Who Can Withhold: Break Forth
Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, John 15:9-17
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, May 9, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
I check out one of the news outlets daily summaries each morning so I have an idea of what’s happening in the world. It’s too easy for me to get caught up in what’s happening here and now in my own space, and doing that helps me to look out a little further into the larger space of what’s happening in the world.
Those summaries touch on things little and big—and one of the little things this past week was a quote from Britney Spears who was responding to recent documentaries about her life, calling them “hypocritical,” complaining they focus too much on her hard times rather than her successes. Her bottom line assessment was “I think the world is more interested in the negative (CNN 5 Things, 5/5/2021).
Thankfully, I feel no compulsion to research the truth to that comment about her work by watching the documentaries, but I do think her conclusion is true: the world does seem to be more interested in the negative.
It seems to me that the our local newspaper does a pretty good job of lifting up positive things happening in our community; we frequently see articles on good things kids are doing at school, on church events, community concerts and programs at the county jail to help prisoners learn skills that will help them succeed after their release are a few examples. But that kind of thing is not consistently practiced in the world of news in all places. Though we would like to say it isn’t so—even we seem more interested in the negatives. The celebrations so often take a back seat to the annoyances, frustrations and failures—of ourselves and others. We recognize the good, but the bad is what catches our attention.
This morning I want us to tune our ear to hear the good, the blessed, and the joyful. We can admit/accept/acknowledge that the world isn’t perfect—and that we aren’t perfect—but God is—and because of that, we can rejoice, we can give thanks, and we can sing (in the shower, at home, or in our cars. Sorry, can’t do that here while we’re together yet. ☹) because of who God is and what God has done. Honestly, how can we NOT sing our praise?
This morning we’re going to look briefly at 3 texts from the lectionary and celebrate the good news they offer. Their words remind us of the foundation upon which we stand/the context within which we experience life—all of which provides reason for us to give thanks and sing praise.
Beginning with John’s Gospel, we are reminded of the gift of God’s love. “As the Father loved me,” Jesus says, “I too have loved you. Remain in my love.” These words continue Jesus’ conversation with his disciples that we began last week, where he spoke of God being the vinekeeper, Jesus the vine, and we the branches. “Remain in my love,” he says. “Abide in me,” we read last week. Jesus says that as we do this, we will experience his joy: “my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.”
If you haven’t already read Brennan Manning, I encourage you to do so. The Ragamuffin Gospel and Ruthless Trust are just 2 of hiss books I’ve read and I highly recommend them. Manning was a Franciscan priest who before his death in 2013, spoke and wrote openly of his own frailties and of the irresistable grace of God he experienced in his life: the love and grace that is always seeking, searching and ready to receive us, no matter what.
Manning told the story of an old Irish priest who on a walking tour of his rural parish, sees an old peasant kneeling by the side of the road praying. Impressed, the priest says to the man, “You must be very close to God.” The peasant looks up from his prayers, thinks a moment and then smiles. “Yes,” he says, “he is very fond of me.”
Isn’t it a beautiful thing to know how beloved we are? That God is “very fond” of us?
God is so fond of us, as a matter of fact, that Jesus has let us in on God’s plan. Everything that God told Jesus, Jesus told his disicples. They know what he knows. We know what they knew. And most importantly, we know of Jesus’ willingness to give up his life for us. “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” Because the disciples didn’t understand at the time, I’m guessing their minds just skipped on over the “giving up one’s life” part of what Jesus said, and moved directly to him calling them his friends. They hear him/we can hear him tell us that we are not merely his students, we’re not his servants—but we’re friends who he have been chosen by him, and who won’t be turned away because of our inadequacies and failures. His disciples are his friends. We’ve been chosen by him.
This is a reversal in the order of what the disciples were accustomed to. Then, when one wanted to learn Torah they would seek out a rabbi whose teaching they wanted to follow. The choice was theirs. But Jesus reverses that order. The decision is his. Jesus chooses his followers. He chooses us. But that doesn’t make us an exclusive club who lean back in the comfort of our blessedness. In response, our task is to love one another as he loves us. To welcome others. To share the good good news. To do his work. To tell the story. To bear fruit.
We show our love through our actions, as Jesus showed his love through his actions: through what he was willing to do for our sake.
Isn’t that a reason to sing his praise? Doesn’t that bring us joy, knowing that we are surrounded/enfolded/upheld by God’s love?
“Yes, God is very fond of me.” God is very fond of you.
Acts 10 is sometimes referred to as the Gentile Pentecost. In two weeks we’ll celebrate the first Pentecost, when the gift of the Holy Spirit descends upon all who are in Jerusalem, which was then the center of the Jewish church. That story is told in Acts 2. But here we read that the Spirit interrupts Peter’s preaching outside Jerusalem as the gospel is being carried to the Gentile world. It is a new day and a new time for Peter and for the faith he has known and loved throughout his life, and he’s still learning what it all means.
In the verses leading up to today’s scripture in Acts, we read of a vision Peter has that calls him to break the laws he has strictly observed his entire life of what he’s been taught is clean and unclean. While he’s still pondering the meaning of the vision, he is instructed by the Spirit to go with some men who take him to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, a Roman Centurian, a righteous man and God worshipper who is respected by the Jewish community. When Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius, an act in itself which would be strictly forbidden (a Jew in the home of a Gentile), he finds that Cornelius has gathered friends and family, to which this preacher couldn’t help but start preaching. Peter proclaims the message of Jesus Christ to those who have gathered, and as he speaks, the Spirit comes upon them They begin speaking in other languages and praising God, in the same way that had happened in Jerusalem. Peter responds in way very similar to what we read last week, when the eunuch asks Philip about being baptized. Peter now asks, “Surely, no one can stop them from being baptised with water, can they?” With no good reason not to, the house of Gentiles is baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Who can withold the movement of the Spirit? Break forth! Respond!
Our readings today conclude with a Psalm of joy. Written long before either the gospel of John or the book of Acts, the writer calls the reader to sing to the Lord a new song because God has done such wonderful things. His own srong hand and his own holy arm have won the victory! The Lord has made his salvation widely known—and as we’ve read today, even to the Gentiles—to you and me—because God’s people so long ago listened to the Spirit and responded. Even when it didn’t fit tradition, even though responding felt “off” and was uncomfortable. Because of that the church grew...and has continued to grow, changing lives...making a difference.
The Spirit still moves in our midst in ways we can’t always see or understand. I wonder if sometimes the Holy Spirit has a hard time getting through our stubborn desire to stay where we are. To do what we’ve always done. To not even consider the possibility of a new thing, because we’re not sure what that might be. I wonder if perhaps we ignore the stirrings of new birth because that’s just easeir than trying something new. We don’t want to fail. So why even try?
But what if the Spirit is working to teach us a new song? A new way? A new dance?
What good, blessed and joyful news might that bring to our church?