A New Song
Acts 10:44-48, John 15: 9-17
May 13, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Sylvia Karcher
Let me read you a couple of new hymn titles: Here’s one: “Where he leads me I’ll consider following.” How about this one? “Take my life and let me be”?
Not the kind of new song the Psalmist meant! We don’t always welcome new songs--the old ones are familiar and well-loved. To sing a new song we need to learn, to stretch to grow, to get out of our comfort zone. But we don’t have to do it on our own. The Psalmist says, “Sing a new song, BECAUSE God has done
marvelous things.” Because of what God has done we can sing a new song. Because of who Jesus is and what he does we can obey the new commandment. I would go so far as to say God teaches us the new song.
Let’s look first at the scene of the gospel lesson. Jesus sat with his disciples in the flickering lamplight. He had made it clear that his death was immanent. The disciples were sad and frightened. His final words to them surprised them. They didn’t understand, and we struggle to understand. I suggest they form the chorus of the new song he teaches us, because they are truly words of comfort and joy. They are words that could become topics for a whole sermon series, and they glow on the page like so many jewels. Listen:
“Abide in my love.” (Abide in his love? But he just said he was leaving!) We know now that while he was no longer with them physically, they were still connected and they drew their strength from that connection.
“My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” He dared talk about joy at a time like that? Yes, he did. As long as the connection held, no matter how terrible the time or sad the situation, they would still have joy. Recently one of your beloved members went to be with God. Naturally you miss him; naturally you’re sad. Yet Jesus still dares to say to you that you can have joy.
“I no longer call you servants, but friends.” Friends! Servants don’t always understand; they just obey. He explains everything to his friends; he opens his heart to his friends.
“You did not choose me; I chose you.” Chosen by Christ. How we long to be chosen, to be included! We don’t understand it, but we live in gratitude for it.
Finally, “Love one another.” Because you abide in me, because I’ve chosen you,
because you have such joy, you’re able to do this. Love one another.
So the chorus we learn is about joy, it’s about belonging and abiding, it’s about love between my brothers and my sisters.
That may be the chorus and the chorus may not change. But the new song has a new verse for every generation, maybe for every church, maybe for every person, maybe for every new situation. Let’s look at the Acts passage for just one example.
Some years ago I preached a sermon on this text, and it was all about Peter—
about how open Peter was, how willing to follow, how welcoming. What I said wasn’t wrong, but I now see that I was missing something important. This story isn’t really about Peter, or about Cornelius—it’s about God. Peter was singing
the new chorus alright. Jesus, whom he loved, the master who called him friend, was alive. How could he help but sing! But it was God who taught him the verse.
This passage is actually the end of the story that begins with God giving Peter a vision of unclean foods that God commanded him to eat. Imagine that white sheet with not only birds and animals but all sorts of insects and reptiles tangled up together. Ugh! It would turn us off. But it was much worse for Peter. Many of those things weren’t kosher. As a good Jew he wouldn’t think of eating them. While he was trying to figure out what the dream meant, some men came with the invitation to come to the home of Cornelius--a Roman centurion. Peter did what many in that culture would do, even to a gentile; he let them stay the night. Hospitality to strangers was important. A simple act, perhaps, but it was the beginning. Perhaps because of the vision Peter woke up the next morning ready to accompany the men. What could it hurt to at least meet this Cornelius? When he arrived he found God was at work in Cornelius’s life as well; God had told Cornelius to send for Peter. I suppose at that point Peter couldn’t help himself. He just had to share the good news of Jesus to these people who seemed so willing to listen. And then, before Peter finished preaching, the Holy Spirit interrupted his sermon and came upon all the gentiles in the house. As someone said, Before Peter could give an altar call, or hear their confession of faith or plan a new member class, the Spirit came. (Feasting on the Word, Year B,
Vol. 2, p. 481)
The disciples who’d come with Peter were, of course, astounded. These people were pagans. They were unclean. But look at what God already led Peter to say in his sermon, “I see that God is no respecter of persons.” Somehow, by the grace of God Peter was able to change, to move from thinking that the Jews were special, were God’s chosen to think that God accepted all people. The command “Love one another” was becoming broadened to include more people.
And then, once the Holy Spirit had acted what was Peter to do? What alternative did he have?
