A thin, frail black woman in her seventies stands up slowly in a courtroom in South Africa in to face evil. In front of her are several white security police officers. One of them, Mr. van der Broek, has just been tried and found guilty in the murders of this woman’s son and husband.
van der Broek had come into this black woman’s home---as a white police officer in South Africa. He took her son, shot him at point blank range and burned his body while the other white security police officers partied nearby. Several years later they came back. This time van der Broek and his partners took her husband. She heard nothing of him or from him for two years. Then they came back to fetch her. They took her to a riverbank where she saw her husband for the first time in two years. He was beaten and bound, lying on a pile of wood. As van der Broek and his cohorts poured gasoline on him, she heard her husband speak his last words: Father, forgive them….
This woman stood to face evil in that courtroom on that day. She listened as van der Broek confessed to his crimes. A member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission then turned to this now elderly black woman and said: How should justice be done for this man who so cruelly destroyed your family?
“I want three things,” the woman calmly said. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned to gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.” She paused. “My husband and son were my only family. So I want Mr. van der Broek to become my son. I want him to come twice a month to my house and spend the day with me so I can pour out on him whatever love I have remaining in me.”
“Finally,” she said, “I would like Mr. van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. So I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. van der Broek in my arms, embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
As the court assistants came to lead the woman across the room, van der Broek fainted, overwhelmed by what he had heard. As he struggled for consciousness, those in the courtroom---family, friends, neighbors of the black woman, all victims of decades of oppression and injustice---began to sing softly and assuredly: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me….”
Love one another as I have loved you. This, this is that kind of love. This is that all-forgiving, sacrificial, lay-down-your-life-for-another Jesus kind of love. This is a love that puts another’s interest first; in fact, this love recognizes that the other’s interest is my best interest.
When I first read this story, I was overwhelmed and inspired. And yet, at the same time, I thought to myself: I don’t think I could do that. I don’t think I have that much love or forgiveness in me. But, I want to. I want to love like this. Oh, Jesus, I want to be able to love like this.”
And that, Beloved, is just the crack the Holy Spirit needs to invade our hearts.
Did you hear what Peter did in today’s reading from Acts? Peter, a regular guy---a lot like you and me---but a guy so swept up in the passion of Jesus, the passion for Jesus--- that Peter decides to trust in a new way, a new path. You see, Peter had been taught that Gentiles were out. They were outside the circle of salvation. But then, God sent a vision and God sent Peter to meet Cornelius—a Roman centurion—and then we hear Peter today as he talks to his fellow Jesus followers and he explains what he has experienced, the vision of inclusion he has been given, and Peter declares that he now believes Cornelius, a Gentile, has already been saved---just like them, the believers---Peter declares that God desires all, even the Gentiles, to be in the in-circle of salvation.
As Peter is talking, the Holy Spirit falls on them all---a radical outpouring of the Holy---and Peter (and the early church) is presented with an opportunity to learn something new concerning divine persistence to act on behalf of those who have been excluded. The early church’s perspective of who was in and who was out, of just who is the Beloved Community, was being changed---not by their own doing—but by the intervention of the Holy Spirit. By the extravagance of the Holy Spirit and the wideness of God’s mercy.
Neither Peter nor Cornelius were able, by themselves, to cross the boundaries that the world and the early church had set between them. Both of them required the Holy Spirit to intervene---to pour Herself out on them in order to love in this bold, inclusive Jesus kind of love.
It’s the same for us. We need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to ease into the cracks of our hardened hearts and minds---to break down our barriers and knock over our boundaries that keep us from loving others as Jesus loves us. And Beloved, some of these barriers and boundaries have been taught by the Church. Some have been embedded in our structures and systems, so they are part of our culture, society and laws. Some have been taught to us by our history books and our families. All of them need to be demolished. Because in Jesus we see that there are to be no boundaries or borders between God’s people that prevent them from pouring out love upon one another. There are no barriers between God and God’s people---at least none that God has made, but we can certainly do a fine job of building them ourselves.
Beloved: daily we see stories that verify we—as a people, as a nation, as the Beloved---we do not yet know how to live out this radical love and inclusivity, this equity for all of the beauty of human diversity, this stewardship of the entire Creation. But, Beloved, if we are willing---if we allow ourselves to be cracked open, the Holy can and will mend, restore, make new. And not just our hearts and minds and spirits need to be cracked open, but if we are willing to allow our systems, our structures, our cultural expectations, our religious beliefs, our erroneous racial identifications and our petty categorizations of humanity to be cracked open---then not only we as individuals, but we as the Beloved Community, we as Americans, we as global citizens---and yes, even the globe itself---can be put on the track toward wellness and wholeness, to mending and repair.
The Rev. Stephanie Spellers writes in her book, The Church Cracked Open: “Our cracked-open hearts are at last roomy enough to hold the lives and hearts of others……Once your heart is cracked open---or the heart of your institution has cracked open---you are positioned to give your life, privilege, and power away specifically for love of peoples who have suffered under the knee of oppression. This is how we all draw near to our crucified and risen God.” (1875 in Kindle)
God tells us today that the world’s boundaries, divisions, and barriers, they will be defeated. By our belief and trust in the Holy. Because this belief and trust enacted, putting flesh onto our beliefs, is to love one another. As Jesus loves us. Sacrificially. Laying down one’s life. Not waiting until the other deserves it but because this radical love is who we are. And it is who we are because it is who God is. God’s will is Love. God’s will is Love.
C.S. Lewis once wrote: Don’t waste time bothering about whether or not you love your neighbor. Act as if you do.
Act in love, act from love, act through love. The love that recognizes meeting the other’s best interest is meeting my best interest. This love that sees that we are bound to one another because God has bound us together. This is the love that changes the world; this is what defeats evil; this is what conquers our separation from one another, and therefore, from God. As Jesus followers and Jesus lovers, we are not allowed the luxury to think along the lines of: my kind, not my kind. Beloved, for those of us who love God, there is not a single person on the face of the earth who is not our kind.
A devotional I once read talked about how throughout history, people have done radical things to try to please the god or gods they believed in. Animals, and even people, have been sacrificed. Crusades have been waged. Witches have been hunted. Heretics have been burned. Men in white robes with white hoods, calling themselves the Ku Klux Klan, looted and burned, maimed and lynched black bodies in the name of Jesus Christ.
Maybe it’s human nature to want to do drastic and radical things to please God---or perhaps, I should say, maybe it’s human nature to falsely do things in God’s name in order to appease our own notions of who belongs or who is worthy or our own “rightness.” Too often we can convince ourselves that God hates or disowns people or groups of people---and interestedly enough: it is always the same people we hate or disown.
Today we hear the Holy declaring a new nature for humanity, a new radical act to please God: Love. Love everyone, regardless of whether we agree with them, understand or even know them. How? Forgive them---somehow. It might take a lifetime. But even when we haven’t yet reached forgiveness, love them. By working for the benefit of all people---working toward the Common Good---this is how we can love all others. Work for the flourishing of Creation and every human being in it. This is a radical thing to do, a huge thing to do---so huge it requires a God-sized love to do it. The Good News is: that’s exactly what God gives us.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.