Sermon for Seventh Sunday in Easter 2022 - Sunday after the Ascension
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.
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. Ecumenism – the economy by which God organizes the whole world – 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.
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 effect in us.
Today we celebrate our mothers. I think our mothers give us our sense of identity. It becomes extremely difficult to hold onto that identity when our mothers die. Our mothers give us life and hope and endurance. Our mothers help define who we are. And they help us find ourselves. But when our mothers are gone, we count on the community of faith to define us. We rush from birth to death, from place to place, with little opportunity to integrate anything into our souls, to evaluate them 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. A church without Pentecost cannot shout “He is risen” loudly enough to sustain Easter week after week. There will come the post-Easter slump with special efforts to keep attendance up. Luke says that Easter is not only shouting, but waiting in prayer for the coming Spirit. John says that Easter is also listening to Jesus pray for us.
Next Sunday is Pentecost, 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 one heaped up heart, one developing and inquiring mind, one soul collected through tradition, worship and The Word and one strength, 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 - so that we may be one. Thanks be to God!! Amen.