03 May 2010

Catalyst: Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

When we talk about religion, or about belief in general, one of the common criticisms is that religion supposedly seeks to divide the world. Critics of religion tell us that religion thrives off of division and fear, that it foments discord and creates problems, only to claim to solve them itself. How many times have you heard the tired claim that religion is the cause of all wars, for example?

Today’s readings offer an excellent counterpoint. True enough, the God of Israel we find in the Old Testament pretty clearly divided the world into Jew and Gentile – the People of Israel, and everyone else. That would seem to play into the hands of the critics. God set apart this one elite of people, so obviously God is an elitist jerk out to play us off against one another, right?

But the reading from Acts is the decisive turning point. At this point in the story, the Apostles were one and all observant Jews. They would have all been circumcised; they would have all obeyed the Law, kept the feasts, ate only kosher food and so on. They would also have normally refrained from contact with non-Jews – that is, with Gentiles. Us. Pretty divisive stuff. Since this was all God’s idea, clearly God is to blame for dividing us into Jew and Gentile – or so the critics would have you believe.

But Peter, who after the death and resurrection of Jesus has become in effect the earthly figurehead of the Christians, has a vision where he is encouraged to eat strange things. The animals on the cloth dropping from heaven are all quite explicitly things that Jews were not allowed to eat – hence the quote, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat; what God has made clean, you must not call profane”. Peter takes this as a message that it is time to not only consort with the unclean uncircumcised – i.e. Gentiles – but to actively love them. He realizes that God’s love is most certainly not just for Israel, that the unclean Gentile is not profane. He says, “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?” So he realizes, this gift is not just for Israel at all. It is for all of humanity. And it is the task of all Christians to not just share this love amongst themselves, but with all human beings.

God gave Israel a special gift, the gift of being the first people to clearly hear and follow His voice. That gift is not one of division at all. It is more like choosing the right catalyst.

In chemistry, a “catalyst” is a substance or thing that is necessary to set off a reaction, to set a process in motion. A catalyst works by creating an alternate pathway for energy to flow, for electrons to be exchanged, to set different molecules in contact with one another that would otherwise avoid each other. A catalyst can also be an enzyme in the bloodstream, making it possible for the body to absorb nutrients that it needs to live. When the body introduces that enzyme, that catalyst, into the bloodstream, it is clearly not changing anything – it didn’t change its mind suddenly and abruptly decided to make enzymes for the sheer sake of making enzymes. Instead, it does so as part of a natural, necessary process. Our bodies need catalysts to even work, to grow, to prosper. It is the exact same principle in human history. God never changes His mind, but rather, at certain times a new stage of God’s plan opens up before us, as God adds another catalyst to the mix.

The catalyst in human history is the voice of the One God calling to Abraham from the tent of stars, which created the People of Israel. That catalyst reappears as the voice calling to Moses from the burning bush, welding the People of Israel together, so that they could enter the Promised Land. That same catalyst reappears as the One Savior Jesus Christ bringing the Apostles together, to start a chain reaction; He gave them the gift of Himself, so that they would give of themselves.

Peter stands here before the Jews, and once again acts as a catalyst. The Jews he lives with have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. But they still are blind to what the full meaning of this is. They criticize him for consorting with Gentiles, with the uncircumcised. But Peter tells them about his vision, of people liberated from those laws and strictures, and united under one God, no differences, no barriers, no walls, no borders, no bars on the windows. That vision of one people, one humanity, one God, is the ultimate vision of oneness – the very opposite, the antithesis of division.

In the Gospel, Jesus gives us His parting words, just before he is betrayed to certain death, after the Last Supper. He tells them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Where Moses was the catalyst welding Israel together, Jesus Christ is the catalyst to weld us all together, from all nations and peoples.

Far from religion dividing us, Jesus is telling us to love one another as He loves all of us. God loves us all infinitely. The great catalyst in the chemistry of human history is there not to cause explosions or discord or dissent, but to fuse us all together into one whole, to reconcile, to love, to share. There was never a change in plans because God or we human beings screwed up; instead, it was all part of God’s plan, as He added catalyst after catalyst to the mix to get the result He wants. That result is what we call the Kingdom of Heaven.

We see a glimpse of that goal, the Kingdom of Heaven at the end of time, in the Book of Revelation. ‘I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”’

This is what Jesus wants for us, and what the Will of God has always been and always shall be. An end to war, an end to pain, an end to suffering. But we are the keys to this. We are all catalysts if we care to be, catalysts for peace and justice. Each of us was added to the mix to fulfill our greater purpose. But we can only do it to the fullest if we obey that last commandment of Jesus. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Everything we do, every waking moment of our lives, should be tested against that one sentence. We must let Jesus act as a catalyst in our hearts, so that we can act as a catalyst in our wider society.

When we do this, Jesus is working through us. We literally become the limbs and hands of Christ, the true Body of Christ. Jesus works His miracles through His body, and that’s us. And it’s Jesus who is seated on the throne saying, “See, I am making all things new”. With His help, we can make all things new, now and forever.

But there is a catch. Critics of religion have one thing dead-on: We as Christians have to live up to our fine words. All too often we Christians have made excuses for our failure to live up to the Gospel. Critics of religion love to point out the hypocrisy and moral failures of Christian leaders. Even many Christians like to feel just a little vindicated and more than a little Schadenfreude when the likes of Bishop Mixa or Käßmann are hoisted on their own petards – where they acted as great moralizers, their own moral failures weakened them. But here again is the answer for us – not to give up, to toss religion onto the scrapheap of history just because our leaders have failed us, but to try harder ourselves. The critics of religion do us a favor, by holding up a mirror and reminding us that we aren’t what we should be, by our own standards. What the world needs is not more self-proclaimed hypocritical self-serving Christians looking for a cheap ticket to Heaven. What it needs is real Christians – those who say what they mean and do what they say in the name of Jesus, whatever the consequences.

Imagine how impressed people are when they find a “real” Christian – someone who really does live as Jesus taught. Someone like, for example, Frère Roger of Taizé, a very simple and humble man who acted as a catalyst to reignite Christianity in Europe and worldwide. Before Taizé became well-known and popular, Christianity was arguably dying in Europe; arguably it is still very feeble. But Frère Roger’s personal credibility, his soul like a flame, his humility and care for others, was a catalyst that started a fire to reignite the spirit of the Church in Europe and far beyond.

Potential Frère Rogers are all around us. You and I could just as well do things as great as he did, passing on the fire of our conviction and love of one another. You might think that’s preposterous, but if you think hard about it, what’s stopping us from doing it? Only ourselves, our own narrow interests – nothing else. The answer to this is not “I can’t”, but “I’ll try my best”.

Each of us can be another catalyst that makes the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven come that much closer. When we drop our own cares and worries, when we forget about all the things that bother us, when we stop letting our own goals and desires dictate our lives, we gain the inner peace and resolve to spread the peace we suddenly find in ourselves. The true catalyst for this peace, inside and outside, as it always was and ever shall be, is love. Like it says in an old Beatles song, “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”. Amen.

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