Sermon Seeds: Imagine
Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C
Worship resources for the Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C can be found at Worship Ways
Preaching and worship resources for Earth Day 2016 at http://april2016.uccpages.org/would-jesus-give-up-on-us.html
by Kathryn M. Matthews
What really matters to Christians today? What should matter to Christians today? What does it mean to be a person of faith, a follower of Jesus who trusts in the goodness of God and seeks to participate in God’s plan for the world? What should we Christians be thinking about, planning for, dreaming of, hoping for? What should our priorities be? What’s the big picture, and where are we heading with all this? We may claim that God, of course, is in charge, but what is God’s ultimate plan for us and for all creation? What is the point of it all?
An impartial observer of the religious debates raging in our society might conclude that the fixation of some Christians on terrifying, apocalyptic scenarios of the end of the world, along with a pressing need to convert people in time to avoid those terrors, is much more powerful, much more central to our faith, than our deep love for God and our commitment to justice, compassion, and healing for all people and for the earth itself. Bookstores have shelves of bestsellers describing the end of the world, door-to-door evangelists bring the message of doom right to our homes, and television preachers get high ratings for their predictions of a coming, all-encompassing disaster. If we think that kind of talk doesn’t affect our priorities, consider the attitude of some (certainly not all) evangelical Christians who minimize concerns about the environment because Jesus Christ is returning soon and we won’t be needing this earth much longer, so go ahead and use up all the resources, including clean air and water, because none of that will matter once God brings history to a close.
What is the good news you preach?
I recall those visits from door-to-door evangelists years ago who offered literature on the end of the world and asked if I understood that that terrible day was coming soon. I suggested as gently as I could that the people on my street (including me) needed to hear that God loved us, and that they might consider bringing that message from the Bible to my neighbors. They said, matter-of-factly, that no, they had their gospel to preach, and this was it: Jesus was going to return soon and God was going to destroy the earth, so it was urgent that we prepare by repenting and joining them in their efforts to spread that message. (Also, a cash donation for the pamphlet would be appreciated, although it wasn’t necessary.) Looking back now, I can only say, “Bless their hearts.”
It’s no wonder then that many preachers on this Fifth Sunday of Easter will avoid this text from Revelation, even though the lectionary provides us few opportunities to preach on the last book of the Bible. Yes, there are a few passages familiar to most Christians, like this week’s text, which is also heard at funerals, when we are consoled by thinking of a future time with no more tears, no more pain, no more death. Such a lovely vision, the deepest longing of our hearts, and yet we’re tempted to skip this opportunity to preach it, because of the associations so many of our church members have with the book of Revelation.
When I was growing up, we called this book “The Apocalypse,” and many vivid and somewhat nightmarish images from my childhood faith come from its prophecies. However, these unfortunate associations are unnecessary, if we step back and take a longer, wider look at this last book in the Bible. Marcus Borg has written an entire chapter on Revelation in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and it’s helpful both for preachers and for those who are studying the Bible in order to take it, as Borg has said, “seriously, but not literally.”
The “magnificent, concluding vision”
Borg first paints the larger picture of Revelation, not only about its writing and origin but also the reaction of those in the church who really didn’t see (or at least appreciate) it as Holy Scripture, including Martin Luther (who didn’t even want it to be in the New Testament at all), Ulrich Zwingli (who flat out refused to consider it Scripture), and John Calvin (who, for the most part, dismissed it). Perhaps our congregations would be interested to hear that Revelation’s place at the end of our Bible doesn’t mean it was written last, or that the author was writing a conclusion to the Bible. As a good Bible scholar, Borg studies the historical setting of the letter, written to seven specific churches that are about one generation old and perhaps already straying from their original vision, and are facing, Borg writes, “persecution, false teaching, and accommodation to the larger culture” (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time).
Other scholars focus on the writer himself, probably a Jewish Christian, Beverly Gaventa writes, who may have fled the disaster of the Jewish-Roman war in 66-70 that left Jerusalem in ruins and the temple destroyed. Gaventa suggests that, for the writer, exiled and cut off from his people, the vision in this week’s text (what Borg calls the “magnificent concluding vision”) is deeply meaningful. We can understand the author’s feelings to some extent, for the dream also expresses the longing all of us have to feel secure in a place of our own (Texts for Preaching Year C). How much more security can we imagine than being at home with God?
