New Things

Sometimes things are made new by being repeated...

Easter 5c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

I have been reminding us over the last few weeks that Easter is not just a day but a season of fifty days running from Easter day itself through the feast of Pentecost. Every season of the church year has a particular focus or emphasis — in part based on some specific event, but also reminding us of how that event is continually alive in the life of the church and has effect upon our daily lives. That’s why we repeat these themes throughout the year.

The theme of Advent is expectation, and we live in that continued expectation of the day of the Lord’s coming, both personal and corporate. Christmastide brings us the good news of the birth of Christ, and calls us to find a way to let Christ be born in us anew each day. Epiphany describes the ways in which God is made manifest — and continues to be manifest in the lives and works of the members of Christ’s body, the church. The season of Lent calls us to examine our hearts, inspiring us — by the story of Christ’s own suffering — to discipline ourselves in obedience to his call. And of course Easter, the season we now celebrate, brings us to the resurrection and throughout the season of Easter we are given continued assurances of the new life springing forth from the grave.

In today’s readings we are specifically reminded of newness — of novel and unheard-of things as well as of renovation, renewal of all things, in particular as promised by the one whom John saw seated on the throne in his heavenly vision: “See, I am making all things new.”

The Son of God can make all things new because he is both the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, or as we would say the A through Z (since Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). As the Psalmist would say, “All times are in your hand.”

God is the source of all that is new, of all novelty, all restoration, all renovation and renewal. And he gives this new life to any and all who thirst for it.

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We get a glimpse of thirsty people receiving something they don’t even know they need in that reading from the Acts of the Apostles — or rather, we hear Peter’s account of what happens when he tries to explain himself to the Jewish Christian believers who are scandalized by the fact that he actually went into a Gentile home, a Roman home, and even sat at table with Gentiles — people unclean by definition. Peter explains that he had been prepared to respond to this invitation from Cornelius, the Roman soldier, by a heavenly vision that came to him. He sees what sounds to me like a trampoline being let down from heaven and full of all kinds of animals, many of them classified as unclean. That would mean that they are forbidden by Jewish dietary law, and since all of the first Christians are Jewish, from Christian tables as well, as Peter reminds the heavenly voice when it commands him to kill and eat; even being so bold as to say to the voice from heaven, “By no means!” Peter protests, but the voice continues to remind him that what God has made clean he ought not call profane. As with Jesus’s instructions to Peter on the beach from a few weeks back — you recall, the ones about feeding the lambs and sheep, and about whether he really loved him — Peter gets another triple lesson. (Maybe Peter is just one of those people who needs to be told things three times before he gets it!) But as he says, the vision is repeated two more times together with the instruction not to call profane what God has declared clean. And so Peter finally gets to understand this, just as he finally got to understand — with those repeated statements about feeding the lambs, feeding the sheep — that Jesus wasn’t talking about him being a shepherd of literal sheep, but about people, the people he would serve. And so too with this vision he finally comes to understand that is not about food but about people — God is about to do a new thing, and no people are to be called unclean or profane; God is about to open salvation to the Gentiles, which is indeed exactly what happens.

Now this was a new thing that some would never quite accept — they had been taught and believed that only God’s chosen people merited salvation, and that the Gentiles were a people unclean by definition and as much to be avoided as Gentile food. But Peter, and later Paul, would both demonstrate how ancient prophecies that salvation would come even to the Gentiles — those people “who in darkness walked” — that those ancient prophecies had been fulfilled in Jesus, and in this particular incident God set a seal upon it through the descent of the Holy Spirit. Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon these Gentiles, this Roman soldier Cornelius and his family and his household, the same Holy Spirit that came upon the apostles and the other Jewish believers at Pentecost; and it happened before Peter could even finish his sermon; even before he could finish telling them the good news, the Holy Spirit came down upon Cornelius and all in his house. God, it seems, is more eager to save, that we can ask or imagine.

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Finally, in the gospel today, we step back before Good Friday and Easter to the Last Supper. Judas has already left the table to go about his sinister business of betrayal, feet have been washed, and as we know from the other Gospels, bread has been broken and the cup of the new covenant in his blood has been shared. And in this still and reflective moment Jesus pronounces that, “Now” is the moment of his glorification; and he gives the disciples a new commandment.

So what is this new commandment? He does not hesitate to deliver it, but states it immediately, “That you should love one another.” Perhaps he pauses for a moment, as no doubt the disciples are a little startled — not that they should be commanded to love one another, but that this commandment should be given as something new. Had not God always commanded that his people are to love God, and to love their neighbors as themselves? Are these commandments not the same as the ones that go all the way back to Moses.

We can well imagine the disciples wondering at what Jesus means by calling this commandment “new.” Would you not have been as much surprised? So what does he mean?

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It is plain that the commandment to love one another is not new in the sense of never having been given before. But that is not the only meaning of the word new. Sometimes a thing is new because it is a re-issue of something that is old.

We hear in that passage from Revelation this morning of a kind of renovation, in the description of the new Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been reborn, has been made new, and is descending from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. The old, faithless city has been redeemed and made new. I must say that when I hear that passage I am reminded of an old joke by James Thurber, one of his famous cartoons, in which the caption was, “She’s always living in the past. Now she wants to get a divorce in the Virgin Islands.” But with God all things are possible. The faithless city Jerusalem is made new, is restored to her status of innocence, and clothed afresh with her bridal gown to welcome her husband, Christ himself. With God, newness can always come, even when things have fallen so very low.

As I say, sometimes it is not a new thing itself, but something that has been made new, something restored, or in the case of the book, republished. Even the resurrection itself partakes of this quality of old being made new. For it was the body that suffered and died that rose from the grave, given new life, still bearing the marks of the spear and the nails.

I am reminded — thinking of books — of the epitaph that Benjamin Franklin wrote for himself when he was young (although I’m sad to say this is not the one that actually appears on his grave). His youthful idea of what his epitaph should be reads:

The body of B. Franklin, Printer, like the Cover of an old Book — its Contents torn out and stripped of its Lettering and Gilding — lies here, food for worms. But the Work shall not be lost; for it will — as he believed — appear once more in a new and more elegant Edition revised and corrected by the Author.

(A little long for a tombstone!) That is the sense in which this new commandment is new —it is a command newly issued. And don’t we need to be reminded of that commandment to love one another over and over again. It needs to be made new every day, repeated so that we can take it into our hearts. It needs to be repeated just as Peter needed to be told three times to care for the flock and later to be told not to call profane what God has declared clean.

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But there is another and deeper sense in which this is indeed a new commandment, in the sense of not having been given before — for Jesus adds, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So the commandment is not only repeated, but transposed to a higher key, with a more sublime example in the love that Jesus himself shows by giving himself up for them, the greatest love that anyone can show, to lay down his life for his friends. And so the commandment is no longer simply “love your neighbor as yourself,” but “love your neighbor as Jesus loves your neighbor” — loves your neighbor, and you, to the point of sacrificing himself on the cross for you, for your neighbor, and for the whole world. In this great love Jesus gives himself completely and utterly to suffering and death for universal salvation, to the end that all who believe might be saved.

This is not only new, it is earthshaking. It is revolutionary. It is nothing less than the work of God, in which we are invited to participate as the second edition of the people of God, not replacing the first edition, God’s chosen people, but supplementing it, as God has opened salvation to us Gentiles, in a new chapter beginning with that ancient Christmastide and coming to its fulfillment in the never-ending Eastertide in which all of humanity is invited to join, Jew and Gentile. In our obedience to this new commandment, may God our Lord and Savior be glorified and praised; henceforth and to the end of the ages.

Inside Out

What do an old book, a ramshackle building, and a broken leg have in common?

SJF • Proper 17b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”+

There is an old story — you have probably hear it — about three women who departed this life on the same day. All three were active in their respective churches. And one was a Southern Baptist, and one a Roman Catholic, and the third an Episcopalian. And as they were waiting in line at the gate of heaven to find out if they would be admitted or not, all three of them looked very nervous and unhappy. Finally the Baptist, who was first in line, turned to the other two and moaned, “I don’t think I’ll be let in to heaven. I was the treasurer of the Shiloh Baptist Ladies Club — and I embezzled the proceeds from the church fair.”

The Roman Catholic woman then sighed and shook her head, and said in a resigned voice, “I’m not looking for any better treatment. When my husband was on a business trip I had an affair with the cable guy.”

Finally, the Episcopalian, who sounded as if she might have perished from a case of what they call “Scarsdale Lockjaw,” looking back and forth and lowering her voice, confided, “I’ve been hiding this secret for years, and I know it will come out now that Saint Peter opens the book and reviews the ledger of my life. Once, at a dinner party, I ate my entree with the salad fork!

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That may seem a far-fetched joke, doesn’t our gospel today looks just as odd when you read it seriously and carefully. Here are the Pharisees and scribes getting all upset about Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands before dinner. And it isn’t sanitation that they’re worried about. The Pharisees, following the traditions of the elders, believed that washing your hands, and following all of those complicated rules for washing cups, pots, and metal vessels, were not just matters of cleanliness, but literally of Godliness. For them, failing to wash before eating wasn’t just bad manners, or poor hygiene; it was downright immoral. For the Pharisees, eating with unwashed hands, as for our poor imaginary Episcopal Churchwoman eating her entree with the salad fork, was a deadly serious matter. And for the Pharisees it was serious enough for them to come to Jesus and say, “Look at what you’re disciples are doing!”

And Jesus, well, he had little patience with that sort of attitude. He laid it right on the line, and called their concerns lip-service and hypocrisy, abandonment of God’s commandments in favor of mere human tradition. That is strong language. And if any doubt remained, Jesus called the people to him and spelled it out. What comes from outside people and goes in cannot defile them. There is no sin in eating with dirty hands or dirty dishes. Hands and silverware and porcelain have no moral value, and have nothing to do with sin. It’s what’s inside people already that is the problem.

