A growing faith means an expanding love (Acts 11:1-18; John 13:34-35)
In Flannery O’Connor’s story titled “Revelation” Ruby Turpin has the habit of judging and classifying people based on how they look, how they talk, and the color of their skin. In the opening scene, Mrs Turpin is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, forming judgments about all present. Among those in the room is a mother in a sweat shirt and bedroom slippers whom she regards as “white trash.” Across from her is a teenage girl in Girl Scout shoes, reading the book Human Development. There is another young looking woman present that Mrs. Turpin judges as not white trash, but just common. And there is a well-dressed woman as well, with suede shoes whom she considers her peer. (Mrs Turpin always noticed people’s feet.) Mrs Turpin would sometimes occupy herself at night, when she couldn’t go to sleep, with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. She developed an entire “pecking order” of societal worth, with herself and her husband Claude positioned comfortably near the top.
In a conversation between Mrs Turpin and the well-dressed woman there are subtleties that reflect her classism and racism. She tells the woman that she is grateful for who she is. She says, “When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is.”
The girl reading the book becomes more and more irritated as the conversation goes on. Finally, she loses control. She hurls the book across the room, hitting Mrs Turpin above her eye. Then she lunges at her, grasping her neck in a death grip. The doctor rushes in to separate them and sedate the girl. But before the girl becomes unconscious, she stares directly at Mrs Turpin. Mrs Turpin feels as if the girl “knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and condition.” Mrs Turpin says to the girl hoarsely, “What you got to say to me?” The girl raised her head and locked her eyes onto Mrs Turpin’s. She whispered, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Her voice was low but clear. And her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target. Mrs Turpin senses that she has been singled out for the message. Of all people, she thinks, why me? She was a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman.
Back home she decides to go out and hose down the hogs. As she aggressively squirts the hogs she begins to argue and rave against God. “Why do you send me a message like that for?” she says. She raises a fist with one hand and grips the water hose tightly with other. As she blasts the poor old hogs she says to God, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too? Why me? There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she rails. “It’s no trash around here, black or white that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” “Go on,” she yells, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. . . Who do you think you are?”
Then it came. The Revelation. (Perhaps like Saul on the road to Damascus). She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. And out in front were all the folks that Mrs Turpin had relegated to the bottom of the social ladder. They were out in front leading the way into heaven. Flannery O’Conner writes: “And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.” As she makes her way back to her house O’Conner says, “around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
That’s the end of the story. We are left to imagine what this “broken” woman does with the “revelation.” We are left to wonder what impact, if any, it makes. Would she deny it? Repress it? Ignore it? Rave against it? Harbor resentment and bitterness? Or would she yield to it? Would she learn and grow from it? Would she allow this to be an experience of enlightenment that transforms her into a more humble, empathetic, compassionate person? We don’t know. But it certainly turned her world upside down.
Jesus of Nazareth was known for turning people’s worlds upside down. Several times in the Gospels Jesus says that in the kingdom of God, “the first shall be last, and the last first.” (That phrase occurs several times in different contexts which would suggest that among Jesus’ followers there was a memory that he used that phrase often.) The reversal of the world’s pecking order is a key theme in Jesus’ teaching, and more so in Luke than in any of the Gospels. Mary sings in her Magnificat (Song of Praise), which is part of the birth and infancy narrative in Luke’s Gospel: God scatters the proud, but gives strength to the weak. God brings down the powerful, but lifts up the lowly. God sends the rich away empty, but fills the hungry with good things. In the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14 God’s house is filled with “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” In God’s household everything is turned upside down. Do you ever wonder why the preachers in our past never taught us these things? Maybe they didn’t want to hear it, just the way we don’t want to hear it.
The passage today in the book of Acts is about a revelation that came to Peter that turned his world upside down. Luke considers this vision of paramount importance because he narrates it twice. Luke tells the story in chapter 10 and then has Peter repeat it in chapter 11. This is almost as important as Paul’s revelation on the road to Damascus which Luke describes in chapter 9, and then Paul retells two other times. In Peter’s vision a large sheet descends from above with all sorts of unclean animals. Peter is told to prepare the meat of the animals and eat, in direct violation of the laws of purity that Peter’s Bible says came from God. This rocks his boat. And apparently Peter needed some persuading because this scene with the sheet dropping and Peter being told to eat occurs three times in the vision. In the words of Yoda, Jedi master, “Slow of heart we all are.”