Where God finds a home
While our passage starts off with a beautiful and all-encompassing vision of a new heaven and a new earth, there is a very specific city, the New Jerusalem, at its center. I’ve read scholars (both secular and religious) who portray “the city” as the place of sin and brokenness (as if the pastoral setting is where all goodness resides), but Dana Ferguson depicts urban settings very differently, as places of cooperation, interdependence, and welcome, the place “where God lives” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2). (As a resident of the city of Cleveland, I particularly appreciate that version.)
What an intriguing way to spur our religious imaginations about our own cities and communities (no matter how large or small): as places where God might find a home. Imagine what it might look like for our cities to be places where we live not in competition and anxiety but in graceful community, welcoming people home and inviting them in. Such a vision is the opposite of destruction, loneliness, and exile.
Remembering the dream of Isaiah
Destruction, loneliness, and exile, alas, were familiar to the Jewish people as well as to the author of Revelation. That’s why he could draw on the words and promises, the dream, of Isaiah and all the prophets who saw Babylon as the oppressive power in their lives, and who held fast to the hope of a new and restored Jerusalem. That’s why he could go even farther back, to the creation narratives, where the sea was first seen as threatening and chaotic (and one might imagine, even in the first century C.E., that the sea was still profoundly intimidating), and a beautiful garden represented the way things were supposed to be.
No wonder, then, that many readers of Revelation, at the end of our Christian Bible, see it as a bookend to Genesis: Creation and New Creation. That’s the point of it all: the power of God at work from beginning to end (alpha and omega), and God with us, in our midst, in our “neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message. We are not alone or exiled or separated from those we love, especially the One who made us in love and loves us still. (It’s intriguing to think that Creation begins with no humans at first, but New Creation is represented in a bright, shining community of people.)
Speaking of women
A note about the way Revelation uses women as images, including a line in this passage, about the New Jerusalem personified as a bride. A number of scholars remind us that in the ancient world, cities (like ships, for example, or even cars today) were seen as feminine, but Revelation as a whole lamentably defines women solely in terms of their sexuality (which is also customary both historically and often, even today). No commentator offers a remedy, and we encounter the text as it is, and acknowledge that the image of the “whore” of Babylon (Rome) is contrasted to the “bride” that is New Jerusalem.
As we are more and more mindful of the beautiful fragility of our environment, we may find the vision of “a new earth” particularly poignant. Catherine Gunsalas González and Justo L. González question the common view of Christians who think that the earth is destined for destruction, and “an unchanged heaven” is our goal and our hope. This “nonbiblical” belief “discounts the value of the earth”: it’s actually the new earth that will be our home, and God’s as well. They note, then, “an earthly quality to the future hope” (Revelation, Westminster Bible Companion).
Compassionate creation care
Surely that vision ought to make us more committed to caring for God’s creation not just on Earth Day but every day, including the life of the local congregation (reinterpreting the phrase “having dominion over” to mean “to be responsible for the well-being of,” rather than “lording it over”). Erik Heen reminds us that a compassionate God is deeply concerned about the earth and its welfare, longs for its healing and restoration, and is present with all of creation in its suffering (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2). In this theology, we hear a call for the church to speak and work in partnership with God for that healing and restoration. (It is, of course, a stewardship question as well.)
A sermon, then, might approach this text in several ways, perhaps focusing on the comfort of knowing — of being reminded — that God holds all of creation at the beginning and at the end, and that even that end is a whole new beginning. It seems to be part of the human condition to long for such a renewed heaven and earth, to know that there is a purpose and plan behind everything, and that The Planner has good intentions for us. In their writings, their music, and their art, great thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx and John Lennon have expressed this longing in every age, Carl Holladay observes (Preaching through the Christian Year C). Indeed, anyone who sees the suffering of humankind and the degradation of God’s creation, if they have a heart, must long for a whole new world, and must struggle to imagine such a thing.
