Sometimes things are made new by being repeated...
Easter 5c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
I have been reminding us over the last few weeks that Easter is not just a day but a season of fifty days running from Easter day itself through the feast of Pentecost. Every season of the church year has a particular focus or emphasis — in part based on some specific event, but also reminding us of how that event is continually alive in the life of the church and has effect upon our daily lives. That’s why we repeat these themes throughout the year.
The theme of Advent is expectation, and we live in that continued expectation of the day of the Lord’s coming, both personal and corporate. Christmastide brings us the good news of the birth of Christ, and calls us to find a way to let Christ be born in us anew each day. Epiphany describes the ways in which God is made manifest — and continues to be manifest in the lives and works of the members of Christ’s body, the church. The season of Lent calls us to examine our hearts, inspiring us — by the story of Christ’s own suffering — to discipline ourselves in obedience to his call. And of course Easter, the season we now celebrate, brings us to the resurrection and throughout the season of Easter we are given continued assurances of the new life springing forth from the grave.
In today’s readings we are specifically reminded of newness — of novel and unheard-of things as well as of renovation, renewal of all things, in particular as promised by the one whom John saw seated on the throne in his heavenly vision: “See, I am making all things new.”
The Son of God can make all things new because he is both the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, or as we would say the A through Z (since Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). As the Psalmist would say, “All times are in your hand.”
God is the source of all that is new, of all novelty, all restoration, all renovation and renewal. And he gives this new life to any and all who thirst for it.
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We get a glimpse of thirsty people receiving something they don’t even know they need in that reading from the Acts of the Apostles — or rather, we hear Peter’s account of what happens when he tries to explain himself to the Jewish Christian believers who are scandalized by the fact that he actually went into a Gentile home, a Roman home, and even sat at table with Gentiles — people unclean by definition. Peter explains that he had been prepared to respond to this invitation from Cornelius, the Roman soldier, by a heavenly vision that came to him. He sees what sounds to me like a trampoline being let down from heaven and full of all kinds of animals, many of them classified as unclean. That would mean that they are forbidden by Jewish dietary law, and since all of the first Christians are Jewish, from Christian tables as well, as Peter reminds the heavenly voice when it commands him to kill and eat; even being so bold as to say to the voice from heaven, “By no means!” Peter protests, but the voice continues to remind him that what God has made clean he ought not call profane. As with Jesus’s instructions to Peter on the beach from a few weeks back — you recall, the ones about feeding the lambs and sheep, and about whether he really loved him — Peter gets another triple lesson. (Maybe Peter is just one of those people who needs to be told things three times before he gets it!) But as he says, the vision is repeated two more times together with the instruction not to call profane what God has declared clean. And so Peter finally gets to understand this, just as he finally got to understand — with those repeated statements about feeding the lambs, feeding the sheep — that Jesus wasn’t talking about him being a shepherd of literal sheep, but about people, the people he would serve. And so too with this vision he finally comes to understand that is not about food but about people — God is about to do a new thing, and no people are to be called unclean or profane; God is about to open salvation to the Gentiles, which is indeed exactly what happens.
Now this was a new thing that some would never quite accept — they had been taught and believed that only God’s chosen people merited salvation, and that the Gentiles were a people unclean by definition and as much to be avoided as Gentile food. But Peter, and later Paul, would both demonstrate how ancient prophecies that salvation would come even to the Gentiles — those people “who in darkness walked” — that those ancient prophecies had been fulfilled in Jesus, and in this particular incident God set a seal upon it through the descent of the Holy Spirit. Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon these Gentiles, this Roman soldier Cornelius and his family and his household, the same Holy Spirit that came upon the apostles and the other Jewish believers at Pentecost; and it happened before Peter could even finish his sermon; even before he could finish telling them the good news, the Holy Spirit came down upon Cornelius and all in his house. God, it seems, is more eager to save, that we can ask or imagine.
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Finally, in the gospel today, we step back before Good Friday and Easter to the Last Supper. Judas has already left the table to go about his sinister business of betrayal, feet have been washed, and as we know from the other Gospels, bread has been broken and the cup of the new covenant in his blood has been shared. And in this still and reflective moment Jesus pronounces that, “Now” is the moment of his glorification; and he gives the disciples a new commandment.
So what is this new commandment? He does not hesitate to deliver it, but states it immediately, “That you should love one another.” Perhaps he pauses for a moment, as no doubt the disciples are a little startled — not that they should be commanded to love one another, but that this commandment should be given as something new. Had not God always commanded that his people are to love God, and to love their neighbors as themselves? Are these commandments not the same as the ones that go all the way back to Moses.
We can well imagine the disciples wondering at what Jesus means by calling this commandment “new.” Would you not have been as much surprised? So what does he mean?
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It is plain that the commandment to love one another is not new in the sense of never having been given before. But that is not the only meaning of the word new. Sometimes a thing is new because it is a re-issue of something that is old.
We hear in that passage from Revelation this morning of a kind of renovation, in the description of the new Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been reborn, has been made new, and is descending from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. The old, faithless city has been redeemed and made new. I must say that when I hear that passage I am reminded of an old joke by James Thurber, one of his famous cartoons, in which the caption was, “She’s always living in the past. Now she wants to get a divorce in the Virgin Islands.” But with God all things are possible. The faithless city Jerusalem is made new, is restored to her status of innocence, and clothed afresh with her bridal gown to welcome her husband, Christ himself. With God, newness can always come, even when things have fallen so very low.
As I say, sometimes it is not a new thing itself, but something that has been made new, something restored, or in the case of the book, republished. Even the resurrection itself partakes of this quality of old being made new. For it was the body that suffered and died that rose from the grave, given new life, still bearing the marks of the spear and the nails.
I am reminded — thinking of books — of the epitaph that Benjamin Franklin wrote for himself when he was young (although I’m sad to say this is not the one that actually appears on his grave). His youthful idea of what his epitaph should be reads:
The body of B. Franklin, Printer, like the Cover of an old Book — its Contents torn out and stripped of its Lettering and Gilding — lies here, food for worms. But the Work shall not be lost; for it will — as he believed — appear once more in a new and more elegant Edition revised and corrected by the Author.
(A little long for a tombstone!) That is the sense in which this new commandment is new —it is a command newly issued. And don’t we need to be reminded of that commandment to love one another over and over again. It needs to be made new every day, repeated so that we can take it into our hearts. It needs to be repeated just as Peter needed to be told three times to care for the flock and later to be told not to call profane what God has declared clean.
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But there is another and deeper sense in which this is indeed a new commandment, in the sense of not having been given before — for Jesus adds, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So the commandment is not only repeated, but transposed to a higher key, with a more sublime example in the love that Jesus himself shows by giving himself up for them, the greatest love that anyone can show, to lay down his life for his friends. And so the commandment is no longer simply “love your neighbor as yourself,” but “love your neighbor as Jesus loves your neighbor” — loves your neighbor, and you, to the point of sacrificing himself on the cross for you, for your neighbor, and for the whole world. In this great love Jesus gives himself completely and utterly to suffering and death for universal salvation, to the end that all who believe might be saved.
This is not only new, it is earthshaking. It is revolutionary. It is nothing less than the work of God, in which we are invited to participate as the second edition of the people of God, not replacing the first edition, God’s chosen people, but supplementing it, as God has opened salvation to us Gentiles, in a new chapter beginning with that ancient Christmastide and coming to its fulfillment in the never-ending Eastertide in which all of humanity is invited to join, Jew and Gentile. In our obedience to this new commandment, may God our Lord and Savior be glorified and praised; henceforth and to the end of the ages.