Sunday, May 15, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 16:18; sermon starts around 23:16)
Have any of you ever heard of a game called Minecraft? It’s a pretty popular game – you might even have kids or grandkids or students who play it, if you haven’t played it yourself. My two younger siblings got me hooked on Minecraft during the height of the pandemic. They’re usually a little more on the cutting edge of that kind of stuff than I am – but they like to find things that the three of us can play together, and Minecraft fit the bill.
And it’s actually a lot of fun! Minecraft is what’s known as a “sandbox game”: you’re basically dropped into a digital world and given complete freedom to explore. You go “mining” for all kinds of different resources; and you can then use those resources to make tools, or to construct a shelter, or really to build anything and everything you can possibly imagine.
And it’s fun because there are lots of different ways to play the game. If you want to fight your way through zombies and giant spiders and exploding monsters all the way to the big final boss and win the game, you can do that. If you want to build a farm and raise sheep and grow wheat and steal chicken eggs to throw at your siblings, you can do that. If you want to build fantastical palaces or underwater fortresses, or just explore and map the world as far as you can go, you can do that!
Personally, I like the creating and exploring the best. Every Minecraft world generates randomly, so you never know what you’ll come across: perhaps a deep dark forest, or a barren desert, or a range of massive mountains overlooking a vast sea. And the world is virtually limitless, so there’s always more to explore. The one downside of this is that it is extremely easy to get lost. There’s no real logic to the way different geographical features are arranged, so if you don’t remember the way you came, it can be nearly impossible to get back to where you started.
Eventually I figured out that one of the best ways to get around the Minecraft world without getting lost was to build myself a compass. That way I would always know what direction I needed to go. But the compasses in Minecraft function a little differently than you might expect. Even though the gameworld has a north, south, east, and west, compasses there don’t point north. Instead, the compass points toward the “spawn point” – the point at the very center of the world where the game began. No matter where you are in the game world, the compass will always point you back toward where you started. And since most people tend to build their home base around the spot where they started the game, that usually means that a compass that points toward the center is a compass that points toward home.
In Minecraft and in life, orienting ourselves by what’s at the center is vitally important for helping us to find our way. Today in our gospel reading, we hear Jesus give the commandment that is central to our faith: “Love one another, just as I have loved you.” We actually just recently read this text, almost exactly a month ago – who remembers when it was that we read it? Yes – this is part of the gospel passage that we read on Maundy Thursday. This commandment to love one another is the commandment – the mandatum mandate – that gives Maundy Thursday its name.
Jesus gives this commandment to his followers “on the night in which he was betrayed” – just after he washes their feet – the night before his crucifixion. He already knows how lost his followers will feel in the days ahead: not only in the few days between his death and resurrection, but also in the days and years to come after his ascension, when the task of carrying out his mission and ministry falls to them. Jesus gives them this commandment to guide them as they and the early church begin to find their way forward: Love one another, just as I have loved you.
Jesus’ commandment to love one another transforms the early church from a community defined by rules into a community centered in and guided by love. I see this commandment guiding the behavior of the disciples – and especially Peter – in our first reading for this morning, from Acts. Peter has just returned from this extraordinary journey to Caesarea – he recounts the vision he had of the world’s weirdest picnic, and how this led him to the house of Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. Despite Peter’s initial resistance, he teaches and preaches in the house of Cornelius, and the entire household is baptized. And Peter describes it to the other Jewish believers in Jerusalem, saying that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.”
The other Jewish believers are initially surprised, even shocked, to hear that Peter has spent time among the Gentiles, teaching them, and even eating with them. They listen to Peter’s story and are stunned into silence by all that he tells them. But when he finishes his story, their first words are words of praise! They respond by saying, “Wow!! Even Gentiles are included in God’s saving acts in the world.” Peter and these other believers recognize with joy that God’s love is even wider and more far-reaching than they had imagined. And they accept that Jesus’ commandment to them – to “Love one another, just as I have loved you” – now extends even to people whom they were once taught to leave out. The love of Christ guides them into a new understanding of who they are as a church – and of who they are called to be as disciples.
Luther once wrote that the bible is the cradle in which Christ is laid – meaning that all scripture should be read in light of the life and teachings of Christ – and we’ve talked before about how Christ is the lens through which we read the word (Christ is our hermeneutic, if you remember the big fancy word I taught you). But what I see here in this reading from Acts is something even more. Here I see Christ as a compass – like that compass from Minecraft – a compass whose arrow always points us toward the center, a compass whose arrow always points us toward love.
This is how the early church found their way through tumultuous and confusing times: they let themselves be guided by the compass of Christ, pointing always toward love. They were faced with challenging and complicated questions like the ones posed in this reading from Acts – questions like who was to be included and how would that work? whose rituals would they observe? which rules and traditions would newcomers have to follow? and which ones could ‘oldcomers’ leave behind? – and many other questions for which the scriptures didn’t really have a clear answer. The challenges the early church faced took them beyond the borders of the map of scripture to places that their faith had not yet charted. And when they struggled to find the answers they were looking for, they prayed, and they listened for God’s voice, and they followed Christ like a compass, choosing to act in whatever way would be most loving to their neighbor.
We inherit the same compass – the same commandment of Christ, to love one another just as he has loved us. And just as it guided the early church, it can also help us to find our way through these tumultuous and confusing times. Of course we look to the words of scripture to guide us in following God’s will and in doing what’s right – and we especially look to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, just as Luther said. But, like the early church, we’re also faced with challenging and complicated issues that Jesus never said a word about in the bible: issues like we’ve faced during this pandemic, about whether to wear a mask or get vaccinated; issues like the current debate raging over access to abortion; or even issues like the wrestling our church has been having for over a decade now about the full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in ministry. Just like the early church and the first disciples, we are faced with questions that take us beyond the edges of the map of scripture. And when that happens, we are likewise called to pray, and to listen for God’s voice, and to let ourselves be guided by the compass of Christ – which always, always, points us toward love.
We live in a world that is bigger – and even easier to get lost in – than the world of Minecraft. It’s messier too, and a lot more complicated and conflicted. But Jesus doesn’t just leave us wandering lost in the wilderness. He is always there to help us find the way. If we let Christ be our compass, he will always point us toward the center – toward home – he will always point us toward love.