The peoples of the nations, all of heaven and earth, are included in the new command to love one another.
This reading is the climax of the story about Peter taking the gospel to the nations. The whole passage (10:1-11:18) relates at length Peter’s experience with the household of the Roman military officer, Cornelius (told with redundant detail in Acts 10). In our passage Peter repeats the essentials of those events to Jewish disciples back in Jerusalem. These Jewish disciples believe that all Jesus followers must be circumcised and observe the Jewish food laws. Cornelius and his household, however, were not circumcised and did not follow Jewish purity laws. God has done a new thing – sent the gospel message to the non-Jewish nations.
Peter had a vision that told him to treat all animals in nature as clean for dietary purposes. Peter resists such conduct, which would be sacrilege for a Jew. God insists, however, telling him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (verse 9, NRSV). This declaration has radical implications for Jewish practice; it abolishes the food laws of Leviticus 11. It abolishes a major reason for separating Jews from non-Jews in table fellowship.
Following instructions, Peter goes to the house of Cornelius in Caesarea, the capital city of the Roman province of Judea. He has only begun delivering the message about Jesus when “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had at the beginning” (verse 15). This coming of the Holy Spirit is taken by Peter and his companions as divine proof that uncircumcised people are intended by God to be included in the Jesus community. Peter recalls Jesus’ words that John baptized with water but the followers of Jesus will be baptized by the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit was given to these non-Jewish folks, Peter says, “who was I that I could hinder God?” (verse 17). His previously critical believers in the circumcision are convinced and acknowledge that God “has given even to the Nations [Gentiles] the repentance that leads to life.”
This episode of Peter with Cornelius is one of the more constructed passages in the book of Acts. The writer of Acts, late in the first century, is putting a spin on some Caesarea traditions to make Peter the first apostle to the non-Jewish people. This writer wants to present Paul as following and paralleling the work of Peter, and thus presents Peter as the first “apostle to the nations.” (Acts elsewhere indicates that the first acceptance of non-Jewish disciples probably happened in Antioch and was done by Greek-speaking Jewish-Christians from Cyrene and Cyprus, Acts 11:20-24.)
The point of this reading during the Easter season is that it was the Spirit of the Risen Jesus who expanded the work of the gospel to include all the nations – the nations who, therefore, belonged with Israel in God’s final saving work.
This psalm is given in the Lectionary not only here but in the reading for the Sunday after Christmas, because it is a grand Hallelujah psalm. I give here my comments from one of the earlier occasions of this reading.
This psalm is an exuberant and delightful summons to heaven and earth to praise the Lord, to “hallelu” (the plural form) God. The craft exhibited by the composer is not complicated but is pleasing to watch as it unfolds.
There are two large sections elaborating those called upon to praise, those in heaven and those on earth. The call to heavenly things (verses 1-4) repeats in rapid sequence seven imperatives to praise, moving from one aspect to another of the heavenly realm: from the heavens, in the heights, all God’s angels (messengers), all God’s host (army), sun and moon, all lighted stars, and supremely, the heaven of heavens enclosed by the cosmic waters. These seven imperatives are followed by an exhortation: “Let them praise …,” which in turn leads, finally, to a reason for the praise: because all these summoned entities were “created” by God and fixed forever.
The strategy of the second section (verses 7-13) is not to repeat the call to praise each time, but to elaborate more fully those to whom it is addressed. The imperative “Praise ye …” is given only once at the beginning, then followed by a chain of earthly things included in this imperative: the earth; sea monsters and deeps; lightning and hail, snow and frost, storm winds (all weather elements kept in ends-of-the-earth storehouses); mountains and hills; fruit trees and huge cedars; and, moving toward the human world, animals wild and domestic, crawling creatures and winged birds; and finally the varieties of people – kings and clans, princes and judges, young men and maidens, old folks and kids. The long enthusiastic enumeration intends to be exhaustive – all are addressed by the command to “Praise the Lord.” Again, the imperative chain is followed (verse 13) by an exhortation, “Let them praise the name of the Lord.” And, finally again, a reason for the summons to praise is given: because “his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.”
Does this reason for praise seem too general, too vague? The poet’s basic structure is completed, but both creative art and faith erupt in a final declaration, a final proclamation of why God is to be praised: “He has raised up a horn for his people, …for Israel, the people close to him” (verse 14). Yet, this psalm is not about this horn, this pillar of strength to empower the people; it is about the universal praise that this new act of God prompts throughout the cosmos.
The selections for the Epistle reading continue in the book of Revelation. However, we leap forward, skipping the great middle sections about the time of Tribulation and the Millennium, and go to the grand climax when the heaven and earth are made new.
When there is a new heaven and earth, there will no longer be any Sea (21:1). This does not mean earth will not have its great bodies of bounded water; it means the ancient enemy of an ordered cosmos, the Sea (Psalm 93:3-4; Psalm 74:13-14; Isaiah 51:9-10) will be finally and conclusively defeated and banished.
The main element of this vision, however, is the coming of the New Jerusalem. The seer beholds it descending as the bride (which in the prophets is the restored Zion), and he hears a voice declaring that God has taken up residence with the people. In Greek this is literally, “behold the Tent [Tabernacle] of God is with humans, / and [God] will tent with them.” This holy residence will be where God wipes away every sorrowful tear, and where Death [capitalized in NRSV!] will be no more. Mourning and weeping will be no more because “the first things have passed away” (verse 4).
The seer is commanded by God from the throne to write down this vision, because the words he has heard “are trustworthy and true” (verse 5). And though there is more for the seer to learn about the great New Jerusalem, God now says, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” And as if the real end is a gentle touch of care and mercy, “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life” (verse 6).
The Gospel reading is the beginning of Jesus’ talk about going away from the disciples, a topic that continues in John’s Gospel for several chapters.
First, we may note here a strange juxtaposition between betrayal and glorification. Jesus has just identified his betrayer (for those who have eyes to see) by giving him a piece of bread. That act liberates the traitor to perform his treacherous deed. “So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. … So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. It was night” (John 13:26-30, NRSV). Betrayal. But immediately Jesus’ talk is about he and God being glorified in each other. The beginning of our reading is, “When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’” (verse 31). Apparently being betrayed IS being glorified! Submitting to the rampage of evil in the world IS making the glory of God evident in the world. A more than usually ironic touch in this subtle Gospel!
The main burden of this part of this Gospel is Jesus’ departure. “…[A]s I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’” (verse 33). But when Jesus himself is gone, his disciples will have a mark that identifies them in the world. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (verse 35).
This is probably one of the places where one passage in John needs to be expanded and interpreted by another. The full version of this “new” command is given in 15:12-15. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…. I do not call you servants any longer, …but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”
Put in the language of the old heavenly court where God and God’s Anointed preside over an entourage of servants, messengers, and armed forces, this means that you, the disciples, are no longer servants and errand boys sent on specific tasks, but you are now part of the inner council of the risen Lord himself. You are Friends of Jesus, sent into the world to love one another to the point of giving one’s life for each other. When these disciples live in the world this way, they are truly witnesses to the risen heavenly Lord.