Words of comfort when we’re hurting
We might also approach the text from a personal point of view, pondering our own mortality and grieving the loss of loved ones who have died. At my mother’s funeral, we read these ancient words and found comfort in them, and in the promise they hold of no more death, no more mourning, tears, or pain. In this passage, we’re reminded that the story isn’t over yet, that there is more to come, and it will be exceedingly beautiful. Perhaps things are difficult here, living between that lovely garden and that shining city, but this text provides a vision of where we’re going, and it nourishes our sometimes feeble religious imaginations, which are often inadequate to the task of picturing what God will do. Michael Pasquarello questions the many so-called gospels that get preached around us, which compete with the good news of God’s creation reconciled and whole, rather than ultimately and utterly destroyed (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).
Are we clear about the dream that we hold in our hearts, and is it part of God’s own dream for all of creation? Can we even imagine such a thing? Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “People only see what they are prepared to see.” If that’s true, what is the call of the church today, to help people see this great dream, and to draw them into participating in it?
A “tale of two cities”
We return to the writing of Marcus Borg for a challenge here, at a time when our nation wrestles not very gracefully with the question of immigration and the plight of refugees. Borg suggests that “Babylon” refers not only to ancient Rome and its oppressive, destructive evils but to every system and institution based in domination and power, and empowered by violence and brute strength. If this text is indeed a “tale of two cities” — Rome and the New Jerusalem, and all that they represent in the human heart — aren’t we anxious to find ourselves in the right city, a city where God would want to dwell? Borg reminds us that religion often and lamentably serves to legitimate political and economic injustice, so people of faith are particularly pressed to shine the light of the gospel on our decisions in the public square, including issues such as justice for immigrants and refugees.
Our passage from Revelation, then, provides a vision, Borg writes, the “dream of God…for this earth, and not for another world. For John, it is the only dream worth dreaming.” In “Jerusalem the Golden,” Borg says, “every tear shall be wiped away,” and “we will see God. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful ending to the Bible” (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time). (I miss his voice so much; what a loss his death has been.)
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century poet/philospher
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
Dante Alighieri, 13th century
“Heaven wheels above you, displaying to you her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.”
Joseph Campbell, 20th century
“The experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life. Heaven is not the place to have the experience; here is the place to have the experience.”
Vance Havner, 20th century
“If you are a Christian, you are not a citizen of this world trying to get to heaven; you are a citizen of heaven making your way through this world.”
Charles M. Schulz, Charles M. Schulz: Conversations, 20th century
“I think this is irresponsible preaching and very dangerous, and especially when it is slanted toward children, I think it’s totally irresponsible, because I see nothing biblical that points up to our being in the last days, and I just think it’s an outrageous thing to do, and a lot of people are making a living — they’ve been making a living for 2,000 years — preaching that we’re in the last days.”
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
“Now comes the mystery!” (last words)
Maria Montessori, 20th century
“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.”
Clichés abound when it comes to talking about change. “Change is not an event, it’s a process.” “Change is inevitable.” “Change or die” – is often used in reference to organizational entities, and often times in reference to the Church, and more particularly to congregations that are in decline. And then, one of my favorites: “Change must come.”
Regardless of its inevitability, few people like or welcome change. The majority of us like our routines that come over time. We read our newspaper (or news via the Internet) at the same time in the morning and drink our coffee out of that same mug deeply stained with years of use. We have our rituals and routines that keep us on track and on time. We have our schedules so engrained, and how we operate so fine-tuned that the slightest changes throw off our morning and determine the quality of our day. Routines provide a level of comfort and security. We know where to go and what to expect. The inevitability of change means we have to make adjustments we are oftentimes not ready and not willing to make. The early Christians were having such a moment. They were accustomed to what they knew and when confronted with change, they too were resistant.
Forming and adjusting
The early church was in the process of being formed. In the wake of the resurrection, these followers of Christ were sticking to what they knew for living, even as they adjusted to the death of Jesus, the absence of his leadership, and sought to spread his teaching. As followers of Jesus, they were Jews. They were well versed in the dietary laws. They knew what they were supposed to eat and drink. They knew who was welcome and with whom they should not associate. They gathered regularly, kept to what they knew, and believed that the gospel, the Good News Jesus left for them to share, was exclusively for them.
The text in Acts 11:1-18 is a retelling of Acts 10 from a different perspective, with the second being the Readers Digest version. Both versions of the story are very engaging on many levels. We learn of Peter’s vision in Acts 10, his vision of heaven opening and a large sheet descending, lower by its for corners (v.11). “In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” (v.12). Peter is then invited to kill and eat (v.13). The vision comes to a hungry Peter as he prays in the middle of the day on a rooftop. It is there that Peter meets Cornelius.
Laws, feasts and invitations
According to the Jewish dietary laws, some of these animals were named “unclean” and should not be eaten if one was to maintain one’s purity and holiness. The feast that is offered to a hungry Peter is a feast of which he thought he should not partake. The invitation for Peter to partake of these animals in his vision is a larger invitation for Peter to accept the invitation that arrives for him to visit the home of Cornelius.
There were rules for this too. In addition to restrictions on food, the law also stipulated who a Jew could share a meal with. The act of “breaking bread together” was a sacred moment. Sitting at table was a spiritual moment where God was present. A person therefore could not render that moment profane by eating with people who were considered unclean. Jews could not share a meal at table, nor would they visit the home of an individual who was not observing the same dietary restrictions. The home would be unclean, so under the law Peter was not allowed to visit with Cornelius. Under the law, Cornelius’ kitchen would be unclean, so Peter should not be eating in Cornelius’ home. These are not the focus of contention that Peter has to deal with, instead it is Cornelius himself, though, a high-ranking Roman soldier, who was at the heart of the problem.
Table fellowship and solidarity
“When Peter came up to Jerusalem those who were of Jewish birth took issue with him. ‘You have been visiting men who are uncircumcised,’ they said, ‘and sitting at the table with them!’ Peter began by laying before them the facts as they had happened” (Acts 11:4). The Jerusalem believers took issue with Peter’s actions. “These objectors did not take issue with the baptism of Gentiles but with Peter’s willingness to associate and eat with them. ‘Table fellowship’ was an essential mark of solidarity, imposing obligations upon guests and hosts” (Donald Davis in The Storytellers Companion to the Bible: The Acts of the Apostle, Vol. 12).
The intimacy and sacredness of “table fellowship” was the concern of the community. There are some people that you do not eat with. Who are the people that we exclude from the table? The reality of table fellowship is as much about Holy Communion as table, as it is about those with whom we break bread and share fellowship in our homes. The challenges of table fellowship occur in these two areas.
The problem with commensality
Martin Marty points to the problem saying the problem the early church had with Peter’s actions was not the baptism of Cornelius but commensality. “The sociologist of religion Max Weber and others have made much of this word that says you share mensa, the table, with someone else. That is often hard to do. The homeless are not clean. People above us in class and status are snooty. Below us are rednecks and ill-mannered clods” (Martin E. Marty, The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
What do our worship communities look like and who do we extend hospitality to in our homes? Are we willing to be transformed, changed in ways that name that our lives are lacking in both areas because we exclude more than we include? We all could use more people in our churches and more diversity of relationships in our lives. Are we willing to receive that transformation in our lives? Or are we resting on rituals and relationships that we hold as sacred cows that have transfixed us in static realities rather than in the dynamic realities of transformation that promises to make our lives that much richer?
God is doing a new thing
The initial rendition of the encounter between Peter and Cornelius is in context of Peter’s vision, the invitation to visit Cornelius’ home in Joppa and Peter’s visit to Cornelius’ home. In Acts 11:1-18, Peter is re-telling the events to justify his actions and to help the gathered community in Jerusalem come to a new understanding of life in Christ, and the reasons for what he did. “What is significant about this passage is that God is now doing something new and radical that seems to have caught both the disciples and other Jews by surprise” (Simone Sunghae Kim, Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year C).
What do we make of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius? Is this story about letting go of dietary laws? Is this about the gospel going out to the Gentiles? Or more about early church politics and is about Peter getting credit for the missionary efforts beyond the Jewish community? What of the change that comes in how the “other” – people who are not a part of the community – is viewed? There are a host of questions that come alive.
No unclean people
The reception of the Gentiles is a big part of the story. “The authorization for Peter’s action is unmistakable. He had received a vision from God which called him to minister to all people – there are no unclean people” (Paul W. Walasky, Acts, Westminster Bible Companion). There are no unclean people! Who are the “unclean” who are not invited to be among us? What do we need to do to be more welcoming, more inviting? What are the defining markers we use for declaring clean or unclean?
Mary Donovan Turner pushes even further on the complexity of church and inclusion which she names as “one of the most tensive and volatile issues facing the early church” (New Proclamation, Year C 2013). Matters of inclusion are still volatile in the life of the church. Her questions for us are thought-provoking. Turner asks: “Does including the new or different mean that we are letting go of the values that have always defined us? Or do the values that define us compel us to to be more inclusive and open?” I would further ask, why is full inclusion of all people such a challenge for the Church?
Converted to new understandings
These chapters are often received among us as “The Conversion of Cornelius and His Household.” His entire household comes to know about Jesus. Their lives are transformed, they are converted to this new way of understanding Divine grace and presence by Peter. It is easy to see that these individuals hold a significant place in the life of the early church. But there is more that may be harder for us to accept. These chapters are about conversion, they are about a transformation that takes place across the life of the Church. Peter and the entire Jerusalem church are converted as a result of Peter’s vision and his visit to Cornelius’ home.
Simone Sunghae Kim suggests “two social justice and change-related action plans” (at the very least) in the passage: avoiding dichotomous language and a paradigm shift in terms of our tradition and nationalism. Kim’s reading of the text is useful in lending a contemporary lens to this familiar text as language is explored. “Divisive language patterns as shown in Acts 11 – the circumcised versus the uncircumcised, the Jews versus the Gentiles, us versus them – undoubtedly contribute to divisions and discord among individuals, peoples, nations and even churches. Often the spirit behind these divisions germinates with the feelings of arrogance, pride, and self-love. As the world is becoming ever more diverse and heterogeneous, this type of separatism can cause much disharmony and animosity between people” (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year C). Transformation of the heart that goes beyond our traditions, laws and rituals that exclude, are necessary for us to receive an outcome that is offered in Peter’s vision.
Who’s excluded, and how?
What would transformation look like in the communities we serve? What would our own transformation look like as we critically examine our lives and communities? We often ask the question: who is missing? The deeper question is: who are we excluding and what are the mechanisms, tools, rituals, language, and behaviors that we employ to ensure that they receive the coded messages that indicate they are not welcome – that we have named them unclean?
Kim suggests that the reading “demands from us a paradigm shift in terms of our traditions and nationalism” and notes that Peter had to be transformed in the way he understood God and what God was doing (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year C). The result of Divine encounter is transformation, deep change that moves us to think differently and live differently. Transformation is through change that is dramatic in nature. When I think of transformation, the change of the life cycle of the butterfly comes to mind, significant change that is visible, and sometimes painful in the letting go of the comfort of the known, and struggling with the uncertainty and process of change.
Naming the places that need to be transformed
Transformation hinges on self-awareness and truth telling. The reluctance to see ourselves as we are hinders the transformative work that is rooted in grace. The reluctance to name the places where we are deficient in our hospitality and to own that we are aspirational and have much work to do in ourselves and in our community causes us to embrace a false narrative that forces God among us to the margins – unwelcome at the table.
The church leaders heard Peter’s story of his transformation. They heard of the transformation of Cornelius and his household. It seems they finally got it. “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life'” (Acts 11:18). What a relief that they were now willing to receive the Gentiles among them.
God is full of surprises. Where will our surprises come and our knowledge of God’s ways increase, so that we too may say “God has given even to…”?
