Love without limits

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35

A young boy enters a barber shop and the barber whispers to his customer, “This is the stupidest child in the world. Watch while I prove it to you.”
The barber puts a £5 note in one hand and a pound coin in the other, then calls the boy over and asks, “Which do you want, son?” The boy takes the pound coin and leaves.

“What did I tell you?” said the barber. “That child never learns!” Later, when the customer leaves, he sees the same young boy coming past with an ice cream.

“Hey, son! May I ask you a question? Why did you take the pound coin instead of the fiver?” The boy licked his ice cream and replied, “Because the day I take the fiver, the game’s over!”

I think the faithful Jewish believers were no less surprised when Peter threw their understanding of the Law out of the window. Peter’s in real trouble here. Up until this point, pretty much all the followers of Jesus have been other Jews, as Jesus himself was. Being a Christian was perhaps a way of being Jesus. Everyone knew where they were, and what that meant.

In the previous chapter Peter had baptised gentiles, those who were not Jews, and brought them into the fold of following Jesus without becoming Jews. This was not well received. He might as well have told the Duke of Edinburgh that a new prince was to be named Archie! The faithful were not impressed that Peter was letting anyone in. They weren’t people like us, not the right kind of people at all.

So, Peter tells them about his dream. It sounds a really weird dream, but I suspect many of our dreams sound weird when we try to explain them to other people. The point of Peter’s dream was that he believed that god was telling him to include the gentiles, the people who were until then excluded. On the very rare occasions when I tell people my dreams, they usually look incredulous, but Peter’s Jewish Christian listeners seemed to realise that it was a message from god about including the people they’d previously excluded.

There’s plenty of anger towards outsiders still around today. You don’t have to go very far before you read or someone complaining about immigrants, or saying “I’m not racist, but…” just before they say something racist. As a human race, we’re still pretty adept at making distinctions between who’s in and who’s out. The thing is, we’re all born equal, equally helpless and equally indebted to others for whatever our survival turns out to be worth. Borders and barriers may be big issues in the world, but I’m not yet convinced that they’re what God is really bothered about. Today’s story of Peter and his dream is one of many in the Bible that challenges us with the idea goes beyond the human boundaries that we create. This is a story about crossing borders, and that can be very uncomfortable at the moment. We put up walls, concrete or steel or metaphorical. It would have been more comfortable and seemingly safer for the early church to keep Cornelius and his Gentile household at arm’s length. They could have had a probationary period to make sure everyone understood where the boundaries were. But God apparently had no patience for such things.

Think of the person you can’t stand to be around. If you’re poor, maybe it’s the rich person who drives down the road in a big shiny car. If you’re rich, maybe it is the unrefined person who irritates you. Perhaps it’s the sloppy neighbour who doesn’t keep their house and garden as you think they should. Perhaps it’s the eccentric co-worker that everyone makes jokes about. Maybe it’s the person with a strong accent that we struggle to understand. Maybe it’s the person with tattoos and piercings all over their body. Or maybe it’s the person in whom we see ourselves, possibly the bits of our self we don’t like. Whoever it is, we’re all irritated by someone, yet Peter’s dream was all about how God includes them.

What God commanded Peter to do in Joppa, our Lord now commands us to do in our world today: to erase any lines of negative distinction between human beings, to destroy our exclusive boundaries and barriers, to turn our institutions, ideas, and paradigms upside down and inside out by reminding our world that every human being is a child of God. When we are cut, we all bleed. When we are tickled, we all laugh. And when we hurt, we all cry. We’re all God’s children.

If we try to restrict God’s grace to ourselves, we cut ourselves off from that very grace. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin may have said it best, “It is impossible to love Christ without loving others, and it is impossible to love others without moving nearer to Christ.”

This is, of course, the greatest challenge to us, because the world around us is often looking at things from a different angle.

The world says, “No!”
Jesus says, “YES!”

The world says, “Not yet.”
Jesus says, “Right now!”

The world says, “Shorter.”
Jesus says, “Longer!”

The world says, “Narrower.”
Jesus says, “Wider!”

The world says, “Smaller.”
Jesus says, “Bigger!”

The world says, “Shallower.”
Jesus says, “Deeper!”

The world says, “Punish.”
Jesus says, “Mercy!”

The world says, “Hate.”
Jesus says, “Love!”

The world says, “Just a few.”
Jesus says, “Everyone!”

The world says, “Threaten him!”
Jesus says, “That won’t stop me!”

The world says, “Arrest him!”
Jesus says, “That won’t stop me!”

The world says, “Ridicule him!”
Jesus says, “That won’t stop me!”

The world says, “Wound him!”
Jesus says, “That won’t stop me!”

The world says, “Crucify him!”
Jesus says, “That won’t stop me!”

The world says, “Shut him up in a tomb!”
Jesus says, “That won’t stop me!”

Jesus is relentlessly in love with the world. And thank God for such love. Where would we be without such love? If truth be told, all of us, to one degree or another, are on the outside, where it’s cold and lonely, yearning for God to pull us inside and wrap his warm arms around us. And would you believe there is enough room in God’s arms for everyone? There is room. There is plenty of room.

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