Readings this week: 1 John 5:1-6 and Acts 11:1-18

Where are we?

We’re coming up on the end of 1 John. We’ve talked about how God is light and love, therefore Christians must live in truth and act in love. Last week, love became a kind of mystical union with God. This week it will point to our status as children of God, which means we must also love each other.

In Acts, we have a brief period when Paul is not on the scene. He’s been sent away to Tarsus because the Jerusalem authorities were trying to kill him (following his conversion last week). Peter has been traveling around the region, most recently to the Roman city of Caesarea, where he visited a Roman army officer named Cornelius.  In this passage he comes back to Jerusalem to explain what happened.

What’s going on here?

The structure of 1 John is more rhetorical than logical, so there are plenty of circles. This is one: Anyone who believes in Jesus is God’s child; if you love God, you must love God’s (other) children; you love them by loving God and doing what God wants for you; doing God’s will is overcoming the sinful world; we can overcome the world because we believe in Jesus (see above). The point isn’t to construct some kind of logical syllogism, the point is to reinforce the significance of our life in Christ as powerfully as possible.

God’s “commands” here are to “believe in [God’s] Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as Christ commanded us” (1 John 3:23). The author doesn’t seem to have the Jewish law in mind here, at least not in detail.

“To defeat the world” is not conquest or escape, but an engaged life that is defined according to love rather than according to the values of competition, exclusion, and violence.

“The water and the blood.” This may be a corrective emphasis, against some teaching that only Jesus’ baptism matters and his death was not part of the salvation plan. Both ends of Jesus’ life matter here.

Acts deals (for several chapters) with the problem of identity. When non-Jews joined the church (a movement within Judaism), what were they required to do? How much of the Jewish law applied to them? Peter has eaten with a non-Jew, which would have been prohibited according to the accepted understanding of the Law. The paradigmatic argument is whether Gentiles must be circumcised, but the whole Law is at issue; Peter’s story is about dietary rules, which were just as clear a marker between Jews and Gentiles.

Peter’s vision at Joppa took place before he was invited to visit Cornelius.

Presumably the animals on the sheet were ritually unclean. Even clean animals would have been rendered unclean by their contact with the unclean ones.

Note the threes: God speaks three times, then three messengers arrive to take Peter to Caesarea. In the gospels, Peter denies Jesus three times after his arrest; in John’s gospel, Jesus then uses a threefold question to invite Peter back into discipleship. In Genesis, Abraham is visited by three angels who promise Isaac’s birth. And this is the third time we read this story (in the event itself and in two retellings). Even before the formal doctrine of the Trinity was developed, God sure seemed to like threes.

Peter takes six companions with him, for a theologically complete “seven.”

When Peter speaks, the Holy Spirit descends on the Gentiles, just like it did on the Jewish believers back on Pentecost. There’s no stopping this Spirit thing.

According to Acts, disputes in the church were often resolved by this kind of storytelling and the resulting acclamation of the gathered community.

So what?

Both 1 John and Acts are concerned with the love (and acceptance) Christians should have for each other. Each story understands the proof of Christian faith in its own way (enacted love or the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit), but the point remains that when God has brought us into relationship with each other, there’s nothing we can do – certainly nothing we should – to break that relationship apart.

This mutual love is easier said than done. We like to define ourselves against each other, to tell ourselves (and outsiders) that we’re better than some other group. Our organ is more impressive, or our music is more heartfelt, or we stand on the truth of scripture, or we’re more open and accepting than someone else. None of it matters. All that matters is the love of God made real in our lives, the power of the Holy Spirit remaking the world by transforming us. And there’s nothing to be done but to acknowledge that there’s still more to be done: by us, with us, in us.