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Sixth Week of Easter
May 13, 2012
I John 5:1-6
This text comes as the conclusion to the story of Cornelius and Peter. It emphasizes again the importance of the Holy Spirit in the preaching and reception of the word, especially as it relates to outreach to the Gentiles—in this case, in the person of a centurion—to the Roman Empire itself. It reinforces the theme of inclusion, challenging prejudices about who is in and who is out, and according to what criteria? As an aside, the baptism of Cornelius’ entire household was later used to legitimate infant baptism, based on the argument that there had to be at least one baby in the house.
A sermon could point out Peter’s willingness to be changed, to open himself to the Spirit and consider things he had not previously, such as inclusion of those who were not first Jews. The “circumcised believers,” i.e., Jews, were astounded, but it is Peter who exclaims, “can anyone withhold the water?” That is, one can also read it as an astonished Peter asking the question of himself.
This begs the question of ideological purity. Can any of us withhold the water from those who experience the Spirit of God, no matter how different they are from us? This text is specific to baptism, but the broader question is also implied. Can we recognize the presence of God in people with gender identities and sexual orientations different from ours? Can we withhold communion, ordination, marriage? Peter is actually the linchpin here, because Peter is the gatekeeper. If Peter is not open to the movement of the Spirit, it goes no further, because it is Peter who is the leader and Peter who gives the order. How are we responsive to the Spirit when we are in leadership roles? In the multiple dimensions of our lives, how do we hold leaders accountable . . . in the church, the community, our denominations, our nation, especially when they (or we) are put in the role of gatekeeper?
A process perspective emphasizes that the spirit is always present, and that it is creative. Because it is creative, it brings novelty; suggesting to us things we hadn’t considered before, but also empowering us to act with more courage than we might have thought possible. Thus it is interesting to note the movements of the spirit in this story, but more compelling to discern the movements of the spirit in our own stories.
In recent years, some biblical scholars have suggested that psalms like this one express what they call an ecology of praise. Ecology, of course, refers to the relationship of all living things to their environments, and praise is to extol the excellence or merits of something. Theologically speaking, ecology refers to the relationship of all living things to the source and sustenance of life, that is, the relationship of creation to its Creator. An ecology of praise suggests that praise is a defining quality of that relationship; that it is, in fact, constitutive of all living things.
If this is indeed the case, that all living thing are created with this capability, and it is written into their DNA, so to speak, then two thoughts immediately emerge; an implication and a question. First, the implication. As Ellen F. Davis (Interpretation) has noted: “the praise of God cannot be viewed as an activity in which human beings engage occasionally or even electively. Rather, praise is woven into the very web of reality, as the primary mode of communication between Creator and creature, expressing their mutual respect and delight.” Second, the question. Does the degradation of nature by human beings impair this communication?
All nature sings, writes the psalmist. What happens when it can’t? What happens when the Earth cannot make a joyful noise to God, because its mountains have been leveled, its streams and oceans polluted, its fields vanished before encroaching deserts? (I’m reminded of Star Trek IV, wherein an alien probe wreaks havoc on Earth’s weather systems when it cannot locate the song of long-extinct humpback whales. The crew must travel back in time to bring a pair of whales to the 23rd century so the probe can hear their song.)
In process theology, God is an immanent and incarnational presence in creation, so to praise God is also to extol the excellence of God’s creation. In other words, an ecology of praise reminds us of our interrelationality. The environment of creation is not just God, but all living things. An ecology of praise therefore points us simultaneously to God and to creation, reminding us that whatever else is required of us, we are called first to acts of recognition and appreciation. Once we recognize the excellence or merit of something outside ourselves we are open to the movement of the spirit guiding us to other actions, such as those discussed in the next text.
I John 5:1-6
When people have had a punitive God preached to them, they balk at words like “God’s will,” and “obey God’s commandments.” In this context, one obeys out of fear. But this text offers an alternative based on love. The argument goes like this: We love God because God loves us. When we love someone, we love what they love, so to love God is love what God loves, and to want for the beloved what God wants (what God wills).
What God wants is clarified throughout the Bible: social and economic justice, compassion for the poor and vulnerable, inclusion of the marginalized, honesty, peace, the well-being and flourishing of all creation. If we love God, then we want these things, too. We’re even willing to live in such a way as to help bring them about (“obey God’s commandments”). This is not a burden, but participation in and a contribution to what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
And we needn’t shy away from the “conquer the world” language if we pay attention to the kingdom of God that Jesus contrasts with the Roman Empire. To “conquer the world” in empire-speak is to dominate militarily or ideologically (cf. neoclassical economics). To “conquer the world” using God’s alternative is to permeate the world with peace, justice, compassion, and respect; to honor diversity in nature, people, and yes, religion.
In case we were still worried about how “burdensome” it could be to “obey God’s commandments,” Jesus here spells it out: the law is love. The fruit of that law is joy. And the metaphysical basis for those claims is what the Gospel calls abiding and process theology calls internal relations. That is, God is a constitutive part of every moment of our lives, concretely present—which is to say, incarnate—at all times within us and all of creation. And to round this back to Psalm 98, the constitutive mode for expressing this incarnation is praise, a joyful noise not limited to human beings but shared by all creatures to the ends of the Earth.