Texts: Acts 11:1-18; Rev. 21:1-6; John 13: 31-35
I used a big word this morning in my sermon title that has become fashionable amongst management gurus and even scientists in the last few years. A paradigm is a theoretical framework of a discipline within which theories, laws, generalizations, and experiments performed in support of them are formulated. It has also become a short- hand word that means a particular perspective or world view.
Most of us have had experience with shifting and changing paradigms. Think for a moment about how life was in this part of the world in the first 60 years of the 20th century. The races were segregated, and we—being white and generally naïve—probably didn’t think a whole lot about it. When Rosa Parks declared that she had had enough of it and wouldn’t go to the back of the bus, it was like a rumbling volcano indicating that it was about to erupt. And so it did. The foundations of southern life were shaken, rearranged, and changed forever. Thank goodness!
Yesterday, I caught just a snippet of Bob Edwards’ radio show on NPR, when he was talking about one of the old “This I Believe” essays. He and the archivist for the series were discussing Red Barber’s essay. Red, you may remember, was the baseball announcer for the Cincinnati Reds at one time. He believed, quite profoundly, that a great athlete had to also have great spiritual substance. Red, a professed Christian, became one of the sportscasters who welcomed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. I heard Bob Edwards say something like: “Red Barber discovered that Jackie Robinson and other black men were men just like himself.” Red Barber’s paradigm of social reality changed.
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we heard how the Apostle Peter was challenged by the Christians in Judea about the fact that he had broken some rules and boundaries in his ministry with the Gentiles. So Peter had to explain to them about his vision, of all the unkosher things let down from heaven in a sheet, and how he was told in the vision to eat from it. This early church fight was ostensibly over food, and Peter connected this experience in which his world-view, his paradigm for understanding social and religious relations, had been transformed, to the very ministry and practices of Jesus. Luke intends us to see the three-fold experience of the vision to match Peter’s three-fold betrayal of Jesus.
Just as in the early church, so now, most church fights are about who will be in and who will be out. The sign of the new paradigm, of Christianity’s perspective on the world threatens all our perceived notions of status, righteousness, and the nature of God’s work and the scope of God’s concern. Christianity, if it be true to its founder, should be itself a volcanic force for changing people’s preconceived notions, their prejudices, their closed minded approach to living.
The book of Revelation, too, speaks of God’s paradigm in a way quite different from what most people think the book of Revelation is about. Revelation is a mysterious piece of writing, called apocalyptic, or veiled speech. Many of its allusions and metaphors are lost to modern people. There have been many famous church leaders who would not have included it as Holy Scripture, including Martin Luther who only included it reluctantly and as secondary in stature; Ulrich Zwingli, who flat out denied it scriptural status; and John Calvin, who largely ignored it. Revelation was NOT the last document of the New Testament to be written, nor did its author know that it would someday conclude the Christian Bible. Marcus Borg says in his book, Reading The Bible Again for the First Time, says that we should remember that it is a letter written to seven specific churches that are about one generation old and already straying from their original vision. “The issues facing the communities,” he writes, “are persecution, false teaching, and accommodation to the larger culture.” Persecution may not be a contemporary problem for those who call themselves Christian in America, but false teaching and cultural accommodation continue to plague us.
Today there are many who think that Jesus is coming again soon, and that this earth is destined for destruction. Therefore it doesn’t matter how we treat the earth and its resources. But this reading, so familiar to us from funerals, where we think the focus is on heaven, challenges us with God’s paradigm: it is actually the new earth that will be OUR home and God’s as well. There is not an emphasis on heaven, but an earthly quality to our future hope. Marcus Borg says that this passage is best understood as ‘the dream of God’ for “this earth,” and not for another world. For the author of this strange letter, it is the only dream worth dreaming. In Jerusalem the Golden every tear will be wiped away and we will see God.
A number of years ago, a little boy, Nicholas, was the first child born to a young couple who had been rather unclear about what they were to do in life or even about whether their marriage would survive. Nicholas was born with anencephaly—his tiny skull had been knit so tightly in the womb that his brain could not develop. When he was born his head was about 1/3 the size that it should have been. Nicholas lived to be 3 years old. He could never turn over. He could never smile. He could never even suckle. When he died, his parents had by then had another baby, but they said of Nicholas: “he was the most precious. He taught us what life is all about, and what it means to love. I could see God in Nicholas,” his mother said.
All things new—new heaven, and a new earth. It always astounds me to hear people who claim to be devout Christians argue from the “old order”—in which a man is supposed to be the head of his family (by which they mean the dominant member), or in which execution of criminals is justified on the basis of an eye for an eye (a misreading of that ancient law which was meant to put a limit on revenge, not to set the actual punishment), or even the fellow down in Somerset who thinks that because “he was bought with a price and HIS body is the temple of the Lord,” that it would be ok to carry a gun on church grounds to shoot someone else in whom he cannot see the tabernacle of God.
Jesus urged his disciples to have love for one another so that “everyone will know that you are my disciples.” The ability to love all—even the most unlovable of sorts, has always been the test of this discipleship-love. Dorothy Day put it this way: “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” After the crowds had stoned Jesus, mocked him, spit upon him, screamed ‘crucify him’, Jesus could still cry out in love, “Forgive them, they know not what they do”
Peter went through the experience, too—and found his world reconfigured, his world made new. His dream sent him off to be with people who were deemed unclean. His action created controversy, as the redefining of boundaries always will.
Peter asked himself this question—the question every church should ask: “Who am I that I could hinder God?” God will work God’s wonders in this world—with and without our help, our interest, our awareness.
A decade and a half ago, when the fighting was fierce and sniping was a frequent occurrence in Sarajevo, I heard a story of a reporter who was covering that conflict when he saw a little girl shot by a sniper. The reporter threw down his pad and pencil, and stopped being a reporter for a few minutes. He rushed to the man who was holding the child and helped them both into his car.
As the reporter stepped on the accelerator, racing to the hospital, the man holding the bleeding child said, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still alive.”
A moment or two later, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still breathing.” A moment later, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still warm.” Finally, “Hurry, O God, my child is getting cold.“
When they got to the hospital, the little girl was dead. As the two men were in the lavatory, washing the blood off their hands and their clothes, the man turned to the reporter and said, “This is a terrible task for me. I must go and tell her father that his child is dead. He will be heartbroken.”
The reporter was amazed. He looked at the grieving man and said, “I thought she was your child.”
The man looked back and said, “No, but aren’t they all our children?” Yes—they are all our children. They are also God’s children as well…whether they are less then 10 years old, or whether they are 90 years old; whether they live in Sarajevo, or down in the trailer park below us, whether they are Mexicans who have come to this country without documents, or whether they are some descendant of the Mayflower pilgrims, or the first settlers in what was to become the state of Georgia, prisoners from overpopulated English jails.
Just so, in a church, when all people are welcome…regardless of their jobs, their skin color, their sexual orientation, their marital status, their physical condition, their gender…when all are loved as Christ loved even the weakest and sickest among those in his world—then the world will know we are his disciples. And…God’s work of making all things new, of creating a new heaven and a new earth, the new holy paradigm, will shine through us.