Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; John 17:1-11
I became a teenager in the Roman Catholic Church in the mid 1960s as it was entering a sustained period of transition and change. Conversations that had begun with other Christian denominations in the 1950s and of course Vatican II had led to celebrating the Mass in English, and congregations, which had been mostly shielded from having to sing anything except the occasional devotional hymn to the Virgin Mary or the Blessed Sacrament were given new music we were all expected to sing with gusto it seemed about every ten minutes in the service. Truth be told, nothing is more apt to make a 13-year-old cynical than closing a late morning service with that anthem of the times, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” and entering a parking lot full of competing, adult drivers all determined to get out of two narrow exits and home before the kick-off of the football game. One in the spirit in love would hardly be the metaphor that I would have used to describe what I heard and saw.
It took until I became an adult churchgoer and Episcopalian for me to appreciate what had been achieved by all that work that I had so long ago blown off as so much bad music and worship with huge and largely unrealized potential. After all those consultations on Christian unity gave us a shared way of proclaiming the word of God, a restored sense of celebrating the Eucharist as the reason why all Christians gathered on Sunday, a very dynamic and unified field of biblical understanding and interpretation, shared hymnody and Eucharistic prayers, along with the uniting of several Protestant denominations. Yes there is a blessed unity, if not sameness, about what we do on Sundays and why we do it, as well as being who we are as Christians. Culturally this has had an impact, too. Contrary to the strict control over my childhood friends that my parents exercised by sending my brother and me to Roman Catholic school, my other brothers and sister all grew up attending public schools with many friends who were Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, giving them an easy familiarity with those who differed from them religiously that I didn’t experience much before college.
Like all movements to unite Christians, this ecumenical movement has lost a lot of traction. In part it has been supplanted by a welcome and much needed interfaith conversation. It also has succumbed to our resistance to, and the limits of, a top-down driven unity agenda as well as having been a victim of its own success in making us all less defined by, and interested in, denominational polity. Yet, we know only too well that given all this we are hardly witnesses to the sort of unity for which Jesus prays in the Gospel of John. In part, I think, this has to do with our very different secular and sacred interpretations of Scripture and society that our greatest gifts of communication make transparently obvious. I would suggest that our difficulty with being in union with one another and God is rooted in something much more deeply human. For lack of a better way to name it, I will accept the suggestion of a friend, blogger, and one-time canon of this Cathedral, Fred Schmidt, and borrow a title from a recent book by Eli Pariser, the president of the board for MoveOn.org and call it the “filter bubble.” A “filter bubble” is when either social media or your internet service provider screens what is shared with you so that you receive comments chiefly from people who share your perspectives, opinions, and view of the world. Schmidt points out that churches have long been in the “filter bubble” business as we have the habit of organizing around shared theology and frequently the socio-economic and racial characteristics of their neighborhoods, too. Beyond kinship this is how we as humans express most often that we are united to others as well. This is what it means to create and live in a “filter bubble” in our everyday lives. We filter out quite naturally, people, ideas, conversations, and situations that aren’t part and parcel of our own political and theological orientations. Need I say I don’t think that when Jesus prayed that we may all be one that this “filter bubble” was exactly what he had in mind.
Today in the Gospel of John we eavesdrop on a very intimate prayer between Jesus the Son and the Father. It is a prayer that anticipates that Jesus will be gone and no longer able to guide those whom he loved, those whom he called disciples and friends. It is a prayer in which Jesus asks that his disciples, then and now, be given the same unity that Jesus enjoyed with God as Father, a single-mindedness not of agreement, or thinking alike. Rather Jesus prays for a shared existence in which we would always be able to live together in hope, joy, and love as a community where aliens and enemies are welcomed as family and friends. What Jesus prays for is that we gather in real time as the church in which it is, as Fred Schmidt notes, “impossible to avoid completely the people who are different from us” and we listen to each other with all our heart, all our soul, and all our minds, for that is what it is to love self, neighbor, and, above all, God. Oneness, as Jesus prays for it, is intimate, and not identical. Unity, as imagined, by Jesus is wildly and diversely interdependent and not co-dependent on our insatiable hunger and thirst for sameness.
What we celebrate on this day in the story of Jesus’ ascension is that our vulnerable humanity complete with the “filter bubble,” after all Jesus had a couple too, has been placed in the presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus can’t be confined any longer to one body in the span of a single human life. No one person or group can claim Jesus, for he belongs to God and thus belongs to all. The Holy Spirit is sent to us to make holy our “filter bubbles,” great and small, forcing us to recognize the image of God in the faces of every person we encounter so that God’s reconciling work of blessing the families of the earth may be accomplished. Jesus prays that we all may be one in the certain hope that by the power of the Spirit we can be in relationship with God as one human community linked by a covenant of mutual and loving responsibility.
Today as we listen to Jesus’ prayer we have laid before us a vital question: are we in charge of our own destiny as a church and as Christian people, or do we live anticipating that God’s spirit will show us the way to God’s dream of a reconciled world? I think our filter bubbles unsanctified will readily lead us to answer this question in ways that lead us to remaking the church and God in our own image, a path we tread early and often as Christians. We have the power to answer this question in other ways. Commentators, including my friend Fred, would suggest that this means being disciplined enough “to think about God and our lives together in ways that are larger than our own experience.” It means listening and hearing one another with respect and openness. It means standing down when we are “provoked and contradicted.” It means being willing to confess what we believe with honesty and grace, while gracefully and hopefully listening to those with whom we disagree. Really these are all ways of describing what it means to be a community at prayer devoted to God, to Christ, and to one another and waiting with longing for the next person whom the Spirit sends to us to be Christ with us so that the creative and redemptive work of God may be complete.
I know that my “filter bubble” has matured remarkably little from the 13-year-old who rolled her eyes in the back seat of that enormous Chevy Impala wagon as her father drove us home from church amid a lot of folks thinking less about being a community of the beloved in Christ and a whole lot more about the afternoon’s entertainment. On the other hand, the promise of Christ in the Holy Spirit is a power that can still pierce that bubble, moving me beyond the myopia of the past, present, and my shallow understanding of what it is to be one with others in loving God. When my “filter bubble” shifts a bit, a path opens that is both wonderful and immensely challenging, and for which there simply aren’t any easy rules. All we can do is pray, listen to one another, and wait for the Spirit to move among us doing what we can neither ask for nor imagine. We are left with these words, “you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth,” and with those words the gift of the Spirit working in us. In the end it can only be within our Spirit-filled relationships to God and one another that God’s purpose is worked out. Jesus prayed that we might all be one and this is the ultimate all-or-nothing request of God that remains for us to live, no matter how many “filter bubbles.” Amen.