The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
This is what church meetings were about in those days: who was in, and who was out (can you imagine that?). The “headquarters” (read Assembly, Synod, etc.) in Jerusalem was in an uproar over the report that Peter had been breaking some very important rules and boundaries in his ministry with the Gentiles. One might expect them to be scandalized that he baptized them, or preached to them, or even healed them. But, no, the first question out of their mouths was, “Why did you eat with them?” The lines were very clear in those days, and so were the rules. You couldn’t eat unclean food and you couldn’t eat with unclean people, and the Gentiles were unclean people.
Peter, by the time he stood before his challengers, had already worked through this stunning reversal of everything he had formerly believed and practiced, having never eaten anything profane or unclean in his life. His understanding of God’s will not just for his personal life and faith practice but for the life of the church, its core identity, was transformed. It wasn’t Peter’s idea or whim, and it wasn’t his brilliant inspiration for an effective approach to evangelism: “Grow the church: accept outsiders!” It was God’s idea, God’s doing, and God’s plan.
Dazzling memories and amazing revelation
Peter’s new understanding, though, no matter how dramatically it broke with what the Jewish Christian leaders held dear, was in keeping with the very ministry and practices of Jesus himself, which Peter had witnessed, and now remembered. If this was a source of tension…well, let’s be honest, if it was the reason for a church fight in the early church, the solution was in the gift and practice of memory.
Peter connected his new experience, this dazzling dream and amazing revelation confirmed by the voice of God not once but three times (how many times did Peter deny Jesus? how many times did Jesus ask Peter if he loved him?), with his memory of Jesus’ own words about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which Peter was witnessing in these Gentiles even as he heard the words of Jesus in his heart. Who was he, indeed, to hinder God?
Church meetings then and now
This is what the church meetings are often about in our day: who is in, and who is out. This isn’t about playground cruelty grown up, or arrogance, or insecurity, or judgmentalism. No, this is about a sincere way of seeing the world and trying to live faithfully in it, of understanding how things work and what they mean. Peter will have to construct a new worldview when he comes to see himself as the equal of Cornelius, both of them children of God and blessed by God as well, presumably not because of how well they’ve fulfilled religious requirements or fit a certain ethnic or religious identity, but just by the sheer grace of a loving God (Preaching through the Christian Year C).
Who are people inside the church, and in the world beyond our doors, people unlike us in many ways, who are “equal” to us, even if they don’t “belong” to our church? Would they feel welcome at our table? Today, there are many of us in the church who have lived and breathed the air of “what we have been taught” and “the way it’s always been.” If we think that who’s welcome around the table is either no longer an issue or no longer important, we should look again. Perhaps, like Peter, we should be praying for our own understanding, and for help along the way to a conversion of our own.
For further reflection:
Gene Roddenberry, 20th century
“If [we are] to survive, [we] will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between [us] and between cultures. [We] will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 20th century
“[The one] who is different from me does not impoverish me – [but] enriches me. Our unity is constituted in something higher than ourselves – in [humankind]… For no [one] seeks to hear [one’s] own echo, or to find [one’s] reflection in the glass.”
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 20th century
“I remember one night at Muzdalifa with nothing but the sky overhead I lay awake amid sleeping Muslim brothers and I learned that pilgrims from every land–every color, and class, and rank; high officials and the beggar alike–all snored in the same language.”
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
“It is never too late to give up your prejudices.”
Ani DiFranco, 21st century
“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 20th century
“Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it’s up to you to know with which ear you’ll listen.”
Rumi, 13th century
“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.”
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Praise God! Praise God from the heavens;
praise God in the heights!
Praise God, all you angels of God;
praise God all you host of heaven!
Praise God, sun and moon;
praise God, all you shining stars!
Praise God, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of God,
for God commanded and they were created.
God established them forever and ever;
God fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise God from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling God’s command!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Beast of the forest and all cattle,
crawling things and flying birds!
Rulers of the earth and all peoples,
nobles and all leaders of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Sovereign,
whose name alone is exalted;
whose glory is above earth and heaven.
God has raised up a horn for the people,
and praise for all the faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to God.
Praise be to God!
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just 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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!