Sermon: Known by Love

“Known by Love”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 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. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’ 
John 13:33-35
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” 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.’

We are still in Eastertide, the season of celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. But today we’re going backwards in scripture, to a moment when Jesus is giving instructions for what the disciples should do after he has died, risen, and ascended to heaven.

Here is what he says: “Love one another as I have loved you. That’s how the world will know you’re my disciples.”

We’re so used to hearing it that it sounds unremarkable to us, maybe even quaint. But it actually is very unusual. Think about how we can usually tell someone belongs to a particular religious community: maybe they wear a distinguishing piece of clothing, or wear their hair long, or can’t eat certain kinds of foods. But to be known by love – in Jesus’ time, that would have been a completely new concept.

In particular, Jesus challenged his disciples to be know by the way he has loved: sharing meals together, praying with them, crying at a friend’s death, celebrating at a friend’s marriage, healing, calling them to a higher purpose, walking together on the road.

One of the first things I tell people about Park Avenue when they ask me about my church: how loving you all are. For you it’s not just a word – it’s an action.

You call and visit each other when someone is sick or there’s a death. You bring meals when there’s a new baby. You drive one another to church, do each other’s grocery shopping, take out each other’s trash, pay attention to each other’s children, listen when the burden of family life or caring for an aging parent is too much. You show up to funerals and you send birthday cards and you do life together.

The feeling is palpable when visitors walk in the door, and it’s why people feel they belong here. We are, indeed, known by our love.

The thing is, though, it doesn’t stop there.

I had a conversation last week with parishioner, whose permission I have to share this. She has a family member who is so kind and loving to everyone she knows – family, friends, neighbors. But when it comes to folks who are different from her – a different race, ethnic background, political bent – she is happy to exclude those outside her group, happy to belong to and support organizations espousing extremist, bigoted beliefs and to see others as “less than.”

Do you know anyone like that? Maybe they’re not so extreme – maybe it’s minor things that make clear whom they’ll accept and whom they won’t.

Just last week I read someone’s words describing a relationship like this: “Honestly, they’re perfectly lovely people – except they’re homophobic.” Or they say hateful things about immigrants. Or they don’t really want a Jewish family or a Black family to move into their neighborhood. Or they think transgender kids are fine as long as they don’t go to school with their own kids. Or they make cutting comments about other people’s weight. Or they call people living in mobile homes trash or rednecks.

If you’re American, you’ve probably thought or said something harmful about another person based on a group they belong to. Though research shows we’re more likely to trust members of our own group, it also shows it’s not part of human nature to identify those outside your own group as a threat. But American society was built on a foundation of deeply ingrained “isms” – systems of judgment and fear meant to keep us divided from one another, afraid of another group gaining power or visibility or resources because it means we might lose ours.

But Jesus calls us to something different.

Time for a Greek lesson. The New Testament talks about two different kinds of love: phileo and agape. Phileo is the love of friendship: affectionate, loyal, and based on the fact that we know and trust the person. It’s a case-by-case basis, based on the individual merit of the person in question. In a way, phileo is what we have here: we love on one another because we’ve come to know one another, over years of coffee hour conversations and hugs at passing of the peace. We’ve come to share each other’s stories and hardships and joys, to care for one another deeply.

Agape, on the other hand, is unconditional love – a love that all people deserve simply because they are human. It’s moral love, a love philanthropist Gary Edmonds describes as “not based on merit of the [individual] person loved, but rather…on them as an image bearer of Christ. This love is kind and generous. It continues to give even when the other is unkind, unresponsive and unworthy. It only desires good things for the other and is compassionate.”

Luckily for us, God feels both kinds of love for us – the unconditional, just-because-you’re-my-creature agape love, and the affectionate, intimate-knowledge-of-who-you-are phileo love. But Jesus does talk about them distinctly.

Any guesses as to which one Jesus is talking about here?

It’s agape. In other words, Jesus is calling his disciples to love unconditionally, to love whether it feels like the other person deserves it or not, to love beyond their safe, known little group.

And that brings us to our reading from Acts this morning.

Peter has received a vision that what he has spent his whole life avoiding as “unclean” is considered by God to be not just clean but acceptable and worthy. While the vision is of kosher and non-Kosher foods, Peter understands it as symbolism referring to his current situation: Gentiles, a group long regarded as outsiders, even as dangerous idolaters, by his people are now meant to be welcomed into the new Jesus movement with open arms.

I’ve preached before on how mind-blowing this would have been for Peter. In this season of intense political fracture, I think the best analogy is to think of the last person who really ticked you off in a political post on your Facebook page – the kind of person who makes you want to throw something at your computer screen and yell, “They’re everything that is wrong with this country!” Now think of your favorite place to relax and unwind. And now, imagine God pointing to this person and saying: “Guess who’s spending a week with you at your family’s beloved cottage on the Cape!”

Peter and his friends are building a fledgling new religious movement with their blood, sweat, and tears – they don’t want heathens horning in on it, endangering everything with their foreign, idolatrous ways. Yet God tells him to call it all clean – to welcome all in. To live not only out of phileo, love of those he already knows and likes, but out of agape – a generous-hearted love of all, even the unknown, perhaps especially the unliked.

Where are we leaning on phileo in our lives – staying close to home, spending our time and love on our inner circle when we suspect God might be calling us to something more? Where could we lean a little more into agape – finding a way to love generously and selflessly those we might be tempted to label “other”?

As you might know, it’s currently Ramadan, the Muslim Holy month commemorating God’s revelation of the Qur’an to the prophet Muhammad. Adolescent and adult Muslims observe this sacred time by fasting from sunup to sundown; they don’t eat or drink anything during that time. To stay nourished, they break the fast with a post-sunset meal called iftar, and then also get up very early, before the sky has even lightened just a tiny bit, for suhoor, the meal before fasting begins.

On Instagram this week, I read two stories about suhoor. The first was a from a man who shared that his Muslim colleague had been on a work trip and had asked the hotel whether he might have a snack before his fast began. “Sure,” said the staff, “come down around 2:30am.” When he went downstairs in the early hours, there was a full breakfast buffet laid out for him. It was the least they could do, they said.

Another person shared how his 14-year-old nephew had just returned from an overnight field trip with his school. On the trip, the non-Muslim teachers woke up at 3am to prepare a suhoor meal for this boy and 9 other fasting students. They didn’t have to; it wasn’t their religion. But in a world riddled with Islamophobia, they were called by this agape love to go above and beyond, to shower blessings on someone outside their own group. 

And that’s what we’re called to do, too. 

I wonder this week where we might see a chance to practice this agape love; where we might see those who are usually considered outside of our group – whether they’re simply strangers to us or whether they belong to a different culture, race, religion – how we might find ways to love them as Jesus has already loved us. 

I promise that if you do that, you will find so many blessings. Because we would not be here – this church that is so good at phileo love, at caring for one another – we would not be here if Peter had not said, “Yes, Lord, I will go and welcome those outsiders into the church.” This church would not exist, the Christian religion would not exist, if Peter had not said yes to going outside of that comfort zone, growing from phileo love into agape love.

May we have the courage to do the same. Amen.