April 24, 2016 — Fifth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Alison Quin
No Outcasts — Only Beloved Brothers & Sisters
One of the first arguments in the early church was about whether Jesus came for the Jews only, or for Gentiles as well.
It was not a foregone conclusion. One of the ways that the Jews survived as a people through centuries of occupation and exile was by keeping themselves separate from the cultures that surrounded them and threatened to erase them.
Thus, in Jesus’ day, Gentiles were considered unclean—they ate unclean foods banned by the Bible. Eating with them would make a person unclean, and he or she would have to go through an elaborate cleansing ritual in order to be admitted to the community again.
But the early church decided in favor of including the Gentiles. Peter paid attention to the strange vision he had of unclean animals being lowered in a big sheet with the instruction to eat them. He obeyed the voice telling him to go to the Gentile Cornelius and baptize him. Cornelius was not just a Gentile, he was a centurion; not only ritually unclean, but an enemy of Israel, an instrument of oppression.
Peter was faithful to Jesus’ spirit. After some bickering, the church agreed with him. Reflecting on Jesus’ ministry, they concluded that his goal was to unite people rather than divide them.
He came into the world to make us one, as he and the Father were one. He came to love us, to reach across every chasm that separates us from the rest of humanity in order to restore each of us to the dignity of being a child of God, united with all of God’s people.
There are many experiences in life that can make us feel isolated or alienated from our fellow human beings. Being sick or poor often isolates us. Being different from others can isolate us. Grief, bitterness and anger can drive a wedge between us and other people. Shame or guilt can keep us in hiding, for fear of being rejected.
Jesus entered into people’s isolation and befriended them. He hung out with the poor, the sick, Gentiles and Samaritans, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors—all those who were rejected by others. If social conventions or rules mandated separating people into classes or categories, he ignored them. For him, there were no outcasts, only beloved brothers and sisters.
Jesus’ ministry is to all of us, because all of us are poor and sick, sinners and outcasts at some point in our lives. He enters into our prison of loneliness and sets us free. And we will never be alone again.
“As I have loved you, so you should love one another,” Jesus tells his disciples. This means that we too are called to minister to the poor and sick, the sinners and outcasts, the lonely and brokenhearted. We are to follow him in reaching across every barrier and befriend others.
We can’t do this on our own. It is just too easy to stay where we are comfortable, where we are not challenged, where we feel at home. We can only love the way Jesus loves in the power of his spirit. We love because he first loved us. We can be healers and peacemakers because he has healed us and forgiven us. Because he has befriended us in our lonely, brokenhearted state, we can befriend other brokenhearted, lonely people.
Our calling as followers of Jesus is to listen for the cries of the poor and outcast in our own time and place, and reach beyond our own walls and institutions to stand with them as friends.
Last week, a stranger to the church called me to let me know about a couple who lost their house in a fire, who have been living without electricity or water since January. The stranger heard their silent cry for help and called the church to ask for our help. She made a donation to help with rebuilding. And I’m happy to say that many people from the parish responded by coming out yesterday and helping with clean up. Jesus offered friendship and humble service to all, and this is what we can offer to others. We are bearers of good news—because of Christ, there are no more strangers and outcasts. There are only beloved brothers and sisters.
It isn’t always easy to reach across divisions and befriend those in need. What if they don’t want to be friends? What if they reject us? What if we get in over our heads? What if someone takes advantage of our desire to help? What if we wear ourselves out? What if we are misunderstood or judged or criticized?
Sometimes we internalize society’s negative judgments about people, adding to the difficulty—the shame and stigma attached to addiction, the blame associated with being poor. Sometimes we are afraid of those who are different from us—people of a different race, language, culture, gender, sexual orientation, age.
Reaching out to people in difficult circumstances can be hard, but as Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40).
Through our baptism, we are part of a community based on Jesus’ love. The great adventure of baptism and the heart of our journey is sharing that love with more and more people and healing the divisions in the world.
Alexander’s family and godparents are saying yes to Jesus’ love on his behalf. As he grows up learning about Jesus’ love from his family, his godparents and his church, he will discover that Jesus is always right there with him, in his heart, to help him when he is lonely, or tired or sad. And he will learn about sharing Jesus’ love with others, through friendship, service, healing and forgiveness. With all of us, he will have the joy of working toward a better world where all people are treated with dignity, as beloved children of God, part of one family.