May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Earlier this week, I had a meeting with a colleague of mine, the Rabbi, Nikki Greninger from temple Isaiah in Lafayette and Rabbi Greninger. And I started meeting a couple of years ago when I wanted to have a collegial relationship with a rabbis so that I could learn more about how Jews understand Holy scripture, what they learned from it and how we can learn from them about their understanding and their learning.
And I was reminded talking to Rabbi Greninger that the Jewish tradition of studying scripture follows a certain pattern. And the pattern is one of expanding inclusion of commentary and reflection on the text. So Jewish Bible study begins with the scripture itself, but quickly adds rabbinic commentary as voices in conversation with the scripture and from which we all learn and add our own voices. So the first commentary on scripture in the Jewish tradition is called the Mishnah and the Mishnah in conversation with scripture itself produced the towel moods and the tablets went on in conversation with the Mishnah and scripture itself to produce the ongoing rabbinic tradition of producing commentary in conversation with scripture, the Mishnah, the Talmud’s other important rabbinic voices from the middle ages and from the world that we live in. So it begins in one place and it expands gradually, but increasingly over time, like a stream that flows from a little cleft in a rock in a mountain side, and which joins a river and a river, which, which rushes out to a mighty endless ocean.
In fact, that is what the rabbi is referred to. In terms of that ongoing project of commentary, they call it the ocean of Torah. It never ends in Christian tradition. We have tended to kind of go the other direction. We’ve tended to kind of think of all of our thinking and learning and teaching as directing us back towards some original source of authority. Sometimes that source of authority has been characterized as the church itself as in the Roman Catholic tradition and the magisterium and the authority of the Pope and the teachings of the church. Sometimes in Christian tradition, that authority has been described as scripture itself, as in Martin Luther’s statement, Sola scriptura–only scripture is the authority for our faith–but I think all Christians can safely agree that the true source of all of our authority, all of our teaching and learning is the person of Jesus himself with whom we seek our relationship and from whom we derive our identity.
And we may therefore see the Jewish tradition of an original source, expanding endlessly into an ocean of commentary as offering for us a model of how to think of Christian discipleship, Christian life, and Christian history as the person of Jesus called at first 12, and then more disciples to follow him, and then commissioned those 12 disciples to go out and make more disciples to expand the school of commentary and learning, and identity and practice as people who find their true identity in the person of Jesus. And so in the season of Easter, we read from the acts of the apostles, which is the beginning of the story that continues to unfold over time throughout history and across the earth. As people find themselves in relationship to God, through the Holy spirit and the person of Jesus God’s son. And the thing that characterizes the experience of the disciples in the acts of the apostles is this continued discovery that the people that they thought had no relationship with God have a relationship with God, the people that they thought might’ve been outside, the prospect or the possibility of a covenant of a saving relationship, a life-giving relationship with God did in fact have such a relationship because the God we worship and who’s made known to us in the person of Jesus is not only the God for some people does not only love certain kinds of people.
That’s a mistake that Christians have made for many centuries to think of ourselves as loved exclusively by God. But if we see the pattern of understanding and learning and expansion of comprehension described in the acts of the apostles, what it looks like is the disciples themselves continually coming to a new understanding that people they thought weren’t loved by God are loved by God. As it says in this passage that we read this morning, even the Gentiles, just the nature of that phrase itself indicates the degree to which the apostles were surprised. Even the Gentiles could have a life-giving relationship or did have a life-giving relationship with God. So the church creates sacramental rights that honor and celebrate that fact baptism being the foundational sacramental, right by which we honor the fact that people have a life-giving covenanted relationship with God. And it’s not limited to particular types of people characterized by nationality or genetic inheritance or religious identity or language.
All people have that relationship with God because God is the God of all life. It’s up to us to discover it. And our faithful commitment to the commandment that Jesus gave us is when we discover that God loves not only us, but all people, all life, the person of Jesus in relationship with his disciples gives them a new commandment. He says, if you love me, follow my commandments. And the commandment is to love one another as he has loved us. So all of Christian life and identity and relationship with Jesus is grounded and rooted in this idea of love, which sounds great. And I want to say from my own personal experience and from my keen observation of the world around me, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of kinds of love or a lot of human behaviors that we say our love that really aren’t.
