retractively Let Love Lead
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 15, 2022
5h Sunday of Easter
Jon Batiste is a singer, songwriter, and musician, who has recorded and performed with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, Willie Nelson, and Ed Sheeran. This 35-year-old Julliard trained musical phenom was nominated for 11 Grammys this year and walked away with 5 of them. While all this is impressive, what draws me to him is his deep faith in God and how he presents that faith to the world. He is like human sunshine, and whenever I watch him perform, I can’t help but think that he is more than a great musician. He is a great human being who uses his energy to add goodness and love to the world. He doesn’t appear to have time for negativity, doom, and gloom. He is too busy sharing his message—which just so happens to be the message of the gospel: That love is our only hope—not only to survive, but to thrive, and love—God’s love—is for everyone!
One of my favorite songs on Batiste’s Grammy award winning album is entitled “Let God Lead.” The chorus is an echo of two phrases: “Let love lead,” and “Let God lead.” Here are just a few of the other lyrics:
We begin to breathe when the wounds of others become relieved with the love of others… He who looks around to find who’s in need has made the best investment as a human being…the best investment in his legacy. I say that love will never force; love will never quit; love will never lose; love will never miss. Love stands up when others won’t; love prevails without want; love puts up with anything; God is love and love is God. So here is a formula for every hard situation—just let God and let love lead the way.
Our reading from Acts offers a snapshot of the early church and, interestingly, leaders of the church have already decided what Christ’s church will look like—who will be included and who will not. But the Spirit will have none of it which is why the Spirit is so busy in Acts—shaking things up—turning things upside down—showing the people that the Spirit of God will lead the way.
The Spirit visits Peter with a vision that we are told about in Acts chapter 10, a vision that is repeated almost verbatim in chapter 11. Since we are given the details twice, it alerts us to pay attention. In the second telling, there is an added caveat: News has spread to Jerusalem that Peter has gone to eat with Gentiles—the uncircumcised—the unclean. The apostles and believers call Peter on the carpet for his misbehavior. We may remember that “on the carpet” is where Peter spends a lot of time when Jesus walks the earth. But this Peter is different. This Peter is empowered the Holy Spirit. He’s seen some things and he is now ready to give account to anyone, anywhere. So, without hesitation he shares how the Lord showed him that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Truly, the love of Jesus is now for everyone—man, woman, child, Jew, Gentile—everyone! When his accusers hear all that Peter’s story, they are dumbstruck. Finally, when they regain their voices, it is not words of criticism that fall from their lips. It is praise to God!
Millenia have passed but there is still so much for us to learn from the early church. First, what does this pericope, this selection of Scripture, teach us about how leaders in the early church interacted? What we see is believers willing and able to talk about hard things. Peter comes before his critics, hears their concerns, and then responds. He is not intimidated by his audience, and he doesn’t back down. Instead, he speaks his truth, and the leaders listen with open hearts and mind. But things are much different in modern times. One scholar notes that,
Peter entered the Jerusalem church and squarely faced his critics. Too often, we try to be nice at church. We try not to be confrontational. We try to side-step controversy. We closet our differences. We paint smiles on our church faces, even as we realize irreconcilable issues. This text reminds us that controversy needs to be voiced, not avoided, and conflict needs to be transformed, not ignored.” [i]
Another takeaway from the text is the power of story. It’s a lesson Peter learns from the best for, repeatedly, it is through parables (stories) that Jesus prompts those around him to have a change of heart and mind. Peter follows suit, so when he comes before the leaders who question his behavior, Peter does not argue his point. He just opens his mouth and speaks of his own transformation. You see, not too long ago, Peter agreed with them. He, too, believed that in the newborn church of Jesus, there would be insiders and outsiders. But a supernatural encounter changes him and the church, forever. Of course, Peter could have approached the problem differently. He could have argued theological points and debated doctrinal differences. But, no, he merely tells his story. Like one biblical commentator notes,
…As followers of the rabbi from Nazareth whose primary teaching was through parables, we sometimes forget the power of stories today… If we could only learn to be storytellers and tell compelling stories…we could leave the rest up to the Spirit who takes up where stories end.”[ii]
Another lesson we can learn from our reading is the importance of truly listening to one another. The leaders in Jerusalem have valid concerns about Peter’s decision to eat with unclean people but they are open to listening and they are open to change. Through Peter’s vision they learn that it is not in their power to exclude anyone from the message of the gospel. Echoing the words of Peter, “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?”
Who are we to hinder God? Henri Nouwen posited that, “…we are so full of our own opinions, ideas, and convictions that we have no space left to listen to the other and learn.” But my brothers and sisters in Christ, listen and learn we must—if we want to participate in the Spirit’s work in the church today—work that will be accomplished—with or without us.
If God so loved the world that he sent Jesus so that all might be saved, who are we to limit the mission of God’s redemptive love? My friends, every time we exclude someone, draw a line in the sand to mark who is in and who is out, it would behoove us to proceed with caution because Jesus is always on the other side. Peter’s vision is convincing proof that no one is excluded from the love and care of God—not then—not now—now ever!
Maybe a statement like, “God’s love is for everyone,” doesn’t seem like radical news to Presbyterians, but folks, in many places, it is news. In society and in the church, we are still better at building higher fences than building longer tables. It’s one of the many reasons for the great exodus of church members in recent decades. On Twitter last week, a woman shared something her pastor said in a sermon: “People under 40 are not leaving the church because they do not love Jesus. They are leaving because they do, and they can’t find Jesus there.” Wow! There is no denying that the universal church has a bad reputation. We are renowned for what we are against instead of what we are for. We are reputed to be racist, homophobic, sexist, and more energized by political affiliation than by being Christ’s love in the world. Could it be that there are unchurched people who long to be in relationship with a God whose love has no bounds? And might First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta be a place where they can find that message taught and believed and lived out?
A few days ago, PBS journalist, Jeffrey Brown, interviewed Jon Batiste. During the conversation, Brown mentioned that when he heard Batiste’s song, “We Are,” it occurred to him that a lot of people do not see much “we” in our nation these days. But Batiste sees it differently. In his opinion we have become focused on global issues to the extent that we have lost touch with our own communities. But in his words, “In schools, hospitals, community centers across the country, there’s a lot of we.” To this I would add, here in our church, there is a lot of “we.” We are not a big church. We haven’t been for a long time. But we are a church filled with love for one another and we have plenty of love to share with the world. And make no mistake, the world is watching. The world wants to know if we have anything to offer other than discord and division. The world wants to know if we can listen to one another with open hearts and minds. The world wants to know if we are more focused on building higher walls or building longer tables.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Stephen D. Jones, Feasting on the Word.
*Cover photo “Peter’s Vision of the Sheet with Animals” by Henry Davenport Northrop via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain