Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixth Sunday of Easter: Rogation Sunday
May 6, 2018
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
For most of my early childhood my mother ran a daycare out of our home. She usually watched over ten or so children, of whom I was the youngest and most feared. Though some struggle to believe it now, I was a very wild child who struggled with behavioral issues. I was full of energy and had a very active imagination that often spilled over into troublesome behavior. I was scolded many times for pestering and chasing much older children around our expansive backyard. When the time came for me to begin preschool my mother was certain I would be the problem child of the class. She warned my teacher to prepare a special section of time-out reserved just for me. After a few weeks of school my teacher came to my mother and expressed her deep confusion. ‘I’m not sure what you were talking about,’ she told my mother. ‘Patrick is the most well-behaved member of the class. He is an angel.’ My mother was baffled. At home I was still the wild and disorderly child that I had always been, but at school I was on my best behavior. It turns out that I love rules and can thrive in a clearly structured environment.
This love and reverence for rules has followed me throughout my life, especially in my faith journey. I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition in which prayer was almost always extemporaneous. When I came to the Anglican tradition, I discovered the Book of Common Prayer and its rich cycles of daily, weekly, and yearly prayer that are governed by an at times elaborate system of rules. I was at home. I poured myself into this way of being and praying and found it to be so life-giving. The structure and rubrics of the Prayer Book became second nature. It all felt very good and I had a sense of deep connection with God.
I carried this love with me to seminary, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that there were some major distortions at the heart of this system. One morning in Berkeley’s St. Luke’s Chapel a student officiant leading us in morning prayer offered the opening versicle ‘Lord open our lips,’ and we good seminarians responded with gusto ‘And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.’ We continued with the ‘Glory be’ and moved toward the invitatory psalm. Those of you acquainted with the rhythm of Morning Prayer may know that this psalm is often bookended by an antiphon, a short sentence that varies with the seasons of the liturgical year. In Easter, for example, we say, ‘Alleluia, the Lord is risen indeed: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.’ That morning as we continued our prayers the officiant offered an antiphon that was not ‘allowed’ for the season of the church year in which we found ourselves. ‘How could they!’ I thought. They used the wrong antiphon!! I was so distracted I missed the entirety of the invitatory psalm, and was then reminded again (!) of this travesty when the same ‘incorrect’ antiphon was offered again.
I was so consumed with the ways in which I thought this minor breach of the rubrics hindered our common prayer that I completely missed the psalms, the lessons, canticle, and homily. By the end of the liturgy I had calmed down a bit, but my fervor was reignited when, after the service, I grabbed a cup of coffee and had a conversation with my colleague who had served as officiant. In hindsight I want to believe I was trying to control myself, but in truth I know I was just waiting for the opportunity to let this person know of this great antiphon tragedy. A comment was finally made about the morning’s service, and I was ready to pounce. ‘You used the wrong antiphon,’ I said with a gleeful smugness. My colleague gave a bit of a shoulder shrug and that was that. I was indignant. Another colleague joined in and asked what I meant. I rigorously defended my position, confident that I was in the right. She listened closely to me and then asked, ‘But why does that matter to you so much? We still prayed, and God was worshiped.’ I sputtered and struggled to get something out about the importance of following rules, of communal prayer, and of saying the same words, as my level of anger rose. Unsatisfied with my answer, she asked again. I was by then incredibly frustrated and decided to excuse myself from the conversation. I knew I was right and they were wrong, and someone this felt so important to me. The antiphon, Patrick! This is of critical importance!! The Prayer Book says so clearly! I went home and continued to reflect on what had transpired. My arrogance quickly turned to embarrassment. I began to see that I had actually been the one who hindered our common prayer. My desire to follow the rules had prevented me from actually praying and connecting with God. My reverence for rules had become idolatry.
We live in a world filled with rules, and necessarily so I should add. Without the structures of government that establish and enforce the diverse laws that enable our society to function, we would sink into a world of anarchy. Rules are not inherently bad things. We benefit from shared understandings that one is required to drive on a certain side of the road and to observe certain traffic laws. We benefit from having laws that identify unacceptable behavior and punish those who offend. Rules and commandments are, of course, not restricted to the secular and political world. As Christians we believe God has given us certain commandments to follow, and we hear about them in today’s readings. First, let us consider the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which gives an important example of how the early Christian community grappled with these commandments.
