Monday, May 03, 2010

A Higher Standard

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

Preaching instructors always have this particular piece of advice for sermon preparation, especially for those of us who typically follow the lectionary pattern: go through the readings and highlight what stands out to you on the initial reading. In other words, what pops up? What grabs your attention, especially including those passages that may seem confusing or disturbing? After this is tossed around in your mind for awhile, read the entire chapter and THEN go to commentaries and footnotes, but only for historical context. Try to discern what the Spirit may be allowing in the passage in its appropriate setting, AND THEN you can go to other commentaries and opinions of scholars and theologians. Sometimes this works - and sometimes not.

The one thing we can always be sure of is that the Lord has revealed Himself to us through Scripture. The one thing we can always count on is that He does not change His mind according to popular opinion. If we then want to know more about Him and His divine purposes, we must go to the Word - not incidentally, but purposefully. But we must also have a full appreciation for what was written, to whom it was written, and why it was written. Scripture clearly was not addressed exclusively to 21st-century Christians, so there has to be an established context; and within that context, a definitive - if eternal - purpose.

A few years ago I began to wrestle with several elements of the Mosaic Law within the Christian traditions we have somehow developed over time; circumcision and Sabbath law, to name only two, but these are sermons for another time. Another I began contemplating and trying to work through is clean vs. unclean meat. We Christians, with a few exceptions of course, love pork. Pork chops, ham, pork tenderloin, sausage, bacon. For many, these are breakfast staples - for others, these are their livelihood. And often we are referred back to this passage in Acts (11:1-18) among a few others as justification for consuming swine products or any other animal the Law of Moses calls "unclean". And in case you are wondering, CATFISH is considered "unclean" according to kosher definitions.

Yet as many Jewish Christian scholars have pointed out, Jesus as personification of the Father - and not a "new" or "co-god" - would not cancel Himself out or negate what was already spoken. Neither can the Son "trump" the Father. In other words, the One Lord cannot be divided against Himself, or He is not who we say He is. The wisdom of the Spirit alone should tell us if the Lord spoke of kosher laws and defined certain restrictions, He surely meant what He said. There is no reason to believe otherwise and no biblical justification for believing He inexplicably changed His mind or has different rules for different people. Besides, the point of Acts is not food; it is people, specifically the Gentiles, and Peter's call to minister to them. Within the certain reality that Jesus was sent to seek out the lost sheep of Israel, a new standard had been established for Peter and the other apostles - the Church - but the Word of the Lord remains intact. Nothing has changed.

The new standard of "love" within the existing reality established by Jesus applies to what it means to truly "love" someone, and Jesus is reaching far beyond simply "loving your neighbor as yourself" but is still certainly within that context. What is especially telling about this story is where it follows: as a discourse immediately after Judas left the house to finalize his "deal with the devil". Jesus' Passion was quickly approaching, so time was running out. And the time for the fullness of the glory of the Lord will be revealed not in Jesus' death but in the Resurrection, when humanity comes to discover that the Lord our God is indeed the God and Author not of death but of Life.

The Scripture reads it as a "new" commandment and indeed it is - sort of. The penalty for sin is still death and prior to this a blood sacrifice was required for the remission of sins. Well, this much has not changed. Blood is still required - this is how serious sin really is in the eyes of the Lord - but up to this point the blood of an animal offered to and by the priest at the altar was required and was sufficient. The only real "sacrifice" involved was that the animal had to be perfect; unblemished, pure, and without any defect. This means that "perfection" is required to atone; purity. A blemished animal, one that is less than perfect, could not answer to the reality of sin. It is not unlike answering evil with evil.

This "new" commandment issued by Jesus, however, goes much further but is still within an already-established reality. The penalty for sin is still the same, the desire of the Father that we be reconciled to Him is still the same, but something much more is about to be offered not by man and not by command but by YHWH Himself: His own blood. He is about to give Himself up completely. He is about to empty Himself out entirely so that you and I can have hope, so that you and I can once again enjoy fellowship with our Lord.

What's more, He is about to spill His blood upon every altar man has built not for the glory of the Lord but for the glory of man himself. It will be the blood of the Christ, the blood that should have been required of you and me. This is the depth and essence of the Love commanded of those who choose to follow the Lord and would dare to call themselves "saved": complete, total, the very essence of life itself which is the blood; given for the sake of another. In the Wesleyan tradition, it is "sanctification"; the pursuit of holiness, the totality of our commitment to YHWH.

Make no mistake. This goes far beyond merely showing up for church and offering a tithe of 10%; in fact, it goes far beyond money itself and certainly transcends denominational loyalty, but it does not exclude our resources and it does not excuse us from being an active part of the Body of Christ. It essentially challenges us with this question: how much do we - or can we - appreciate what was done in our behalf? How can we appreciate this gift of life if we have not known death? How can we contemplate salvation when we have no real concept of condemnation? It falls to us to reexamine our lives and our relationships on a regular basis because Jesus challenges us to redefine "love" ... within the context of His command to His disciples to "love one another ... just as I have loved you". And this means a total disregard for one's own life - for the sake of another, those whom the Scripture refers to as "neighbor".

This is the same love that has existed since the beginning of the very concept of theology; the relationship between the Divine and humanity. And it necessarily falls to us to remember that He reached out first - not to "capture" us but to free us, not to "bind" us but to "loose" us - but all within the realm of the existing reality. And that reality is this: He is still the Almighty God, and His Word is eternal.

What Jesus' ministry did was to show us the perfection of the Eternal Word and illustrate its personification, not give us license to disregard to satisfy our own purposes. If anything, even more is expected of us because much more has been given to us, but we do this willingly and eagerly because we finally get it! We finally and completely understand what Love really is and what Love really means.

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