I wonder if he was surprised at the effect his sermon had; if, like Jonah, he was a bit taken aback that his words had such a powerful effect. The Spirit was at work, and Peter was just recognizing that fact. Peter said, “Look, these people are filled with the Spirit. We have to baptize them, we have to accept them into the Body of Christ, we have to include them in our fellowship. Peter wasn’t
singing, “Where he leads me I’ll consider following,” was he?
Finally, the scripture says, “They invited him to stay for several days.” The gentiles, too, could practice hospitality. What’s important is that Peter didn’t just come into town like a traveling evangelist and preach a sermon and leave. He stayed and a relationship began .He accepted THEIR hospitality, he shared their food. Although it was strange and perhaps uncomfortable for him, although may not have cared for pork, he stayed. As one writer said, “Full inclusion implies
getting to know them hearing their stories, accepting hospitality from them in their homes, sharing the same table.” (Ibid. p.483)
When we were in Zimbabwe on a mission trip, one of our team members spent the night with a village family. Theirs was a very simple home, consisting of two huts with dirt floors--one for cooking and one for sleeping. That night the family very proudly served a scrawny chicken. My friend knew that there were very few chickens scratching around in the dirt outside. She knew that to kill this chicken was a great sacrifice for the family. But she was a vegetarian. That night, she ate the chicken. Love one another, be friends with one another. Share the gifts that each of you have to give.
If I asked you who you identify with in this story, you’d probably say, “Peter.” I agree. Yet it’s instructive to remember that in one important respect we’re like Cornelius, We’re Gentiles. We’re the ones who would be outsiders, if Peter and
others had not been led by God’s spirit to welcome us. How important it is to be welcomed--to be included.
If I were a Jew listening to Peter’s story when he got back to Jerusalem, I might have asked myself, “Where did he go wrong? Where did he wander of the track
and end up baptizing, of all things gentiles?” I’d go over the story carefully. First that puzzling vision. Then opening the door to those travelers. Well, that wasn’t so bad. Then going to Caesarea--can’t blame him for that. Then
preaching, well…I’d have to admit that step by step, God patiently and gently led Peter—right up to the point when the Spirit was poured out in a flood over the gentiles. What was Peter to do? The Spirit of God can be downright sneaky!
Today your Church celebrates its Ninth anniversary--what is the message here for you? Is it simply a matter of following God’s leading?
But maybe following isn’t that simple: Church historian Rosemary Radford Reuther says that the church must be organized to do two things:
“--to pass on the tradition from one generation to another and
--to be open to the winds of the Holy Spirit by which the tradition comes alive in each generation. “(Ibid. p.481)
You see how these can be in tension? You see how it might be difficult to know when to hold onto traditional ways and when to let the Spirit bring them alive in a new way?
I have three words of comfort and direction from our scripture today. First, God is at work; the Spirit is leading. We don’t have to create our own way.
We need to open our eyes and our hearts as Peter did, and follow.
Second, when we disagree we need to continue to love one another. This means listening to one another, respecting one another, learning from one another.
Third, the path the Spirit has for us will probably come from our listening and sharing of our different perspectives. The new song isn’t a solo. We sing together, in harmony and sometimes in counterpoint. In this story Peter didn’t have the whole truth, nor did the men who summoned him, nor did Cornelius, nor certainly, those with Peter. It was when they came together and the Spirit came that the Christian community was expanded.
I’m preaching to the choir here. Since its inception this church has responded in faith. Did you ever imagine where God was leading when you first got together for a bite to eat and a little fellowship? God led you step by step, first to have a monthly meal together, then to monthly worship, and now to this wonderful fellowship. God can be sneaky.
You have done wonderful things. You’ve probably given more for mission than any other congregation in the Presbytery. Certainly you’ve given the highest percentage of your budget. And you don’t stop with giving to mission; you believe in hands on mission. The work many of you do with Hidden Harvest is evidence of that. And your contribution to the life of the Presbytery is outstanding.
I know just God is at work in this church, or each of your lives. I see the way you care for one another, I see how welcoming and inclusive you are. I don’t know
what God had in store for you. I don’t know where the Spirit is leading. I do know God will teach you a new verse.
The bad news is that God will teach us a new verse to our song. It will be unfamiliar at first. We’ll have to learn it, we’ll have concentrate and to practice.
But the good news is that God will teach us a new verse, but the chorus will be familiar. It’s a chorus about joy, about belonging and about love between our brothers and our sisters.