[Texts: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35]
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Triune God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Did any of you get a little bit of déjà vu during the Gospel reading this morning?
If you did, don’t worry– you’re not crazy. In fact, it probably should sound familiar. You heard that exact Gospel reading about a month ago, word for word.
Except, when you heard that passage a month ago, it was just a piece of a bigger chunk of John’s Gospel. I don’t think it’s really meant to be read as a stand-alone passage, the way we’re reading it today. It makes a lot more sense if you read it as a part of the story it belongs to. Context is important.
So, let’s look at where this passage comes from, and then we’ll be better able to talk about it in context. Okay?
Jesus says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
In Latin, that’s “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos.” That first word, mandatum, is the root of the English words “commandment” and “mandate”, and that’s what it means.
Mandatum is where we get the “Maundy” in “Maundy Thursday”, which is the Thursday during Holy Week—just over a month ago in our liturgical year—during which we talk about and remember the Last Supper.
(And yes, that’s why this passage sounds so familiar to you. It was part of the Maundy Thursday reading.)
So, as you meditate on the words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel reading, keep in mind their context. Jesus has just celebrated the Passover with his disciples. He’s well aware that he’s about to die. He’s not just sitting around shooting the breeze with his buddies– he’s teaching them one last lesson before he goes to be crucified, having just shared his final meal with his companions.
Did you know that the word “companion” literally means “someone to break bread with”? It comes from the Latin “com” meaning “with”, and “panis” meaning “bread”.
Ever heard the song “Panis Angelicus”? I bet many of you probably have. The title means “bread of angels”, and that’s the exact same Latin word that companion is derived from
Breaking bread with someone can simply mean sharing a meal—perhaps inviting friends over to your house for supper, or having lunch with a coworker.
But, as Christians, the idea of “breaking bread” also has a whole different connotation—what St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of when he wrote the words “panis angelicus fit panis hominum” (“may the bread of angels become the bread of mankind”), and what we mean when we pray, “Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread.”
I speak, of course, of the Eucharist– that Sacrament by which we live out Christ’s instructions to us to continue to break bread, and share the cup, and to do so in remembrance of him. This is where we encounter, in the most literal and tangible way possible on earth, the Body and Blood of our Lord, given for us, made accessible to us. We receive this most holy Sacrament on our knees, side by side, from a common cup, kneeling at a common rail.
Perhaps you know the person kneeling next to you very well– you may even be related, or married, or it might be a friend– and perhaps you don’t know them at all. It may be someone you don’t like very much, or a member of a group you aren’t fond of.
But it doesn’t matter. When you hear those familiar words…
The Body of Christ; the Bread of Heaven.
The Blood of Christ; the Cup of Salvation.
… and you’re given a wafer and a sip of wine, something happens that neither I nor anyone else can properly put into words– it’s a mystery. By sharing in this holy moment, we are joined to Christ in a mystical, sacramental way.
And thus we are also joined to each other. We are companions– we are joined together by the breaking of bread, by the sharing of a meal.
I like how this sense of unity is conveyed in one of the verses of hymn #304, “I Come with Joy”:
As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
Each proud division ends.
The love that made us, makes us one,
And strangers now are friends.
These “proud divisions” can run deep. Our human nature predisposes us to want to sort things into categories. Even as toddlers and preschoolers, we begin to learn how to group objects by simple characteristics like shape and color.
“Can you put all the blue toys together?”
“How about all the red ones?”
“Point to all the things in this picture that are shaped like a circle.”
“Show me everything you see that’s shaped like a square.”
Little kids can do that, right? It’s part of natural child development– we learn, at a very young age, to group things that go together.
Then we learn to figure out what doesn’t go together. You know– “one of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn’t belong…”
The tendency to want to do this categorizing thing persists into adulthood. We have to label everything and everyone. We want to know what goes together and what doesn’t. We want to know what belongs and what doesn’t. We feel a need to put everything we experience into a familiar category so that we know what to do with it.
This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, in some ways, it’s necessary for us to survive. For example, the fact that I know the difference between a wild animal and a tame animal is really important. That ability to distinguish between different categories is how I know that having pet cats is a perfectly fine idea, but keeping alligators as pets would be a terrible idea. Cats are tame animals that can live with humans, and alligators are wild animals that belong outside. Keeping two cats in my apartment may pose a threat to my security deposit, and occasionally my sanity, but keeping alligators in my apartment would pose a threat to my life. The ability to judge the difference between a pet and a wild animal is important, because we can then decide how to respond based on that classification– and how we respond could mean life or death for us.
Or, okay, how about a more realistic example than the alligators: it’s nighttime, and you’re on I-85 coming back from Greenville, when you see a blue pickup truck in the far-left-hand lane doing fifteen over.
Then you notice the truck is kind of pulling toward the center a bit, and it keeps hitting those rumble strips over and over.
Uh oh. That’s a really bad driver. In fact, by the looks of things, you’re likely dealing with a drunk driver.
