Sermon for Seventh Sunday in Easter 2019
Acts 16:16-34 Psalms 97 Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
A speech therapist was working with a pre-schooler on body-part identification and the ‘k’ sound. At the end of the session, she had him make a sculpture of her out of Play-Doh. Trying to get him to repeat the word, she asked him, “Is this my neck?” He said, “No, that’s your chin.” He added more Play-Doh. “Is that my neck? she asked. “No, that’s your other chin.”
The long reading from Acts is the account of Paul and Silas in prison for driving a spirit out of the slave girl. The account of the jailer’s conversion shows how the faith is spread through actions as well as the words of the disciples. Part of today’s psalm responds to the kind of trouble experienced by Paul and Silas. The psalm affirms that God preserves the saints and delivers them from the wicked. As a whole, it is a song celebrating the enthronement of the Lord and continues the theme of Ascension Day, celebrated on Thursday. The second reading, an anticipation of the return of Jesus, continues with Jesus’ ruling on high. The Gospel reading is the last part of the High Priestly prayer of Jesus. In it, he petitions for all who will come to believe, “that they may all be one.”
Jesus draws his prayer to a close by returning to the theme of unity among his followers. We don’t know if division threatened John’s community or what the cause of the division might be. We do know that Jesus is interested in making clear the unity and continuity between the present and the future, between the disciples with him in Galilee and those who will join them later. These disciples, present and future, are in continuity with one another, even as Jesus is in continuity with the Father. This same unity and continuity will be seen by the church in relation to the Holy Spirit to be poured out at Pentecost.
This prayer covers three themes – belief, oneness and love. Belief – Jesus prays for those who have believed in him, for those who will believe because the disciples have witnessed, and to the world so that all may come to believe. The local community of faith begins to breathe in rhythm with God. Of primary concern is the nurture and growth of those within the family of faith. Then, there is outreach in word and deed to those the community encounters. Third, there is witness, service and mission in the world – in all of the world, that Jesus may be known.
Belief means more than accepting knowledge of Jesus. Belief means recognizing that Jesus has been sent by the one he called “Father.” The world comes to such belief by watching those whose lives have been transformed by Jesus. The challenge for us to living faithfully is not just a call to personal goodness; it is a call to let our lives invite others to follow Jesus. To let our lives speak of the teachings and love of Jesus.
Oneness – the unity of the triune God is the unity that Jesus desires. Jesus prays for nothing less than oneness for believers. Can we imagine what Jesus felt as he moved closer to his own death and he still saw squabbling and power plays among his followers? Can we imagine what Jesus feels today as he sees what is going on in the world in the name of Christ?
The importance of unity among believers is that such oneness leads the world to believe. The counterpoint of that truth is that the world doesn’t believe in Jesus because the world sees partitions among the followers of Jesus. Jesus prays that the eleven disciples and those who come to belief because the disciples be unified into one body. There is to be no second-class citizens among the people of God. Our being one becomes the single effort to express the unity to which Christians are called. The ultimate unity of the church is not in human maneuvering but in the oneness of God. We find our unity in our common acceptance of Christ.
When you think about it – are we one? In the grand scheme of things, we hang out with people like us, we sit with them in church and at the luncheon. Jesus wanted us to see Jesus in other people and to do that we must get to know them – to listen to their story and tell our own story. It is then that we find common ground. I had two heartaches this week. Andrea Reisenweber, who has been in the discernment process was denied going further in the process. You may not know her story. You may not be able to see beyond her tattoos. She felt God’s call on her heart and has been working for two years to meet that call. For some it was easier to judge her than support her. There is always more to anyone’s story, but you have to open to hear it.
I saw the call and so did Donald, and so did the Bishop in the beginning. She has gotten to church early and stayed late to find out how things work in the church. She went on home visits with me to meet people and learn the service. Much like I did with Donald Holland’s process. Andrea taught Sunday School and came to Centering Prayer and Sunday night class to find out who God is in her heart and in her life. She is heartbroken. She has not felt support from us. She has sometimes heard the gossip. She has no hope. But she is a part of our community and we can carry the hope for her. We can help carry the burden of disappointment and the ache in her heart. It doesn’t mean that you supported her journey, it doesn’t mean you understand all that is involved with the committee and the bishop, but it does mean you feel her pain. Because in our lives, we have all felt pain and we have learned the shared pain just may be bearable. That we all may be one.
My second heartache came on Wednesday when Prime South Bank called me. Someone has taken the Discretionary Fund account number and routing number and paid their Capital One bill by phone to the tune of $526. I work so hard to promote the fund that we can help more and more folks. I was on the edge of tears as I waited in the Police Department to make a report. Capital One, the police, the bank, no one was able to help get the money back. No one could help find answers. It really was a significant blow to my feelings about mankind. So, how does this make us one? I am sure you can relate. We have all lost something. We all have had a disappointment in our lives to ask “why”. I am still working on forgiving and moving on. I won’t be writing any more checks. I will check the new account daily to make sure if is happens again, I will know sooner. I will find another way to help folks – but it may take some time for my heart to heal so that I can continue to be a joyful giver. That we all may be one.
Love – five times within these six verses, Jesus uses “love” as a key descriptor of divine relationships. Love is the bond within the Godhead. Love is the divine gift to the disciples. Love is the magnetic grace through which God seeks to attract the world. Love is the ingredient that the Lord prays will be within each of his disciples.
These prayers may seem sentimental if we didn’t know how the story ends. The love for which Jesus prays is a cross-shaped love. There is glory in this loving unity, but the glory can’t be separated from the crucifixion. It is self-giving love that is resurrected into new life. We see a love as strong as death. Jesus prays that his disciples may be “with me where I am.” This is no small matter when we consider he is on his way to his death.
As the season of Easter draws to a close and we move toward Pentecost, the readings focus on transitions. On Thursday, we celebrated the ascension of Jesus. We may conjure up the image of Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds. Ascension comes forty days after Easter. Forty is an important number in Jewish history. The Israelites spent forty years in the desert trying to find their way to freedom. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, trying to find himself and equip himself for his public ministry. But Ascension is more than that. Jesus is returned to heaven so that the Holy Spirit could come and breathe the breath of God on the church at Pentecost. Jesus’ ascension is talked about in the creeds of the church. It implies Jesus’ humanity is taken into heaven. For the purposes of Luke’s story of the ascension brings Easter Day to a close. We have Jesus’ ascension forty days after Easter and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost coming ten days later. We have the coming of the Holy Spirit to look forward to. Barriers and boundaries fall away when the Holy Spirit comes.
The Gospel reading, part of Jesus’ farewell discourse, anticipates his departure and the effects it will have on the disciples left behind. It expresses concern for their care and protection in Jesus’ absence. “That they may all be one…” What does that mean for us? There are some traditions that I think put God in a box, so that all are on the same page about God, all the answers are there before the questions are spoken. The Episcopal Church has always welcomed diverse thinking. We have learned in recent discussions, that we don’t all think alike. We have also learned that that is okay. Staying with a difficult situation to resolve it rather than trying to escape it, gives God the chance to complete what such an experience was meant to teach us.
Today we celebrate community that is moving toward unity. Our family and community give us our sense of identity. It becomes extremely difficult to hold onto that identity when we disconnect from them. Our friends and family give us hope and endurance. They help define who we are. And they help us find ourselves. But when our families are gone, we count on the community of faith to continue defining us. We rush from birth to death, from place to place, with little opportunity to integrate anything into our souls, to evaluate experiences with our minds, to come to grips with the effect of one part of life on us before we are faced with the demands of the next.
But, we know there are times we need to slow down, to remember. We can take a lesson – a trusting heart is what enables us to lean to the left when life tilts us to the right. It is called “Balance.” That is what a life in community offers us – balance. When we are off center, there is someone to call us, pull us, and encourage us back to center. In that calling, pulling, encouraging we are together and we are strong – a strength empowered by the love of God lived out in the community of faith.
Today is the last Sunday of Easter prior to Pentecost. Easter is fulfilled in Pentecost. Pentecost is a time for celebrating the charismatic dimension of the church’s life. It is a time for allowing the Holy Spirit to work within us. When we speak from our common experience, grounded in the love of God, guided by the teachings of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are able to go out into the world, renewed, and alive for the Lord. We are better able to glimpse a vision of what is holy and good, and in that glimpse of God’s grace, we are able to live faithful and holy lives - so that we may be one. Thanks be to God!! Amen.