Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C

Fifth Sunday of Easter C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

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

Something new disrupts the church: "Gentiles are accepting the word of God."  As soon as Peter returns to Jerusalem, he is met with criticism by the first followers of Jesus, who were also Jews, of course, for initiating conversation and sharing meals "with them."  Peter explains his behavior, "I saw a vision."  "[S]omething like a large sheet" was lowered from heaven.  When he looked closer he saw representatives of every kind of known creature.  A voice told Peter to eat.  But being devout, Peter declined because "nothing profane or unclean has ever entered" his mouth.  But the voice insisted three times" What God has made, you must not call profane."  Peter's vision is interrupted by three visitors.  "The Spirit told Peter to follow the men to Caesarea.  "The Spirit told me to go with them and not make  distinction between them and us."  Peter is told that he had personally been summoned because an angel told them that a man named Simon Peter would "give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved."  Peter then reports that when he began to pray, "the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning."  Peter recalls Jesus' words at his own baptism when he implied that those who would come after him would go further and baptize "with the Holy Spirit."  Peter concludes: Who are we to question God?  "If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"  At least for those with Peter on that occasion the matter was settled: "God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

The psalter concludes with six mighty psalms of praise, including 148.  The God of creation is the object of our praise in several explicit and implicit references to the creation stories in Genesis.  The whole creation-- that which can seem beneficent as well as that which can seem threatening-- was created and is commanded by the Lord.  The Lord's "name" alone is exalted "over all heaven and earth."

John the Divine's vision approaches it dramatic conclusion.  Now he reports:  "I saw a new heaven and a new earth...."  And, " new Jerusalem."  A loud voice declares"  See, the home of God is among mortals."  In this new way, God -- "the Alpha and the Omega"-- will minister to all people.

(Just as Peter had a flashback to the importance of what Jesus said at his baptism in today's first reading from Acts, so now the lectionary takes us back in today's gospel to the last extended conversation Jesus had with his friends hours before he was arrested.)  "At the last supper," in John's narrative, is the scene for Jesus' long and important farewell monologue.  In this excerpt, Jesus announces that the events through which they are living "glorify" the "son of Man" and "glorify" God.  And, the "glory" of each redounds to the other; (the arrest, trial, execution of Jesus are tantamount to a theophany).
He then confronts them with his impending, inevitable absence.  But he leaves something that is meant to sustain and nourish his followers even in his absence: "a new commandment."  His presence will spread in a much broader sense after he is gone:  "Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another."  This will/should become the trait that gives his followers their identity to themselves and to others, "if you have love for one another."

In a chapter in Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, devoted to an intense discussion of the seventeenth century exorcist, preacher and mystical poet Jean-Joseph Surin, Michel de Certeau provides a description of the church vis a vis Surin and other mystic writers.  As does the psalmist  in today's appointed psalm --(the Lord's "name" alone is "exalted over all heaven and earth")--, he notes that the whole conversation begins by naming the Name which supersedes all our powers to understand and control life in all its incomprehensible complexity, grandeur and intimidation.  The name God, de Certeau writes, is not at the apex of some human system of thought, but the a priori poetic center that gives meaning.  "Therefore, it is not the experience that guarantees the existence of God; God, on the contrary, guarantees the experience."  (p. 111)  God's name, de Certeau, continues, which is always wholly interchangeable with with "Love," functions as an "open sesame" or a "password", a "principle of travel" that transports us from a fixed to a dynamic realm.  Now de Certeau thinks of the church.  "the name has the power to construct a body.  It embodies." (p 112)  He emphasizes that Christianity lacks a site that pins it down.  Pentecost, he writes, "is the birth of a message that is not bound to a place."  (And all that entails-- one human language, culture, society, tradition, governance.) He characterizes the written witness of the church (scriptures) as a "lost-body discourse," emphasizing that there are no "remains," just the empty tomb of the One who dared to declare and to exhibit God's Love among mortals.  So, all that remains for Christians are "the writings" and the community/body that grows around it.

John's narrative dwells on the absence of Jesus after Easter, which makes important that long, detailed monologue he provides by Jesus.  What is left is a community that witnesses to the Love, which is-- or ought to be-- its identifying trait to itself and to others.  At the heart of those multiple expressions, communities, traditions of the church universal is a singular, dazzling revelation of Love.  That revelation  is what changed Peter's mind/heart and re-directed the early church outward into uncharted territory.  It is the same revelation of mutual, self-authenticating ricocheting, "glory" that reflects/reveals/illuminates the Son and the Creator as well as the Holy Spirit.  This vision/revelation/experience of Love gives the church its message and its presence/body.  Paradoxically, this same vision/revelation/experience also permanently destabilizes/deconstructs any and all attempts to pin it down to any one place or local tradition.  This experience of Love exceeds all our prior and current expectations.  "Who are we to question God?"  The church is still experimenting with something wholly new in human experience, that is unprecedented, (that is always "a new heaven and a new earth")-- a message as well as communities  founded on an experience of Love that forever exceeds our expectations.