Transformation & Love

In the book of Acts today we have a strange story of Peter’s vision as sail cloth lowered from heaven, ritually unclean animals and Peter being told to kill and eat these unclean critters. If we look at it closely it is a story about transformation. Peter was raised strictly in the his faith., He knew the dietary laws which prohibited him from eating a variety of food – including animals that the Holiness code of Leviticus calls unclean.

Here is orthodox Peter still living by the Jewish dietary laws he grew up with. And in his vision he sees this whole cart load of unclean animals and is told “Here Peter have snack” – He refuses saying I cant, I have never eaten these unclean things. And the reply is “what God has made clean you must not call unclean.”

Peter is then summoned to go off to Caesarea to go to Gentiles. Part of the tradition of Judaism was a sense of separation of us /them via circumcision,– dietary laws, rituals, all to draw distinctions. Gentiles are from us Jews. We are clean and holy – they may be OK but they are unclean in terms of our religious values.

Pete goes there anyway and finds that the spirit is at work amongst them as well. God was showing Peter a new way of thinking and acting. God continually leads us into new ways of thinking and acting.

We are the body of Christ as well as the community of the church. This is not a static community – where everything stays the same for generations on end. It supposed to be a dynamic community where God leads each generation into new understandings of what it means to live and to serve and to love.

In the Gospel of John we have one of the simplest and one of the hardest portions of the Gospel. “As I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Simple in that we know what love is and hard in that it is difficult to act lovingly towards other people at all times and circumstances. But the simplicity is deceiving. It may not be all that simple. We are supposed to love others as Jesus loved his disciples – as he loves us. But just what does that mean?

Some believe it means that we need to be perfect – to love in a perfect way as Jesus loved in a perfect way. But that takes our job from difficult past impossible. None of us are perfect nor can we realistically attain to perfection. That is an impossible goal.

When I look at the Gospels I see that Jesus learns from others throughout his ministry. He not only teaches the crowds he also learns from them. Jesus continues to learn how to live out his beliefs wholly and with more consistency – and that you and I actually can do.

Some see in Jesus a selfless love. In the greatest of human loves there is always an element of self within. Self dominates our thinking – what will I get, how will it benefit me? That is a part of our evolutionary heritage – survival of self. When we are able to get past self we find in those moments a different kind of love that communicates deeply and sincerely.

Others point to the sacrificial way in which Jesus loves. He gives up his life for his friends. Sacrificial love is not impossible for us to emulate but it is difficult. We keep getting in the way. Our egos, our wants, our frailties, each of these trip us up.
We may think we are being sacrificial but often discover that we are fooling ourselves. Like toddlers we begin with small steps, small bits of sacrificial living. But the more we learn to do it the better we may get at it.

Some say that love is blind. That it does not see the humanity of the other. But love as Jesus lived it was not blind. He clearly saw the frailty of those before him. Saw them and loved them for what they were – frailties, failings, inconsistencies, and all. Love that is blind ends with disillusionment and disappointment. But love that sees, sees past, and accepts the other as they are – is love that truly heals.

Some think of Jesus’ love as servant love – reaching out to serve, to feed, to heal, to bless. Again it is an image supported in the Gospels and yet hard for us to live out every day. It is an image that speaks of service to others before service to self.

But too often that vision carries with it a negative sense of self worth reasoning that says unless I forget myself, unless I hate myself, or neglect myself I am unworthy. We need love that is balanced – that can see clearly beyond ourselves and are willing to serve needs beyond our own – and to be healthy it is a love that recognizes that in giving the summary of the law Jesus tells us we need to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This tells us we need to have a love of self – an acceptance of who and whose we are – and we have to do this in order to be able to love others.

This gospel of love is not simple – it is not easy. It is some of the hardest work we can do. I was talking with a man who was attending an Elderhostle at a retreat center a few years ago. He was speaking about the church he belonged to. He said that when he walks into the church during the week – when no one is there – it is quite easy to be a Christian. It is only when other people are there – with all of their needs and demands, all of their peculiarities, all of the foibles and strange ways of being and living, that being a Christian becomes so difficult.
We are called & baptized into a community of believers for it is in the community that we can learn how to love as Jesus loved. Where we begin to model our lives and our behavior after the one who showed us how to love.

The Gospel tells us
Love is the command,
love is the way,
love is the inspiration –
love is the difficult choice we make,
love is what we try to live out,& what we fail to live out,
love is what forgives us and tells us to try again – & again, & again…

Our as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry sums it up – “If it is not about love – it is not about God…


About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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