5th Sunday of Easter – April 24, 2016    

Easter 5C

Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

My relationship to adoption is complicated.

My brother is adopted. Several years ago he was reunited with his birth family and while it was joyous, it was also complicated. (I suspect the neat endings of shows like “Long Lost Family” are outliers.) My relationship to adoption is also complicated by the fact that the biggest grief I carry and the most intractable questions of faith I hold are tied to an adoption that … what? … failed? The story itself is complicated. This means that anytime I hear a story about adoption my ears perk up.

On April 12 as I was returning home from dropping off my youngest at school, I heard Steve Inskeep say, “We have new insight into the story of Chinese children adopted by Americans.” I turned up my radio.

The story that ensued was compelling: a young woman returning to China in search of her birth family that culminated with her meeting 50 families who hoped she was the daughter they’d abandoned. None of them turned out to be her biological family, and one exchange she described haunted me. Here is the transcript of that part of the interview:

INSKEEP: Did any of the birth parents bring any more specific evidence that would point to you or that they hoped would point to you?

COOK: Oh, yes. One birth mother brought a piece of cloth. She had used the cloth 20 years ago to sew a baby suit for the day that she and her daughter would part. And then she hoped that if she and her daughter were to reunite later, her daughter would have the baby suit and then she would have the scraps from the baby suit. And then it would be kind of like a lock and key. But I definitely didn’t have such a baby suit.

INSKEEP: What did she say when you said, no, don’t recognize that cloth?

COOK: Gosh, I think at the time, I was so moved by the story and so distraught at my own inability to, like, have this suit materialize that I couldn’t even say anything. I just remember, like, shaking my head to her and signaling that I hadn’t seen it before. And she was just sobbing and sobbing and – gosh. I think there was a lot of sobbing, overall, from many families, from both mothers and fathers and grandparents and siblings, and – it was a lot of crying.

I couldn’t get that scene out of my head. I pictured the small piece of aged cloth, the expectant hope that there was a garment that matched it, the dashed dream when, in fact, the key didn’t fit the lock. There was sobbing and sobbing. Why couldn’t, at least this once, crying be no more? Why didn’t she have that tiny suit?

I wonder, though, if this young woman, not the daughter of any of those 50 families, I wonder if she didn’t bring with her and leave behind hope for those who’d come seeking a joyous reunion. I wonder if seeing her alive, healthy and thriving, those families could imagine that the baby girl they’d left; could she not also be alive, heathy and thriving? Perhaps she gave them a new vision of what was possible. Maybe they could picture their infant, grown and happy as a result of an encounter with this living, breathing person.

That kind of renewed hope and promising vision is what Christian eschatology is made of, isn’t it? Seeing Jesus, risen and alive shows us there is so much more that is possible, so much more that is surely coming, so much more than what we see and know right now. Lock and key will meet. We will hear the knock at the door and it will be the risen Christ and we will all be reunited in the place he has prepared for us. Our old garments, the fragments of them and the ones in their aging entirety, will be replaced with new, white robes that reveal we are all one family, from every tribe and nation.

That’s the word of Acts 11, too, isn’t it? Old divisions are irrelevant. God is doing a new thing, a very new thing indeed. The cloth that comes down from heaven is laden with a banquet for all. The dishes that once kept us separated are now ready to be passed around in order to bring us together. Remember the word of the Lord? The Advocate will come and guide you in all truth and the truth is that you are one like the Father and Jesus are one. The truth is you will be known by your love.

Love one another, that’s what constitutes this Christ-community. What is required to be invited to the Lord’s table? Following the new commandment to love one another as Christ has loved you. What’s the new thing here? Isn’t it the same old, “love God and neighbor”? What’s new is the “like I have loved you” part. It is the without-guile-or-limit, lay-down-your-life-for-each-other love that recognizes that when we are united in Christ, through Christ, in Christ, we are cut from the same cloth. We are clothed in Christ and we ache until we find the garment that matches the swatch we’ve carried and cherished for years with the hope against hope that it will be the key that unlocks the door to reunion, reconciliation, our beginning and our end.

Every time we gather for worship we are a people coming together searching for missing pieces, hoping for answers to our most daunting questions, seeking the love of Christ that meets us where we are – the abandoned and the abandoner, the infant and the parent, the lost and the searching. We heed a notice that offers the possibility of new relationships, reimagined connections and a future relieved of pain. We take a brave step into the unknown, bringing with us clues to who we might be, evidence of whose and who we are, and when we do the Spirit shows up. The Spirit shows up big. Rolls of new, gleaming cloth cascade from heaven and the risen Christ says, “Come! Let me clothe you in love that heals every divide and hurt and loss. Let me wipe your tears with this fabric, set the table with it, pull you close to me and to one another with it, give you rest and warmth in it, welcome you to the heavenly banquet dressed in it.”

It isn’t so complicated. We can’t hinder God. The Holy Spirit will come. New, previously unthinkable relationships will develop. Pain and worry will be no more. Reunion is inevitable. Reconciliation has been won for us and is on the move despite us and, yes, sometimes by the grace of God, through us. The Alpha and the Omega holds everything in between, nothing is lost or forever abandoned. That means we can show up this Sunday, trusting that an unexpected, but long hoped for homecoming will happen with an eclectic, loving, ever growing family.

This week:

  1. In his book, “A Door Set Open,” Peter Steinke writes, “Christian eschatology is the belief that the promises of God shape our lives here and now.” How do the promises of Revelation 21:1-6 shape your life? The life of your congregation?
  2. How does Peter’s explaining “step by step” become the means through which those criticizing his actions change their minds in Acts 11? Has something like this ever happened at a session or presbytery meeting?
  3. What is new about Jesus’ new commandment? What is distinctive about the way Jesus loves us? How do we emulate it given our human limitations?
  4. Can you think of people who exhibit Christ-like love? What is it about them that brings them to mind?
  5. Take a look at 1 Thessalonians 4:9. It seems the love that is required of us is taught by God. Can you find other texts that talk about being taught by God? How about John 6:45, John 14:26, 1 John 2:27? What are we taught? How are we divinely taught?
  6. Use “O Holy City, Seen of John” (number 374 in “Glory to God”) as a prayer this week.

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