And we know they’re not because they don’t give life the relationship between the commandment to love one another as God has loved us and our understanding of what it means to be welcomed and included into the community of the church is found in that clause in our baptismal covenant, whereby we say, we will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being respect, the dignity of every human being. I think that’s the idea that’s behind the disciples discovery that the people they had thought were not part of a loving relationship with God, who they found out were in a loving relationship with God. And what changed for them was that those people became dignified for them as a result.
So in a way, what it might mean to love one another, as God has loved us is not to share the same tastes or narcissistically reflect ourselves back to one another, or belong to the same tribe or community, or codependently make each other, yeah. Feel important in a way that’s actually kind of a little bit of a prison. It might be see that when we love one another, as God has loved us, we simply apprehend no they’re in the full dignity of our full humanity. And so when we baptize and make the promises and the covenant that we share together in that sacrament, and we say that we will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being, our effort to do you. So maybe our faithful effort to respond to Jesus’s commandment, to love one another, as he has loved us, apprehending one another in the face, full dignity of our full humanity and in the awareness of that fullness, dozens of God in each life, in all life and the dignity, I have it all Peter’s response is the only response who could withhold the water of baptism, who could withhold the water of dignity, who could withhold the water of humanity.
It’s a good question. As we look back through human, and for our sake, Christian history, we find many efforts to seek, to withhold the water of baptism, to withhold the water of dignity, to withhold the water of humanity. In the last year, we’ve been reading a lot of work addressing the matter of anti-racism. Some of us have been gathering to discuss what we’ve been reading we’re learning about. And in my case case, in particular, I’ve been reading and listening to voices that are talking about the role. The church has played in the construction and reinforcement of racist structures in our society. And I do that because as an ordained priest in the Episcopal church, I have a responsibility to correct the wrongs that I see in my own institution, for the sake of not withholding the water of baptism and of dignity and of humanity.
And to be fair, the church has played a significant role in withholding those waters for the sake of preserving something that thought was better than God’s love, which was white supremacy. I see we were wrong about that. We were wrong to seek, to withhold the dignity and the humanity and the water of baptism from people of color, in the history of our world and in the history of our country. Women to have suffered significantly from the effort to withhold from them, the full dignity of their full humanity. And in the last six months, I’ve been working with a cohort of clergy from around the country to study foundational feminist theoretical texts, to study and learn and understand for herself, for ourselves, all the ways in which our world has sought to withhold the waters of baptism and dignity and humanity from women, between women and people of color.
That’s a lot of people that the church and other institutions have been invested in seeking to withhold the waters of dignity and humanity from. So I guess what I mean to say is there’s still a lot of work to do. And the pattern of discipleship that is laid down in the story of the acts of the apostles, in which the disciples of Jesus themselves continually come to new understandings about where God is and how God is acting out God’s life, giving healing mission in the world, in the lives of all people in ways that may not have occurred to us who think of ourselves as the ones whom God has especially chosen. And that our work is to listen and look for the ways that God is speaking peace and redemption and healing and new life. Even the people that we thought wouldn’t have heard, God wouldn’t have found God. And maybe from whom we had sought to withhold the waters of their dignity and humanity, and even the waters of baptism, even the Gentiles Peter says, and then he says, who can possibly withhold the grace of God? The waters of baptism, the dignity of the humanity of our fellow humans.
When Jesus says love one another, as I have loved you, I think this is what he means. See if you can apprehend every human being in the full dignity of their full humanity. And if you can’t ask for repentance that your heart and your mind may grow in the spirit of God, that’s the direction that we’re headed. That’s the stream that flows to the river and the river that takes us to the sea and the sea. That takes us to the endless ocean of God’s mercy and love for you for me, for all humanity.