Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
Today is the last Sunday of Easter, and also the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension. Christian tradition says the risen Christ was on earth for forty days, appearing several times to the disciples. On that fortieth day, Christ ascended into heaven right before the disciples’ eyes. It is one of the seven principal feasts of the Church, and probably the least understood and observed. As I preached last year, my post-Enlightenment brain finds it very hard to imagine Jesus literally ascending. To make any sense of the Ascension, I have to turn off my drive for rational thinking, and instead imagine what this moment might mean in a metaphysical way. I have to give up my literalism and think about what the ascension means beyond those particulars. After all, what we have in the Bible is story that points to truth—not historical record.
I looked back my sermon last year on the Ascension and was reminded of a great quote from theologian David Cunningham: this story is really about “the divine act of making space so that the mission of the church can begin. So long as God was in the world in human form, all eyes and hearts were fixed there. Jesus’ ascension makes space for the disciples to turn their gaze upon the world.”
That makes a lot of sense to me. The Ascension is really about the moment that Christ turns the future of the faith over to the disciples. In this moment he makes it clear that he will no longer be with them in body (as he has been over the previous 40 days), but instead will be present through the Holy Spirit. And that it is up to them – and us – now. If you really want to read more about what I think about the Ascension, last year’s sermon is on our website. For now, I have other things on my mind.
This past Tuesday I took part in an interesting and unique conversation. Our bishop, Doug Fisher and Pastor Jim Antal, the Conference Minister for the United Church of Christ’s Massachusetts Conference, invited a handful of clergy from both churches to gather and dream about what ministry together between Episcopalians and Congregationalists might look like in our communities. Pastor Brent Damrow (from First Congregational Church just down the street) and I were honored to be part of that conversation.
The impetus for this gathering was the good relationship between these two church leaders, and the inkling that there is opportunity in finding ways to work more closely together. Here in Stockbridge we will soon be convening a meeting of leaders from our two congregations to explore new ways of working and walking together as a witness to Christ in this place. I am excited to see what happens!
And this important work relates well to this morning’s gospel reading. The passage from the 17th chapter of John’s gospel is a continuation of the Farewell Discourse, which we have been reading parts of over the last several weeks. Up to this point, Jesus has been speaking with his disciples on the night he will be betrayed and taken away. But now we are told he begins to pray, in what scholars call the high-priestly prayer—labeled as such because Jesus speaks here like a high priest, making intercession on humanity’s behalf.[i]
Isn’t that interesting? We have the opportunity to overhear Jesus’ prayer to God the Father. And that allows us to learn what is most important to Christ before he leaves the earth. Jesus knows that “his life and ministry are windows into God’s love and saving purposes,” so he prays that we will know God through him.[ii]
The passage may be divided into three sections. First, “Jesus declares to the Father that his work is complete and requests to return to his place alongside the Father.” Second, Jesus cites the understanding and actions of the disciples as proof that his work is done. And third, he “asks God to protect those whom he leaves behind.” [iii]
Here, and throughout the farewell discourse, we get a preview of many of the themes we will be exploring in the coming weeks. We have two more principal feasts coming up on the coming two Sundays: Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. We will be talking a lot about our understanding of the nature of God and how God interacts with humanity. So we’ll save some of that for the next two Sundays.
For today, It is this last section that most interests me. The passage ends, “ Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
“That they may be one.” Jesus prays for our unity as a people. Jesus longs for us to be united. But the history of the church shows that instead we have continually given in to our human nature—the World Christian Encyclopedia of 2001 counts 33,830 different denominations within Christianity, and predicts there will be 55,000 by the year 2025.[iv] These divisions have come about usually because of differences over leadership and doctrine.
But as I mentioned last week, a fascinating new book by Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, has made me think a lot about the role of doctrine in our lives. To be clear, doctrine is defined as, “a set of ideas or beliefs that are taught or believed to be true.”[v] McLaren talks about the history of humankind, and how we developed ways to distinguish our tribe from another, first through distinctive tattoos, language, or dress, and then through belief. Belief-based systems provided a way not only to mark belonging, but also to control behavior – to make sure that members of the tribe were in compliance with those in charge. But as humanity has grown and changed, these functions of belief have become far less important.
McLaren suggests that over time our loyalty has shifted to a focus on these tenets of doctrine, rather than on what they are pointing to: Namely, love of God and love of neighbor. He says that the ethic of love is the overriding theme of the gospels, and we have sometimes lost sight of that as we have tried to cling to beliefs.[vi]
As Jesus prays to his Father God to allow him to return to heaven, having completed his work on earth, his most fervent prayer is that humankind will find its way to unity. And the key to that unity is articulated by Christ many times in the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[vii]
Theologian Nancy Ramsay says this: “Oneness will necessarily require that we seek ways to honor the particular gifts, experiences, and insights of each community of believers and also that we support one another through accountability to the Gospel that we hold in common.”[viii] Certainly that observation points to love as the answer.
Of course, these lessons of the importance of unity and a focus on love apply not only to Christian unity—they also have resonance in each of our lives. We live in a world that is fractured, and is in deep need of uniting. The bombing this week in Manchester, England is only the most recent example of the ways we have become divided from one another, and of the dire need to find a better way. And our political landscape today in the United States is also divided, perhaps more dangerously than ever before.
And there are divisions in our personal lives too. Who are you separated from? Maybe you have a long-standing rift with a work colleague, or someone in the community, or even a family member. I certainly have relationships in my life that are broken; people that were once important to me that I just don’t see eye-to-eye with anymore. As I think about those relationships, I realize that they take up far too much psychic energy for me; because the relationships are broken, they preoccupy me more than if they were functional. In some ways I have become a prisoner to these broken relationships because they are not reconciled. And the only way I can think of to take away the power those rifts have over me is to resolve them in some way. Left alone, I know they will be like a bad infection and will fester.
I invite you to look at separations or estrangements in your life. As you examine why they have occurred, you may discover that the original reasons for that separation are quite valid; or maybe they are not. Regardless, is it possible for you to look past the original reasons for that separation, shifting your focus to love as the overriding reason for reconciliation?
God longs for us to be in harmony with one another, whether that is in the church or in our own lives and relationships. In his last moments, Jesus prays that we might reconcile our differences, and regain our focus on love. Just two verses after the passage we read today, Jesus prays these words to God: “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
Jesus understands that the way of love leads to deep, deep joy—Joy that will complete us. This does not mean that we will be spared suffering and tribulation. But our unity with God and one another, made possible by a laser focus on love, leads to joyful life.[ix] May we all find this joy.
Let us pray:
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away
all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[x]
[i] Adams Jr., Richard Manley, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 539.
[ii] Ramsay, Nancy J. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 (Ibid.) p. 538.
[iii] Adams, Jr. op cit., p. 540
[v] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/doctrine, accessed 05/26/2017.
[vi] McLaren, Brian D., The Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian. New York: Convergent Books, 2016, pp. 30, 40.
[vii] Mark 12:30-31 (NRSV)
[viii] Ramsay, op cit., p. 542.
[ix] Bartlett, David L., Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 2, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 228.
[x] “For the Unity of the Church,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 818.