This reading describes one of the most revolutionary moments in the history of the early church, though unfortunately for us we only heard a small portion of this story that spans the entire tenth chapter of Acts. The chapter begins with a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian cohort who lived in Caesarea (10:1), a city far to the north of Jerusalem that served as the headquarters of the Roman governor. Cornelius is immediately identified as the ‘other’ and an outsider from this early Christian group centered among Jews in Jerusalem. Despite this identification, Cornelius is also described as a ‘devout man who feared God with his whole household’ and who ‘prayed constantly to God’ (10:2). The story tells us Cornelius had a vision in which an angel of God came to him and instructed him to send men to Joppa to get Simon Peter. Cornelius dutifully follows instructions, and then the author of Acts shifts the perspective to Peter. While praying outside on a roof, Peter has a vision in which heaven opens and a large sheet comes down containing all forms of four-footed creatures. Peter hears a voice instructing him to, ‘Kill and eat’ (10:13). Being a good pious Jew, Peter exclaims, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean’ (10:14). The voice comes a second time, this time telling Peter, ‘what God has made clean, you must not call profane’ (10:15).
Peter wakes from this trance and is quite puzzled by what this vision could mean. At that very moment, the men sent by Cornelius come seeking Peter. The Spirit comes and tells Peter to follow them. The next day they travel to Caesarea and upon their arrival they find many assembled in the house of Cornelius. Peter reminds this group of the strangeness of this situation: ‘you yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean’ (10:28). Peter then begins to speak to them and tell them about Jesus, ‘how he went about doing good and healing’ (10:38), about his death on the cross, his rising from the dead on the third day, and how he had charged his followers with proclaiming this message.
Today’s reading picks up at the end of this speech. As Peter is giving it, the Holy Spirit comes upon all the Gentiles gathered there. The circumcised believers who came with Peter are ‘astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles’ (10:45). Even the Gentiles. Can’t you imagine what they were thinking? ‘Those people aren’t like us; they are outsiders; they don’t belong. The rules tell us they are to be avoided and excluded. We shouldn’t have even come here in the first place. It is not lawful for us to associate with them.’ They were astounded. How could the Holy Spirit come upon these Gentiles? It seems Peter, too, continued to be surprised by what was unfolding. He asks, ‘can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ (10:47). The answer is, of course, no, and I think Peter knew that. Nothing can stop the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit blows where it chooses and cannot be contained.
This story can be thought of as a Gentile Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is lavishly given to those thought to be outside the inner circle, and in the process boundaries are torn down, rules are broken, and diverse peoples are united. Such is the way of the Holy Spirit. Lest we think this experience is one known only by the early church, I remind us of the many ways in which the institution of the Church throughout its history has developed systems and rules that create boundaries and draw lines, marking those who are in and those who are out. For too long people have been excluded because of their gender, because of the gender of the one they love, because of skin color, place of origin, language spoken, the list goes on. For too long the institution lived by these rules and found great safety in them. But as the reading from Acts reminds us, nothing can contain that mighty power of the Holy Spirit. I thank God that the Holy Spirit has come and shaken up our church in recent times to consider these questions, to consider how our rules might actually be serving to exclude or oppress those whom God is seeking out.
But how are we to know it is the Holy Spirit moving among us? How are we to truly discern whether the Holy Spirit is pushing us to new life or if it is something else motivating us, either societal or political pressure. The answer, it seems, is found in today’s gospel, where Jesus too is talking about commandments and rules. One commandment in particular, however, is highlighted as the greatest. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ This is the same commandment from the thirteenth chapter of John’s gospel, the one we hear every Maundy Thursday when Jesus gives his disciples this ‘new commandment’ after the footwashing. ‘Love one another, as I have loved you,’ he tells us. Though it might be easy to believe that love is always a warm and comfortable thing, Jesus reminds us of the pain and sacrifice that love sometimes requires. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13). And of course he would soon demonstrate that great love to his friends by giving himself up to death on the cross. And that, my friends, is the image of perfect love. Love isn’t always easy, but it is always the way that leads to life and to joy. Jesus said, ‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete’ (John 15:11).
This commandment of love is a means by which we can measure all our other rules. This is one that can never lead us astray. We will know we are following in the way of Jesus and we will know we are being guided by the Holy Spirit when we abide in that radical, reckless, sacrificial, life-giving way of love. Friends, abide in that love, and you will not go astray. Abide in that love as Jesus abides with the Father, and you will know joy.
I still love rules and like to follow them. I still think it’s important to follow the rubrics of the Prayer Book, and yes, I still think it’s important to use the correct antiphon. But I now understand that all of these things must be taken as guides that help us to follow Jesus’ ultimate
commandment, to love another and abide in God’s love. I pray that we might be open to the surprising ways in which the Holy Spirit is moving among us, disrupting, breaking down boundaries, but always leading us into that fullness of God’s love. May you rest this day in that abiding love and experience the complete joy that comes only through our triune God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.