In this reading, we hear Peter getting called on the carpet by the Jewish Christians for “eating with Gentiles.” Admittedly, this sounds very strange to us, but this was a big deal back then. Gentiles ate food which was forbidden to Jews … you know … like bacon! Peter then tells of his vision where God revealed something astonishing. In essence, God revealed that the dietary laws they had always followed were making distinctions which God was not making! What God had called “clean” must not be labeled “profane” by anyone – whether it be food or people. This was a serious crisis for Jewish believers because it was calling on them to release some deeply held beliefs – things which God had “commanded.” Think about how hard this is. Giving up something you have always believed was true and right in order to live into a new commandment, reach across deep divides and love people who are not like you.
It’s what Jesus told us to do, isn’t it? Our Gospel reading takes us back to the Last Supper and Jesus’ new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. When we take that commandment seriously, it will turn our world upside down. It makes a claim on us and takes us into a life where we will be confronted with our deeply held beliefs and they will be measured against whether or not those beliefs are reflect love or not … and if not, we are to let them go. This is hard work and it will make each and every one of us at various times deeply troubled in our spirit. Love is not some romantic sentiment in a Hallmark card. Love is a verb, it is active, and it brings about change. If we are completely honest with ourselves, the change we most want to see is a change in other people. But today’s reading challenges each of us to first look to the change in ourselves wrought by love. What transformation might Christ’s love bring in your life? What deeply held convictions are you holding onto that run counter to the love of Christ? What barriers need to come down so that there is no distinction between them and us?
Love is the way, the only way, we can ever hope to glimpse the Kingdom of God. The images from Revelation tell us of a future where love becomes the only way. This is the part of Revelation that the folks who subscribe to Rapture theology don’t want admit. Revelation is often seen as a scary book and I believe it has been hijacked by a heretical theology called Dispensationalism – from which we get the stories of the Rapture. Let me clarify that when I say this is heresy, I am not speaking condemnation on the people who believe this. I am following the historic teachings of the Church on Revelation in declaring it a mistaken teaching. Our Coffee Talk Bible study just completed a study of Revelation and it was enlightening to find out what wasn’t there as much as what was there. Unfortunately, our cultural knowledge of Revelation is shaped by Dispensationalist teachings which emphasize the violence, the reign of the anti-Christ (a word which never appears in Revelation), the battle of Armageddon and the Last Judgement. Tim LaHay’s “Left Behind” books have largely shaped what we think about Revelation. Let me give you a nutshell synopsis – they are wrong. No battle is ever fought in Revelation and the only sword spoken of is the one coming from the mouth of the slain lamb which is Christ – his word is the only sword drawn. The Battle of Armageddon is spoken about in terms of it already being accomplished and we hear reports of it but it never happens in the narrative. As to the Lake of Fire, the only thing which is cast into it is the unholy trinity of the false prophet, the empire (those who received the mark of the beast) and the dragon – all of which represent the powers of empire which were oppressing the Church. It was not the place of judgement for believers! So in Revelation 19 and 20, all evil powers of this world are destroyed … that’s good news. And now today’s reading is what happens when love reigns and evil is eliminated: a new city, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven and moving towards us! The one on the throne says all things are being made new, sorrow is no more, death is no more, pain is no more. Wow! This is what happens when the command to love God by loving one another is fulfilled. This is a vision John of Patmos wants us to hold onto even in the midst of a world which is decaying and passing away.
Jesus knew that love is the only thing which expresses the fullness of God. It is the only thing which endures and yet, it is not easy. It makes demands and claims on each and every one of us to be changed. And love is the only thing which has the power to get us through this thing called life.