the body of Christ who is righteousness personified, and nothing but our own deliberate rebellion can reverse that.
The implications of this turn-around came as an enormous shock to many in the early church, and we are still working out the full extent of it all now, two thousand years later. You can hear it in the reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles:
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, Can anyone withhold the water for baptising these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?