As soon as you’re able to put this driver into a category–“possible drunk driver”, assigning this situation a familiar label– you can react. In this case, I would imagine you’d react by realizing that you’re in danger, and putting a whole lot of space between you and that blue truck. If you suspect the driver really is impaired, you might even consider calling 911. (This very scenario happened to my fiancee and me a few weeks ago, and we did call 911.)
A drunk driver on the interstate might not be as dramatic as a living room full of alligators, but it’s definitely a potential life-or-death situation. By quickly labeling what you’re experiencing, and assigning it a category, you’re able to respond to it. Knowing the difference between a good driver and a dangerous driver may have just saved your own life or someone else’s.
But sometimes, our desire to label things gets a little out of control. This instinct, meant to keep us alive, can actually cut us off from our ability to experience life the way God means for us to.
When the sorting compulsion starts to backfire on us is when we start labeling people, and particularly, when we start assuming God does too.
The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber– a Lutheran pastor and author who is even taller and even more heavily tattooed than I am– talks about this in her book, Pastrix. She talks about being wired to want two sets of labeled containers. Good people and bad people, “saved” people and “unsaved” people, people who are right and people who are wrong… but the trouble, she says, comes from believing God labels people the way she does. She then shares this bit of wisdom:
[My husband] once said to me, after one of my more finely-worded rants about stupid people who have the wrong opinions, “Nadia, what sucks is that every time we draw a line between ourselves and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.”
And that’s not a new or modern problem, either. Since the beginning of the Church, we as Christians have been having arguments about who is and isn’t included in God’s family. It began, as we see in the reading from Acts, with Gentiles as the group that was the “other”.
Here was the issue: The Jews, including all of Christ’s first followers, had a strong sense of being separate from everyone who was not Jewish. This was how they understood their covenant with God. They worshiped only one God, which made them very different from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. And they had all these dietary restrictions and other practices that were meant to set them apart from Gentiles– non-Jews. That’s how you knew someone was Jewish: they kept the law, which made them look radically different from everyone else.
This sense of separateness, though, was transcended by the prophets, who constantly called the people into a sense of concern for all humanity. (This very often got said prophets run out of town and/or killed, but I digress.)
Anyway, so, the first Christians were all followers of a law set up to create a sense of separateness between God’s chosen people and everyone else. They were Jews.
Well, now, all these non-Jews were hearing this Good News and wanting to join the new movement. The question was, did they have to become Jews first?
(And, remember, for the fellas, this meant undergoing a rather not-fun bodily modification, as an adult, in an era where there was no anesthesia and no scalpels. Yeah, ouch.)
Or, could these people who looked different and acted different and lived differently be accepted as they were, and welcomed based on their desire to follow Christ, rather than excluded based on the circumstances of their birth?
As St. Paul would later say in his letter to the Galatians, “in Christ there is no Jew or Greek… for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28; paraphrase)
So St. Peter is in Jerusalem, and he’s getting reamed by some of his fellow “circumcised believers” (Jewish Christians) because he was hanging out with “uncircumcised believers” (Gentile Christians). They want to know why he was doing this, so he tries to explain it to them.
He tells them about this really intense vision he had, where he was surrounded by all this non-Kosher food, and God told him it was okay to eat. When he protested, saying that he wasn’t going to eat something unclean. God responded, “Don’t call something unclean that I’ve made clean!”
St. Peter had this vision three times, then he met three Gentiles. He heard the Holy Spirit telling him to break bread with these people, so, he did. He was told not to make any distinction between himself and his new companions– not to draw that line that Nadia Bolz-Weber’s husband talked about between “us” and “them”.
Just like with the clean and unclean food, God is telling Peter to shift his paradigm– to look at God’s creation not through the lens of rules, but through the lens of God’s love for all that he has made.
Back to Maundy Thursday, and Jesus’s parting instructions. He doesn’t take this opportunity to remind his disciples that they’re different, and special, and God loves them the most.
He doesn’t tell them that everyone will know they’re God’s chosen people if they’re circumcised, eat the right things, and stay away from anything their law considers unclean. They already know that. That’s the paradigm they’re familiar with– the strict “us” and “them” paradigm– the sorting system gone haywire.
No, instead, he sets up a new paradigm. “Everyone shall know that you are my disciples…” how?
“If you love one another.”
And so– just like Jesus did with his disciples just before he gave this new commandment, this new paradigm, this new way of being– we break bread. We share a cup. We kneel side-by-side and enter into the holy mystery of God’s love.
When we break bread together– black and white, male and female, gay and straight, young and old– we are brought into communion with one another, and with the One who created us all in his image and called us all “very good”. We acknowledge in the sharing of the bread and the wine that everyone is equally worthy to receive, because God shows no partiality. If we are to be one with Christ, our proud divisions must end.
No one who kneels at the rail with us is a stranger. No one is “the other”. No one is on the wrong side of any imaginary line we might draw. No one is the enemy. As Christians, we have no enemies, because we know that all human beings are children of the same God, and members of one family. We are all companions. When we break bread, we do so in remembrance of the one who commanded us to love one another.
Indeed, when we break bread together, the love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends.