So Sunday morning I am still getting it all worked out, and at 8:45 my wife remarks: "you aren't preaching at 9?" I flew to church in record time and pull into a space waiting for me right in front of the side door, and pop into the sanctuary just as the rector was trying to explain his way through my absence. What follows is (more or less what the 11 o'clock service heard, since at 9 I still didn't have anything printed out and had to wing it.
This should be a simple, short sermon, easy to preach. Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Is there any more to be said? We all know what love is, right? We can rise from our pews to go forth in the name of Christ, and— Thanks be to God!— we then look upon each person we encounter and love them. Isn't that so? Our law is love: “love God with all our heart and soul and mind;” “love our neighbors as ourselves.” We know what the means, don't we?
Well, apparently we do not. It is our nature to be born taking love and returning it only in our infant neediness, and as we grow into maturity often enough we consume love and give nothing back at all, or that we “love” others back by rendering them evil for their good. We return the love of the one, true, loving God by ignoring him, denying him, and defying him. Willful rebellion bubbles up within the heart from our early years, and thoughtlessness is ever revealed in our youth. And thus a child must be raised, to learn to love others, and to know and love God.
Then we attain our maturity, and do we then know how to love? I look around, and it seems to be that at best we do so imperfectly, and that often enough we forget love, or we cloak the lovelessness of our hearts in the costume of words and deeds which pretend love while speaking and doing ill.
Much of this we know better than to do, if we but hear the Spirit as it conveys that Father's judgement upon our thoughts and acts. But even in our benevolence, we do not know what it is to love. I mean, we know in a general sense, right? But when it comes to where we are now, we must be taught. And how are we taught? The people of Israel had the old law, all spelled out, and if you had a question, there was always a rabbi to come up with an answer for you. And we see how well that worked out: the Pharisees were scrupulous followers of the law and every elaboration put upon it by the rabbis, and yet Jesus decries the way they love from beginning to end. No, we are taught love best by example, not in word, but in deed. Our parents teach us love, not by talking about it, but by doing it; that infant, consuming love, is also learning love. And in scripture, we learn love not through abstract philosophy, but through the story of love.
We see this in our first lesson. It is unfortunate that here we only get the end of a chapter-long story, which begins with Cornelius the centurion being told by an angel that God is answering his prayers, and that he should send for Peter. Meanwhile Peter is waiting for dinner to be served, and he has a vision of a great sheet lowered from heaven, full of all sorts of creatures. And he hears a voice calling to him, three times: “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” Now Peter, being an observant Jew, relies in kind three times that he will not, for he has never eaten anything unclean. And three times the voice replies, “what God has cleansed you must not call profane.” So Peter is wondering what this about when Cornelius's messengers arrive, and Peter, dense though he often is, sees the connection, and goes forth with them.
Now Cornelius is called “a God-fearing man,” which has a particular meaning: it signifies a gentile follower of the Lord GOD of Israel. Yet he is still separate from Israel because of his ancestry, and the disciples at first understand the newly-born church's ministry as only to their fellow Jews. Well, Peter arrives, they each speak of their visions, and Peter delivers the sermon we hear every Easter Sunday, summarizing the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ succinctly. And thus we arrive at today's lesson: the Spirit came upon them, and Peter understood the breadth of God's love: not just the Jewish people, but the Samaritans, the Romans, and all the people of the world.
And thus, if we learn love by example, there is no higher example of love than Jesus himself. To the two ancient rules of love, he adds another: “love one another as I have loved you.” And how far does the example of his life extend? As far as a man lays down his life for his friends. And we are all, as Jesus says, his friends. Thus over the years the church has particularly noted the martyrs, those who have given their life for the faith, and among them we may note those who traded their own lives for the safety of others. We are unlikely to be presented with the same opportunity for sacrifice, but our day-to-day sacrifice has the same merit in heaven, and it is all the more worthy for the difficulty of recalling, each day, how we may love each whom we encounter.
Our bishop said this at convention yesterday: “Suffering, evil, and death will not have the last word as long as love abides.” And love will abide, and reach its perfection on that terrible last day when all that is unloving is cast down forever. But in these latter days, it is given to us to live love toward others, and thus teach the world what love is, and in whom it may be found: Jesus Christ, the love of God incarnate.