Sermon for Seventh Sunday in Easter 2021
Acts 1:15-17,21-26 Psalms 1 I John 5:9-13 John 17:6-19
John is 97 years old. He knows the end is near. As he lies in bed, he smells something wonderful. He thought to himself, “I smell my favorite chocolate chip cookies being baked by my wife. I must have one last cookie before I die.” He struggles out of bed. Walks very slowly down the stairs. It takes a very long time. He is weak, every step gasping for air. He wheezes and coughs as he enters the kitchen. He walks toward the kitchen table and sees a moist chocolate cookie. Just as he reaches for one, his wife whacks his hand with the spatula. John says, “Why did you do that?” His wife replies, “Those are for the funeral!”
John is approaching death. He is desperate for a cookie. Jesus is approaching death and his focus is the disciples and those he will be leaving behind. Jesus is focused far beyond the immediate satisfaction of need (even if the cookies are really good); instead, his focus is on others.
John 17 is the so-called high-priestly prayer of Jesus. As Jesus nears the inevitability of his death, he is thinking about his disciples. He is very aware that those who know the truth about God could be in for a hard time (which they were; almost all of the disciples were martyred for their faith).
As the season of Easter draws to a close and we move past the Ascension of our Lord and on towards Pentecost, the readings become concerned with transitions. In the first lesson, we have Luke’s account of the replacement of Judas with Matthias – the reconstitution of the Twelve as preparation for the events of Pentecost. The Gospel reading, part of Jesus’ farewell discourse, anticipates his departure and the effects it will have on the disciples left behind. It expresses deep concern for their care and protection in Jesus’ absence.
This is the last part of the high priestly prayer of Jesus, his petition for all who come to believe, “so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John17:11) We don’t know if division threatened John’s community or not. We do know that Jesus wants to make clear the possibility of unity and continuity between the present and the future, between the disciples with him in Galilee and those who will later come to proclaim him as Lord. These disciples, present and future, are in an unbroken relationship with God. This same unity and continuity will be seen by the church when the Holy Spirit is poured out at Pentecost. The prayer is of the Christ who is already ascending. In this sense, it is spoken between earth and heaven, a prayer both of the historical Jesus and the glorified Christ.
Jesus prayed, “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours”.….so that they may be one as we are one.” That we may be one. What does that mean for us? There are some traditions that put God in a box, so that all are on the same page about God, all the answers are there before the questions are even asked. The Episcopal Church has always welcomed diverse thinking. We have learned in our rich history 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 work on our understanding – our understanding of God, of others and of ourselves.
In the New Testament, the people of God are called the “Body of Christ.” Martin Luther King, Jr. called us the “beloved community.” The beloved community, even though we are made up of people of diversity, we gather together. The beloved community is a powerful vision of a new coming together, a new community that welcomes all people. Every group, clan and tribe is included and welcomed in.
I am reminded of the story of a downtown church. One Sunday, as the preacher was launching into the sermon, a homeless man came into the church. He wasn’t dressed like everyone else, and he didn’t smell like everybody else. He looked around for a place to sit and walked down the
aisle. As he walked, the congregation rolled their eyes in judgment. The man ended up sitting on the kneeling cushion at the altar rail. He seemed absorbed in the words of the preacher. Folks in the back of the church were trying to get the usher’s eye to tell him to “do something – get him out of here.” The Senior Warden quietly walked up to the man and sat down beside him on the cushion. The Senior Warden whispered to the man. In a few minutes, they got up and sat on a nearby pew together and turned their attention to the sermon. At the passing of the peace, the people shook hands with the man as the Senior Warden moved him through the crowd. The Senior Warden was their example of inclusivity. After the peace, the Senior Warden took the man to the parish hall to get him something to eat. He “did something.” He responded in love, not judgment.
It is so easy for us, to judge people who don’t look like us, or dress like us, or smell like us, or behave like us. We may be uncomfortable. Jesus knew that and that is why he prayed, ….so that they may be one as we are one. That we may be one. We sometimes have the opportunity to experience other people who are new to our church family. We are to do that with open arms and love in our hearts – a love that only God can give us. It is a love that opens our hearts to better understand someone with a
different life experience. It is a love that we all want to experience when we are in a foreign place.
In the Episcopal Church, we acknowledge the importance of scripture, tradition and reason. It has been described as a tricycle with the large wheel in front being scripture. The two wheels in the rear would be tradition and reason. So, we are driven by our interpretation of scripture – by our individual groundedness in the Word of God, by our life experience in living in and with the scriptures. “So that they may be one as we are one.”
We know that the risen Christ can’t remain with us and we can’t remain at the empty tomb, on the road to Emmaus, or in the upper room. We can’t stay at the party forever, not here. We can’t stand starring into the sky, wondering where Jesus went, seeing his feet disappear into the clouds. Here, there is work to be done and life to be lived.
In our worship, every Eucharist, brings the resurrection back to our experience, its awesome outpouring of joy – no matter what time of year it is – but in the rest of life we are on the road again, applying what we have learned and living into who we have become - who we are becoming – seeing Christ, learning Christ, teaching Christ, loving Christ, being Christ.
And receiving the Holy Spirit. As mysterious as Easter is, Pentecost will be more. The Spirit of God is present in us in exactly the same way as it was when Jesus walked on the earth. How can that be? Where is the evidence? Ascension prepares us to begin our answer. We have no need to rush toward false certainties about Jesus – we’ve got the rest of our lives. At Ascension, Jesus goes to be with God. Some ancient pictures show only his feet in the clouds. Where did he go? Where is he? Here. And not here. Now, and not yet.
Today is the last Sunday of Easter before Pentecost. At Pentecost we celebrate the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is always represented by wearing red. I encourage everyone to wear red next Sunday! Easter is fulfilled in Pentecost. John says that Easter is also listening to Jesus pray for us and that is what we hear today – Jesus’ prayer for the disciples and for us.
How does this reassuring presence of Christ feed our souls, how does it strengthen our faith? We, here, have done most of our worshiping within a circle of believers who basically agree with us. But the church, the beloved community, that takes seriously Christ’s mission, a mission that moves out into a world that is hostile, needs to be aware of its own attitudes and judgment. That church takes seriously a mission that is the object of God’s gracious love. And in our moving outward, we will be asked, and will ask ourselves about our beliefs and biases. John offers one response to one church that needed to hear this word. When we embrace our tradition, define ourselves with love, worship together regularly, live into the Word – Jesus made flesh - our lives are knitted together and we become one.
Jesus prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” To the disciples, in the season after Jesus’ death, when he appeared to a gathering of people, or when the disciples saw him in a stranger, it was as if he had “crossed over.” Finally, they understood that he was emptied into them. Now they would be his body and his blood, his hands and heart and feet in a hurting world; they would listen for his spirit so that their joy may be complete. When we speak from one heaping heart, grounded in God’s love, we are able to go out into the world. 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.
Next Sunday is Pentecost, a time for celebrating the charismatic dimension of the church’s life. Pentecost brings new life to the church each year as we relive the story of the early church. Next Sunday we will celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, the birth of the early church. You may recall that my first Sunday with ya’ll was Pentecost in 2011. I see God’s hand in the details of all of this, the celebration of new ministry on the day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. I see God coming to us, being with us, forming us, making us one as we commit to each other in this joint ministry of love, forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption.
Out of love, God gives the water of life to all who thirst. Out of love, God gives the tree of life with its healing leaves. Out of love, we respond to the needs of others and to the needs of the world. Out of God’s love, we are able to love, and in loving, we are able to see more and more of Christ in ourselves and in others. We hope and pray that our oneness may not build walls to contain our love and exclude others, but to build bridges of reconciliation and offer hope and healing to all people. With Christ, that we all may be one. Amen.