A Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Risen Lord, who has given us a new commandment. Amen.
“Love one another.” Such a simple, straightforward commandment. And yet like all of God’s Law, this one convicts us of our own sinful shortcomings, revealing how rarely we live into the life that our Lord intends for us. It seems odd that the lectionary should place this passage on Maundy Thursday and then, this year, bring it back around so quickly. It’s been, what, a month since we read it last?
But perhaps there’s some wisdom in this: to keep this perfect Law ever before us, a reminder of our need for God’s forgiving grace and a guide of how Christ intends for us to live in response to our redemption. As if to say, “On Maundy Thursday, you were forgiven your sin, given the new commandment, and fed with the Bread of Life. Let’s check back in. How have y’all done living into the gracious new life of Christ?”
“Love one another” – you would think that we could fulfill this one single commandment, and yet. Even in the early Church, among the disciples who followed Christ, this command proved so difficult. The same disciples who squabbled amongst themselves and jockeyed for positions of prestige and power when Christ was among them didn’t get any better after Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father.
Here’s a quick recap of early Church history:
The Lord made a covenant with a couple of wandering Arameans named Abram and Sarai, promising them a land to call home and a large family. More than that, God told them, their family would become a great nation and a blessing to all the nations. That promise, after some ups and downs, was fulfilled in the life, death, and glorious Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But there are some lingering questions. Along the way, God had given Abraham and Sarah’s descendants a couple hundred laws to guide them in the ways of holy living. Some of them made sense: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t worship other gods. Others were harder to comprehend: no pork or shellfish, don’t mix crops together in one field, and don’t wear shirts made of different fabrics.
As the Church began to expand its ministry beyond Judea to the Gentiles, these laws became sticking points. Was the Greek convert expected to follow the dietary laws? Could an Egyptian Christian eat meat sacrificed to an idol and then sold in the marketplace? And for Gentile men joining the Church, what about circumcision? Was that still required?
These debates raged among the apostles, and the arguments permeate the writings of the New Testament. At stake was a simple question: would those who joined the early Church from pagan religions be seen as “second-class” Christians?
Humans have a tendency to search for patterns and dump things into large categories. It’s helpful when you need to read the signs that weather is about to change and it’s time to harvest the crops, to tell whether or not a certain type of mushroom is safe to eat, or to seek safety from a coming storm. It’s less helpful, though, when this same tendency is turned against other humans: to determine whether or not this person is safe based on skin color, or if they’re a decent Christian based on their income or nationality. This is exactly what is at stake in the Church: the competition between man-made classes and God’s plan to bless all the nations, to unite all people into the one Body of Christ.
As the debate raged on, Saint Peter received a revelation: a table set with animals, including those that violate Jewish dietary laws. Peter, being a good Jewish boy, knows what not to eat: the birds of prey, the lizards, and that even many of the four-footed beasts are off-limits. When Peter politely refuses, reminding the divine messenger that he keeps kosher, the voice tells him:
What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
Enter a group of uncircumcised men, those who would be called profane, second-class Christians by some members of the Church. Peter, with unusual clarity, realizes:
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?
And, in one of the few times that the Church agreed with itself, the group of other apostles fall silent before saying:
Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.
Or, as Saint Paul would later clarify:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
And yet, some two thousand years later, we are still so hesitant to accept others as our siblings in Christ, still so determined to rank Christians as first, second, and third class people, so ready to call our sisters and brothers “profane” and “unclean.”
Ruby Turpin, the central character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” is a hog farmer’s wife in rural Georgia during the 1950s, large and in charge. You know the type: good country people. In her own words, Ruby is “respectable, hard-working, church-going.” She knows her place…
…and for that matter, she knows everybody else’s place. At night, sometimes, when she can’t sleep, she meditates on the different types of people, ranking them in order of respectability. To Ruby, O’Connor tells us, there are, at the top, the wealthier white folks, and then the white farmers like Ruby, followed some of the wealthier black people (although Ruby uses that word), and then the lazy and unemployed white trash, and at the very bottom are black field hands.
One day, Ruby takes her husband to the town doctor. The waiting room is overly sterile and impersonal, but yet also somehow dirty, crowded, and dingy. It’s like waiting in Purgatory. Alongside the Turpins is a respectable, elegant white woman – the type of person Ruby truly admires. The elegant woman has a daughter, Mary Grace, fat (and not “large” like Ruby), ugly, and scarred from years of acne. Also in the room is a woman Ruby immediately identifies as “white trash,” wearing a repurposed feed bag as a dress, and with her, a son covered in dirt.
The three women – Ruby, the elegant woman, and, for lack of a better term, the trashy lady – start talking. Very quickly, the trashy woman starts to reveal her ignorance, going on about how filthy hogs are and about black people (and, like Ruby, she uses that word). Prim and proper Ruby, who knows her place and wants to impress her elegant seatmate, can’t stand it.
She thinks, “Doesn’t this piece of trash realize that some black folks are better than her? And that unlike that little boy next to her, hogs can get lean?”
Throughout the entire conversation, Mary Grace stares at Ruby – a nasty, vile sort of stare.
At first, Ruby tries to ignore it, but it just gets to her. Suddenly, Mary Grace throws a book at Ruby, which strikes her in the face, leaving a big dark mark just above her eye. Jumping across the room, Mary Grace begins to strangle her. As the doctor tries to restrain Mary Grace, she looks at Ruby and spitefully whispers, “Go back to hell, you old wart hog!”
Ruby is obviously taken aback by this, and understandably angry. But it doesn’t stop there. The attack lingers in her mind for the rest of the day, simmering, until Ruby can barely contain her anger. At the end of the day, as she goes to take care of the hogs, her anger reaches a boiling point.
She yells at God: WHY ME!? I’m a good person. I’m saved. I know my place. Why me?
After all, Ruby is a good country person. She knows that everyone has their proper lot based on their station in life.
But as she rails against God and as the sun sets, Ruby is stricken with a vision: a procession entering heaven, singing along the way. At the front are the white trash – clean, for the first time ever. And behind them, black field hands, dressed in fine white linens. And then the lunatics, like Mary Grace. And bringing up the rear? The people like Ruby. They’re joining in the chorus, but there is no joy in their expressions. In O’Connor’s words, “They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
Beloved, our Lord has gathered us together in one faith through these gracious Sacraments, extending to us “the repentance that leads to life,” making us heirs of the promise to Abraham, adopting us as siblings in a new family. Christ has given us a new commandment, a new law to guide life together: that we love one another. Love one another: even when they don’t look like you, pray like you, make as much money as you, or speak the same language as you. Love one another, regardless of documentation, legal status, or nationality. Love one another regardless of their “proper place.” Love one another, and remember that Baptism has washed away all of our dividing lines. In Christ, there is no distinction between your love for the person in the pew next to you, the child detained in the Arizona desert, your neighbor in public housing, the asylum seeker waiting in Juarez, or the refugee living in Clarkston.
God has called all of us from across the nations and united us into one catholic Church, one Body of Christ.
Come, now, and receive that Body. Consume God’s grace and be consumed into the Communion of Saints. Come to the feast, and receive the grace to love as Christ first loved us.