A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
“See, the home of God is among mortals.”
That’s a radical statement. After 2000 years of Christian theology and preaching we sometimes miss how radical it really is. In the Roman Empire there were two standard views, one of the official pagan religion with its many gods, and another of philosophers and sophisticates, who basically believed that there was some sort of ultimate God, either beyond the pagan gods, or instead of them. The pagan gods made their home somewhere else, not among mortals, though they might capriciously come and mess with people from time to time. The God of the philosophers was consistently distant, detached from the world, the unmoved mover—engagement with humanity was unthinkable.
“I heard a voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;…” In the ancient world, that would be a shocking statement, it would go against all their values for a god to be that humble. The holy city arrives and God dwells with his people, and his people are not just the elite: God’s people are everyone. Not only will God himself dwell with them, but he will wipe every tear from their eyes. From the eyes of those who suffer—and there is no denial of the reality of suffering.
There is no doubt that Christianity was very diverse from the earliest times. There are references in the earliest documents to wealthy individuals and to slaves being members on an equal footing. Today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is about the incorporation of all the non-Jewish nations into the Body of Christ, even those who did not observe the practices that their Jewish sisters and brothers did. Both of these things were frankly controversial, because of how uncomfortable they made many people, and the solutions that were worked out were not always as perfect as we might like to put forward in a story with a “happily ever after” ending. But the vision of the holy city with God tending to the tears and the healing of every person—humble or exalted—was something essential, something not to be sacrificed or compromised. It was a radical idea then. It is still a struggle.
It is in Jesus Christ that we know God who is now present with us. At the last supper, when our Eucharistic celebration was instituted, Jesus interpreted it by these words that are in today’s Gospel lesson: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The infinite, the almighty, the all powerful ever-living God had just washed his disciples’ feet. As hard as it is, “you should love one another.” Just like he loved us. With complete humility and openness. The lesson from the Acts of the Apostles and much of the epistles of St. Paul record the conflict between Christians, from very early on, in accepting one another—in accepting people from all nations among themselves. Loving one another fully is not easy and it’s not just a one-off thing. We can’t say: “I love you, now don’t bother me.”
The shocking thing in Christianity is that it is God that is humble, it is God that lives among us. And in dwelling with God, we learn to be his disciples, in love and service to one another—and to all of God’s children.
Jesus said this, at his last meal with his disciples: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” Unlike the world’s idea of exalted and distant God honored by wealth and power, the city of God is among the servants. God is present among us, and we know his power and glory in his being the servant of all.
Let’s read again what Peter said and the end of this lesson from the book of Acts: “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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?” When they heard this, they were silenced.”
It is God who wipes away every tear. It is God who welcomes and serves every stranger in our midst.