We live in a world of boundaries and barriers. Most of them are of our own making. We fence in our yards, intending to keep others out, while also imprisoning ourselves. We draw property lines, county lines, and state lines. We create borders that invariably give rise to border disputes. We identify certain people, as living on the other side of the tracks. These boundaries create an identity for those within, and those outside. Our boundaries and barriers separate and distinguish us from them.
Within our communities we create barriers of our thinking and action, that stunt discernment, growth, and change. The greatest barriers in the life and work of the Church usually start with the phrase, “We’ve always done it that way,” or “we’ve never done it that way before,” or perhaps the most stifling, “We tried that once and it didn’t work.”
We encounter Peter in Acts preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ to a group of Gentiles in Caesarea. What was Peter thinking? The Jews are God’s chosen people. What would the new Christian community in Jerusalem say? “We always experienced Jesus in his Jewish context. He was one of us, not one of them. We’ve never done it that way before.”
Yet Peter preaches to the Gentiles. He proclaimed, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter opened their eyes to God’s saving work throughout the history of the Israelites, the promises of the prophets, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through radical obedience, with faith and without fear, Peter preached to the Gentiles with radical love, care, and concern. Peter understood that barriers propped up by humanity would come tumbling down by God’s love, so we might all become one with God.
In his farewell discourse, Jesus proclaims his love comes from the Father, and will continue as we abide in the same love. Jesus’ life was based in keeping the commandments of God, doing the will of the Father, and evident in his constant abiding in the love of the Father. Jesus’ life was characterized by loving God, being loved by God, and showing God’s love. He kept these commandments completely. It is in following Jesus’ commandment to love that we live in God’s abiding love. This abiding love is to be continuous and lifelong. This abiding love will break down any boundaries and barriers we encounter.
While Peter is speaking to these supposedly unworthy Gentiles, they are filled with the Holy Spirit. They begin speaking in tongues and praising God in this “Gentile Pentecost.” The Jewish believers are astonished, apparently not because of the presence of the Spirit, but because the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to these Gentiles. Why are we so astonished when God acts in our lives in ways we can not anticipate or understand? Are we on such equal footing with God that we should expect and predict God’s every move?
The normal order of baptism is with water and then the Spirit. This how we have always done it. Yet with these Gentiles, the order is reversed, as the spontaneous gift of the Holy Spirit justifies baptism with water. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” The gift of the Holy Spirit provides final and irrefutable evidence that the inclusion of the Gentiles is indeed God’s will. The boundary of the inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian mission collapsed. The gospel hospitality extended to Peter and his companions completes the breaking down of social barriers and divisions imposed by the world.
But not completely. Only a few verses into Acts Ch. 11, the Christian community in Jerusalem will criticize and challenge the inclusion of Gentiles. Peter and his friends experienced the barriers of God’s love lifted. The world will not always share in this revelation simultaneously. We are called to continue breaking barriers, while we abide with others in love.
A surgeon, an engineer, and a politician were debating which of their professions was the oldest. The surgeon said, “Eve was made from Adam’s rib, and that of course was a surgical procedure. Obviously, surgery is the oldest profession.” The engineer countered with, “ Yes, but before that, order was created out of chaos, and that most certainly was an engineers job.” The politician smiled and said triumphantly, “Aha! And just who do you think created the chaos?”
Love is the oldest profession. It was through love that God created the world, and established a relationship with humanity for our mutual joy. God’s love is boundless, and without barriers. What if we all engaged in the profession of love, to obey Jesus’ commandment to love one another without barriers and boundaries? What if we applied ourselves to this commandment in all our relationships, even around the most taboo subjects, such as religion and politics? Imagine if our faith was not a talking point to prove our side right and the other side wrong, but the foundation of love for each other, no matter our differences, no matter what. Perhaps we should refrain from questioning another’s Christianity and focus on practicing our own. Rather than labeling and pointing out differences, we might pursue points of agreement. Instead of hearing another’s opinion and placing them in a box of ideology, we might listen with respect and without judgement to all they have to say. What if we agreed to disagree without being disagreeable? Perhaps if we propped each other up with love, we would not feel the need to knock each other down. Imagine the barriers and boundaries we could knock down if we only loved and respected the dignity of every human being.
St. Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Being fully alive is abiding in God’s love, loving God and loving each other. God is glorified in the loving, fruitful oneness between Jesus and his disciples, and between the disciples themselves. Being disciples means following, but more that following describes “doing” something. “Love one another as I have loved you.” There are no caveats or provisos. We are called to love like Jesus. In the gospel, Jesus recalls the quality and constancy of his love. This is a radical love, such that one would lay down one’s life for another. Discipleship requires following Christ with such radical love that we join in God’s love for all creation. We are called to break down the barriers built between God and humanity and fill the spaces with God’s love.
We have been given all we need to join in this relationship of mutual love. We have been chosen, given the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and invited into the mission of the Church as Jesus’ friends. We are people going through a learning process as disciples of Jesus. We are invited to God’s banquet table, to eat, discuss, and share in God’s plan for creation. One mark of our full participation in the banquet is our willingness to extend this invitation to others. We are called to break down barriers by inviting others to come and join us at God’s table. Come and help us to work out with God what to do next. The life of the community is defined by the imitation of the unity and love found in God. And they will know we are Christians by our love. Amen.