The problem is those inside “devices and desires of our hearts” that creep out when we are off our guard, the roaches and rats of the fallen human nature that come out of hiding, scurrying about when the lights are turned out. These are the things that defile; things that are the substance of sin: not dirty hands but dirty thoughts.

For it is from within the fallen human heart that evil intentions come, and Jesus gives us a whole laundry list or the soiled linens of sin hung out in the light of day for all the world to see — fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. These are the things that come from within, and these are the things that defile a person.

How easy it would be to purchase salvation just by washing your hands and your cup and your plate and your bowl. Even wiping your mouth is not enough: as Proverbs says, “This is the way of an adultress — she eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’” No amount of scrubbing the outside will make the inside clean. The stain of sin remains when the evil that is inside spills forth, and it cannot just be washed away.

Do you remember Lady Macbeth? After she murdered the old king she went quite mad — no matter how much she washed her hands — rubbed raw — they always looked bloody to her still, spotted and stained with the blood of a guest, and not just any guest, not just a any good and righteous man, but her king, murdered in his sleep. Lady Macbeth went mad, haunted and pursued by the evil she unleashed from her own prideful and ambitious heart, haunted and pursued until she took her unhappy life with those same hands, hands scrubbed raw in the futile effort to remove the stain of her guilt.

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So is there any hope? If washing our hands or our outside is of no use, and our inside is chock full of terrible and nasty things, what are we to do? Have you ever had an old favorite book that you’ve read so many times that it is starting to fall apart? When it reaches that state, the only thing that can be done to care for it, to save it, is a new binding: not just cleaning the outside, but putting on a whole new outside: a spine and covers, rebinding it carefully. Or what do you do when a building is in such bad state that it is in danger of falling down? You put up scaffolding and set to work on the walls and the roof! You know we went through that here five years ago: replacing our 143-year-old slate roof with a brand new one. It was tempting to just want to patch up the inside, to plaster over the holes where the rain came through, and then give them a lick of paint. But a lick of paint would not have solved the problem. We had to start on the outside first, and even there not just putting down a new layer of tar, but stripping off all that old decaying slate and wood and starting afresh. And we also had to build a scaffold so the workers could get to the roof and do their work.

So too when we look to our own moral and personal renovation, we need to do more than just try to think happy thoughts to drive out those darker thoughts in our hearts. There is nothing we can do on our own to change our inner human nature: it is part of our heritage, whether you want to look at it from the religious angle as the legacy of Adam and Eve, or take the secular view that the drive to self-preservation, the source of success and survival, is also the source of selfishness and competition, and all the evils that dwell within.

But we can get a whole new scaffolding outside to help this feeble and sin-weakened body stand up against the wiles of the devil; not just a cleaning, but a renovation, becoming a new creature.

Saint Paul calls this new outside “the armor of God.” It goes on the outside but it helps the inside to stand up. It’s like the cast that goes on the outside of a broken limb to help it heal from within. And it is healing we need. We will never overcome our inner evils just by washing our hands: we need the armor of God to mend our broken hearts. We need the scaffold of God’s support to rebuild our ramshackle selves, to make them whole and fill them with the love of God so that there is no more room for all that nasty stuff that hid there.

If we are willing, God will fasten the belt of truth around us, the truth that acknowledges our weakness and casts its whole dependence upon the one who alone is the living Truth.

If we will let him, he will put his righteousness on our chests like a breastplate, the sign of a righteousness not our own, but loaned to us to protect us and give us confidence to stand tall and proud with our chests out and shoulders square.

If we let him, he will give us shoes of readiness to proclaim the Gospel for our feet, shoes to protect our soft soles — that’s s-o-l-e-s — from the ruts and rocks and broken glass on life’s road.

If we let him, he will put a shield of faith on our arm, not our faith in him, but his faith in us, strengthening us by this act of confidence, as the presence of any proud parent in the bleachers will spur on the child to greater efforts in the game.

And he will crown us with a helmet of salvation — and remember that helmets in Saint Paul’s day didn’t just cover the top of the head, but came down over the nose and the cheeks, with eye-holes to look out of: so the helmet of salvation doesn’t just protect us, but it directs our view straight ahead towards the prize for which we are competing.

Lastly he will put the sword of the Spirit in our hands, which is the living Word of God, living and active, cutting both ways and searching out the inner realities and secrets of our human heart.

Clothed from above like this, given a whole new outside to support us by the Lord of Glory himself, we need fear no evil from without. Strengthened to stand in the armor of God, we need fear no evil from within. Like a fragile old manuscript newly bound, we can be put back into circulation. Like a damaged building given a new roof and walls, we can then open our doors in hospitable welcome. Like a person with a broken limb that has been healed and strengthened, we will be able to stand and bear witness, clothed with the armor of God against all evils, with confidence that nothing from within our now-
cleansed and rehabilitated insides will ever be able to do usor others any harm.

To God who has thus remade us and armed us in his spiritual power against all evils from within or without, to him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.+