Cornelius, a Roman centurion, we are told revered God (which is what “fear” means in that context), gave alms generously, and prayed constantly. He has a vision that synchronizes with Peter’s vision. In response to the vision, he sends a formal request for Peter to come to his house. Now, under normal circumstances Peter would not have dared associate himself with an unclean Roman military leader no matter how pious that leader was. But these are not normal circumstances are they? So Peter, having had his vision, returns with the messengers to Cornelius’ house and shares with Cornelius, his household, and his other close friends who were present the good news of Jesus. Luke tells us in chapter 10 that as Peter spoke the “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” Throughout this narrative Luke uses several different images to describe what happens to Cornelius and the others who respond to the message. He says the Spirit fell on them and was poured out on them just as the Spirit fell and was poured out on him and the other Apostles at the beginning. He says that Cornelius and those present received the Holy Spirit just as he and his fellow Jews received the Spirit. And he says that they were baptized or immersed with the Holy Spirit and received the same gift of the Spirit that they received when they trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, it’s really important to understand that the only way we can talk about our experiences of God is by using language and imagery we are familiar with. So all these images of the Spirit – such as the Spirit falling upon them, the Spirit being poured out on them, their being baptized or immersed in the Spirit, and their receiving the gift of the Spirit – all these descriptions are symbolic ways of talking about experiences we have of God. All religious language is symbolic language. The Holy Spirit who is within us, who is already a part of our lives, breaks into our awareness and consciousness and human experience when we open our hearts and minds to the Spirit. We experience the Holy Spirit when we center our lives in the Spirit, when we are receptive to the Spirit. And sometimes it takes a “revelation” to bring about that break through. Sometimes it’s a great experience of suffering that brings it about. Sometimes it’s a great experience of love. And sometimes it comes through a vision, a revelation that we cannot really explain.
The Gospel reading for this Fifth Sunday of Easter emphasizes the foundational core of authentic faith. It gets to the heart of what all authentic religion is about. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In reality, this isn’t new. This was at the heart and core of Judaism. This has always been basic to who God is and what God wants. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus draws out from the Hebrew Scriptures the commands to love God and love others as ourselves, and says that these two commands are everything. The whole law, says Jesus, all of God’s expectations with regard to human life are about loving God and loving others. So how is this a new commandment? Well, it’s new for us who call Jesus Lord in the sense that Jesus breaks into the world and gives us a beautiful example of what love looks like. “By this,” says Jesus, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It seems to me that for many American Christians (I can only speak about what I know), for many Christians in our Western culture today this is not central at all. If one’s faith does not make one a more loving person, then it’s not worth much. I would say there’s a lot of Christians today who have a faith that’s not worth much. A growing faith always enlarges our capacity to love others. When Paul speaks of faith, hope, and love together, he says the greatest of these is love. Love is the center of everything. God is Love. God is not faith or hope, but God is love.
Peter’s experience of enlightenment enlarges his capacity to love people. In chapter 10 Peter explains to Cornelius and those gathered at his house what the “revelation” taught him. He says, “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.” He goes on, “I truly understand now that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God (that is, reveres or respects God) and does what is right (which is to love others, to do what is right is to treat people right, to treat them with dignity and compassion”) is acceptable to him.” It may have taken Peter seeing the vision three times, but he got it. His eyes were opened. Peter’s expanding faith led to a greater love that embraced people outside his religious and national group. Peter realized that a person didn’t have to become a Jew to be acceptable to God. Peter was able to see outside the boundaries where he felt God operated. He was able to let go of deeply entrenched longstanding prejudices and biases. Most Christians today are like Peter before his saw the “revelation.” Most Christians today mirror Peter’s exclusiveness prior to his vision. We turn around and say, “Unless one is a Christian, then one cannot be acceptable to God.” But what Peter learned in his vision is that God accepts all people who respects God by doing what is right, by loving and caring for God’s children.
I am convinced God is constantly working to move us away from beliefs and practices of exclusion into beliefs and practices of inclusion. As we grow in faith we grow in love. If we are not growing in love, then we are not growing in faith. I don’t care how many Bible studies you attend. What some people call growing in faith is actually regressing in faith, because they use their faith to draw tighter boundaries that exclude and condemn those who are different. Authentic encounters and experiences of God will always move us to be more generous, gracious, and welcoming of people who are different than us.
Our Good God, sometimes we become so entrenched in negative attitudes and hurtful beliefs and destructive behaviors that it takes a revelation for us to see our sin and our blindness. May we be open to such revelations. May we not rail against them, but welcome them, and allow them to have a healing and liberating effect in our lives. Healing us from our spiritual sickness caused by our negative and biased attitudes and actions. And liberating us from our prejudices, resentments, fears, and intolerance. May each of us personally, and collectively as a faith community be open to your transforming grace that always leads us to be more inclusive and compassionate and understanding of others. Let us be teachable and moldable. Give us the courage we need to acknowledged and leave behind hurtful beliefs and actions, so we can be more fully centered in and expressive of the love of Jesus, our Lord.