The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 15,2022
This morning as I prepared for this week’s lectionary, I encountered the cover of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s “Decision” magazine: “Progressive Christianity Can Lead You to Hell.” In contrast to such binary and exclusivist visions of inspiration and salvation, today’s readings describe the scope of grace and salvation in much more inclusive terms, and invite us to ask questions such as: Is salvation restricted to a small group or are the gates of salvation wide open? Is salvation restricted to humankind or does it include the non-human world? Often, our faith has been parochial, xenophobic, and anthropocentric. We privilege our brand of spirituality, politics, and ecclesiology, our culture, ethnicity, or species, assuming that our traditions, our species, and what we hold dear spiritually are the fullest expressions of divine wisdom and handiwork, when, in fact, God is generous in revelation and salvation, and loves sharks and whales, bob cats and osprey, as well as humankind. Our ways are not God’s ways. There is a “wideness in God’s mercy” that far exceeds our own and transcends our institutions, doctrines, and orthodoxies.
In the reading from Acts, Peter is defending breaking down barriers between Jews and Gentiles. The encounter of Paul and Cornelius is so important in the formation of the church that it occurs twice in Acts of the Apostles. (Acts of the Apostles 10 and 11)
The Gentiles were considered inferior and unworthy – outside – of the early church’s message and mercy. In relating his encounter with Cornelius, Peter proclaims that all people are chosen, not just one nationality or way of worship and lifestyle. This is not arbitrary but the result of divine inspiration. God has given Cornelius and his family a full portion of the Holy Spirit and we need to affirm these former “outsiders” as full-fledged members of the emerging Christian movement. Acceptance is not grounded in homogeneity or uniformity of ethnicity or religiosity but divine blessing inclusive of all humankind. In accepting Cornelius as fully part of the Christian way, the emerging faith is acknowledging that diversity is a gift of God and that God will be revealed in a variety of ways, according to culture, ethnicity, and personal experience. This is not relativism, nor does it level religious experience or fidelity; this is a theocentric openness to the dynamic reality in which all creation “lives and moves and has its being.” God’s love embraces everyone, and if God’s love embraces everyone, then every person is first-class in the church and in the world. In accepting Cornelius and his family, the contours of Christianity are transformed and expanded – in many ways, a new religion emerges, the precursor to today’s hybrid spiritualities.
Every sermon needs a “so what” and the “so what” here is that God loves diversity and that we should be open to the varieties of divine revelation and religious experience, greeting diversity with hospitality and not fear and being willing to expand our faith through encounters with otherness. The church must embrace diversity, whether ethnically, racially, theologically, or sexually. Embrace does not always mean acceptance of all behaviors and opinions, but it means openness to the other’s experience and the willingness to learn from diverse understandings of faith and spirituality.
No one and nothing is unclean. No place is without divine revelation, if we believe God to be omnipresent and omni-active. This leads to Psalm 148, in which the Psalmist proclaims a world of praise. In its own way, everything praises God – the breaching whale and the nesting osprey, the grasshopper lingering on a backyard flower, the Muslim bowing in prayer, the faithful Catholic praying her rosary, the scholar poring over texts, the young child at play. All things, at their deepest, praise God by their very being. God praises in and through them, parenting forth a world of delight.
Our calling is to “increase the praise” by supporting all creatures, in so far as possible, in their quest to fulfill their callings. We must, as the Psalmist proclaims, go beyond humankind and recognize that the non-human world has value apart from human interests. The world of creation flows with experience, creativity, and praise, whether or not we notice it. Whatever praises is loved, first of all, by God. God’s love elicits our own praise and appreciation for the non-human world. Whatever praises deserves ethical consideration. A world praise demands our compassion. In light of the realities of global climate change, the church needs to be a headlight, not a tail light in responding creatively to the non-human world and our current ecological crisis. (For more on creation-affirming spirituality, see Bruce Epperly, “Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Planetary Healing.”)
The words of Revelation speak of the world as it is meant to be. The eschatology of Revelation invites us to ethical embodiment. We are challenged to be part of wiping every tear or, at least, minimizing needless pain. We are challenged to seek a world where pain and death are no more or, at least, minimize our perpetuation of deathful situations. We currently don’t live in such an idyllic world, but we can begin to act as if it is coming and ultimately our destiny; seeking to make our lives holy “on earth as it is in heaven.”
God is creating a new heaven and a new earth. This new creation will bring unity to the whole earth, and break down every barrier humans create. Our calling is to be companions in bringing this new realm to be. God will not coerce the planet and us; the future is in our hands as well as God’s.
Jesus counsels his followers and us to “Love one another.” The way forward is through love and the “one another” is not just fellow followers of Jesus or people like us but all creation, beginning where we are and expanding to the human and non-human communities. Love is hard work and challenging, even among people we love – just ask a couple who have been married for decades! – and we can’t avoid some conflict. In the course of our lives, we may even participate in forms of destruction, some death, in order to survive, but we need to minimize deathful behaviors. Our love mirrors God’s love for us. Our love also reflects God’s love for all creation in its diversity and calls us to the same all-encompassing love, albeit from our limited and fallible perspective.
Today’s readings invite us to join the local and global in appreciation and ethics. They invite us to be intellectually and relationally courageous in our embrace and affirmation of diversity. They invite us to formulate theologies and ethics embracing the non-human world and respond to the dangers of global climate change. We live in a world where no one is truly a stranger. We are all star stuff, children of God’s energy of love, and bound together as companions on our fragile planet. Each moment can be saving, for as we save one soul, be it human or non-human, we contribute to God’s world-saving quest.
Bruce Epperly is a professor, pastor, and author of over sixty books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGIES AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM, PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; and TALKING POLITICS WITH JESUS: A PROCESS PERSPECTIVE ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT.