The seventh Sunday in the season of Easter has a set of lessons about the unity of the Church. The high priestly prayer, “Father, may they all be one,” echoes through the lessons. But the church, even 2,000 years after its founding, hasn’t quite figured out how to be one.
This is a very puzzling ten days of waiting for those of us who follow the church year carefully. Just last Thursday we celebrated the ascension, one of the least celebrated feast days of the Christian year. In the ascension, Jesus is swept up into heaven with great fanfare, and I might add, confusion. Who wants to celebrate being left behind? Who wants to mark the day that Jesus went out of this world never to be seen again? Barbara Brown Taylor has written of the ascension, “Hungry as we are for the presence of God, the one thing we do not need is a day to remind us of God’s absence. Or is that really the one reason, underneath all reasons, that we are here? Because we have sensed God’s absence—in our hollow nights, our pounding hearts, our unanswered prayers—because those things have not discouraged us from coming here to church, but have, in fact, brought us together to seek the presence we have been missing.” And in coming together, here, we become the body of Christ in the world, the very ones to carry out Christ’s work in the world.
And coming next week is the Day of Pentecost in which the fire of the Holy Spirit will be imparted to the disciples. We are told there was speaking in tongues, flames coming out of the tops of their heads to signify the power of the Holy Spirit being laid upon them. Can you imagine how non-Christians must view this? Man, snake handling ain’t nothin’! In the space of ten days we are dealing with a “Beam me up Scottie” Star Wars scenario, complete with voices from heaven and prophets and angels. This is a Stephen Spielberg movie in the making, isn’t it? Is it any wonder the unity of the church is still a far-off dream?
Worse yet, put yourself in the sandals of the disciples during the time after the crucifixion and resurrection. Fasten your seat belts, folks, this is going to be a very bumpy ride. First, the wise and loving rabbi they have been following is crucified. Very sad bunch then. Oops… the women say he has risen from the dead. Nah, we don’t believe that. But wonder of wonders, Jesus appears, many times, in many different places, that the truth of the resurrection might be known. The Jesus they loved, with whom they had broken bread, with whom they had walked along dusty roads, eaten fish around intimate lakeside campfires, and who they thought had been gone forever, was back. HE IS BACK! HE IS RISEN!
Hold the show. He’s going to leave again. But right before the lesson we heard from Acts, Jesus has broken the news to them. “No, I’m not staying. No, I won’t reign as the King of Israel and chase out the hated Romans. No, I’m not putting any of you in charge of everything. Here’s the deal. I’ll pray for you!” And in today’s gospel he does pray, powerfully, for those he is leaving with the keys of the Kingdom (ahem… not the worldly kingdom of the sort we can readily understand, but some heavenly Kingdom about which they only had a vague notion). “Holy Father, protect them in your name, for I will not be here to protect them.”
Wait, hold on, you’re not leaving again… don’t leave… please don’t leave… swept up into heaven. Gone. But wait until next week when I will give you the Holy Spirit to guide you. Wait until next week. Wait. Just wait. And Jesus, today’s gospel tells us, sends them out into a world—but a world, Jesus tells them, they do not belong to. Yes, they and we are in the messy, conflicted, struggling world to be for others, the compassionate, loving, and giving presence that Jesus has been to them. He tells them that they are one, as he and God are one.
As difficult and taxing as being a part of this struggling institution we call the church can be, it’s worth the struggle. We really are one. In the breaking of the bread, we are all invited to be one. The power of the Eucharist, if we really allow ourselves to be open to its reconciling and healing effect, is nearly beyond comprehension. Think about the words we use, the concepts. We say we believe that the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven are present each time we break the bread and drink the wine together. We say that we believe that somehow, wondrously, we unique and diverse people become the body of Christ. And like the disciples, whom Jesus sends out into the world, as God sent him out into the world, we are to do acts of compassion and mercy. That is what we say we believe. The noted theologian, Emil Brunner, has said, “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.” This body of Christ we become when we are made one exists to serve others, and only when we do that is the body of Christ fully Christ’s body in the world.
In today’s gospel, the disciples are sent boldly into the world in mission. What we read in Acts is the story of how the church they were commissioned to build, is created. Remember that this book of the Bible is called “The ACTS of the Apostles… it is not the beliefs, the thoughts, the hopes of the Apostles, but the ACTS. When we join the disciples in today’s reading from Acts, they are about the business of institution building. Judas is dead, and we need more help. Ah, Judas. The betrayer. Surely the most despised of human beings in human history. My friend the theologian, Margo Maris, has said that the pivotal problem in the church preventing us from fulfilling the prayer of Jesus that “we all may be one,” lies in the fact that Judas killed himself. If he had, after betraying Jesus, come back to the disciples asking for forgiveness, the church, right at its beginning would have learned how to do reconciliation. Instead, as we see, they simply held an election and secured Matthias as the replacement for Judas. One long-time priest in Minnesota where I served before coming here, used to sing this little ditty whenever there was a church fight brewing, “onward marches the Church of God, trampling each other into the sod.”
Jesus tells the disciples to be in the world, serving it, but not co-opted by the world and its ways. I received an email the other day with bloopers from church bulletins. If ever we needed proof of how this holy institution, the Church, is ever so human, here are a few. “Don’t let worry kill you—let the church help.” “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.” “For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.” “At the evening service tonight the topic will be ‘what is hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.” “The church women have cast off clothing of every kind. They may be seen in the church basement this Friday from 9 am to 4 pm.” The Church is, indeed, in this world!
Oh how far we are from being one, and yet Christ called the disciples and us to be one, and from this tiny and very flawed group, whose early life was marked by dissention, betrayal, confusion and power struggles, the Christian family has nearly two billion members. Notice I used the word Christian family. Well, all families have feuds, all families squabble. Do you know the definition of a normal family? It’s one you do not know very well!
But we must not let these kinds of problems derail us, take us off our mission that Christ himself set us on. Maybe it’s time to quit fighting over human sexuality and worry more about widows and orphans. Maybe it’s time to quit fighting over creeds and doctrines and who is a better Christian, or who reads scripture most accurately, and start doing the work Christ sends us into the world to do. William Miller, a former dean of Harvard Divinity School, said, “The task of organized religion is not to prove that God was in the first century, but that God is in the twentieth century and that God’s work gets done by us.”
Our world is no less conflicted, broken, and struggling than the one into which Jesus sent those first disciples. And the marching orders are the same. This Jesus sends us out in his name, this very day, to do just exactly what he sent those first disciples to do. We will end this service being dismissed to go forth into the world and be the body of Christ.
A priest named Frank Weston wrote, “We cannot claim to worship Jesus in our churches if we do not seek out Jesus in the slums. It is madness to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the sacraments and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are abusing him in the bodies and souls of his children who have little or nothing. Now go out into the highways and hedges and look for Jesus in the ragged and naked, in the oppressed and the hungry, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them and when you have found him, gird yourselves with his towel of fellowship, and wash His feet in the person of his children.”
This passage was written over a hundred years ago. It could have been written 2,000 years ago. The basic task of being disciples hasn’t changed since Jesus sent out those first disciples more than 2,000 years ago to the broken world. As you go out into the world to serve, remember that through Jesus Christ we can be one… by the body and blood of Christ by the breath of the Spirit. I will chant one verse, then please join me three more times.
By breath, by blood, by body by spirit, we are made one. Amen.