Sunday, May 12, 2013

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:12-26
Psalm 133
Revelation 22:1-6 (7-11) 12-20
John 17:20-26

And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.

In the calendar of the Church year the seventh Sunday of Easter falls in between the Ascension and Pentecost. The disciples, if they were following our calendar, would be gathered in the Upper Room waiting for the promised Spirit. In the lesson from Acts, we see that they were praying, studying, talking, and sharing, just trying to make sense of it all. The Ascension must have been spectacular and confusing, after all none of them had ever seen a man taken bodily into heaven. There were stories in their scriptures of similar events, but who would have expected to see it?

And, this happened after forty days with the risen Jesus. Were they afraid of the future because He had left them again? I think, however, that He was more purposeful with His teaching during this time, giving them more detailed answers to their questions. He was no longer concerned with the cross, but was preparing the disciples for their new mission. I’m sure He repeated a lot of what He’d taught them in the three years previous, but I wish we had a better record of those forty days. Did He continue to teach in parables? Did He make Himself clearer? Did the disciples really begin to see the connections between the Old Testament prophecy and the reality of Jesus? Was Jesus able to help them overcome their fears and doubts?

They certainly reacted differently to the Ascension than the Resurrection. Despite the multiple times Jesus told them that He had to die and be raised, they ran away when Jesus was crucified. They hid in their homes, separated from one another in confusion and fear. Two disciples were headed to Emmaus. Even after Jesus appeared to the disciples, Peter went fishing. They didn’t know what to do with themselves. At the Ascension, Jesus left them again, but this time they didn’t disperse. They went to Jerusalem to wait for the promise. Jesus managed to get something into their heads during those forty days. The difference between their actions after the Crucifixion and after the Ascension is clear: they become of one mind and were focused on the one thing that mattered: Jesus.

They did not sit around doing nothing during those ten days of waiting. They prayed. They worshipped. They even took care of business. The place of Judas was left empty by his death. The eleven disciples felt incomplete without that mystical number of twelve. Was it necessary to choose another? Perhaps not, but it was important to them to find someone to fill the place. They were fulfilling scripture. They had plenty of choices, as the group in the upper room numbered more than a hundred.

They were sad about the death of Judas, even if he was imperfect. Weren’t they all? Didn’t they all fail Jesus at His most desperate hour? It was disappointing that Judas took his life into his own hands. Would his fate have been as terrible if he’d waited to see Jesus to beg forgiveness? I think perhaps, but that’s for another debate. In today’s less we see that the disciples knew that Judas’ death fulfilled more prophecies that had been laid down long before their time. Peter quotes the Psalms (69:25 and 109:8) to justify choosing another from among the disciples.

Isn’t it interesting that we see in this passage that there have been other disciples all along. We often imagine the group as being Jesus and the Twelve for those three years, but we are reminded along the way that there were seventy or more doing ministry. The two chosen had been with them from the beginning. They had heard Jesus and experienced His ministry for those three years. They had learned the same lessons and been given the same power. Which to choose?

Did the disciples agree about everything? No, they certainly did not. We can see that in the story of the choosing of Matthias. If they agreed on which disciple should become the twelfth apostle, they would not have had to cast lots to choose. They did, and Matthias was chosen instead of Barsabbas.

A good portion of the book of Acts has to do with resolving issues between apostles who have traveled to the four corners of the world. We comment about the divisions between churches in today’s world, but those divisions go back to the very beginning. Peter was questioned about his actions in Cornelius’ house. Apollos was teaching an incomplete Gospel. Teachers were trying to convince the members in Paul’s church plants that he was not authoritative. It was happening then, just as it is happening now. We are human, we disagree. Paul and Peter disagreed.

In some cases, the disagreements were important to note and clarify because it mattered to the future of the Church. Who is welcome? What is required? Who is Jesus? There were other questions, too, like should women cover their heads? Who can teach? What are the sacraments? The answers to the important questions were established in the creeds of the Church. Other answers can be found in the scriptures, although some are adiaphorous, which means they are not important to salvation. I’ve learned that the things that truly matter are given to us at least three times in the scriptures, once in the Old Testament, once by Jesus and once in the New Testament letters.

Take, for instance, the command to love your neighbor. This command is given in Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39 and Romans 13:9, among other places. This was an important thing for God’s people to know, and it is the love of neighbor on which our ministry is built. This is something about which we should agree. Interestingly, if we truly love our neighbor, we will live in unity. We don’t have to agree on the color of the carpet or the type of Jello to be served at the pot luck for us to love our neighbors and honor God. We do have to agree that Jesus is the Son of God and that His death and resurrection was for the forgiveness of our sins.

The Gospel lesson is from the farewell prayer given by Jesus before His arrest. He was praying for the unity of all who will believe, not just those disciples but all Christians in all time. There would be many believers over time and space; the number of saints throughout the history of the Christian Church is beyond our ability to count. The Book of Life is so big that it would fill many libraries. Jesus’ greatest desire for His Church was that they would be one, but is this even possible when we think about the many Christians that have existed in time and space?

The unity for which Jesus prays is not one dependent on our agreement about our ideas or our practices. We are bound together by the love of God. “And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.” Our unity is not dependent on 100% agreement, but on our love of God.

We are a diverse people; we come from different times and places. The Church has existed for two thousand years and has touched every corner of the world. Unity does not necessarily mean that we will all be the same. It is impossible. Not even the twelve disciples were the same. There were fishermen, a tax collector, revolutionaries and others. At least one was married. Some were brothers. They were from different villages. In the scriptures we can see they had different personalities. They did not always get along. The disciples often bickered and the early Church faced difficulties.

But we are still called to be of one mind. We think that means that we have to get everyone to be of our mind, but the mind about which Jesus talks is not a human mind; it is the mind of Christ. We are unified by the Spirit and our testimony of the Gospel, through which Christ is glorified. We share in the glory of God by witnessing together forgiveness of sins that is given to all who believe through the blood Jesus shed on the cross. This is our command, our mission. This is what we are called to do.

When Jesus says that He is coming to reward all according to each one’s work, what does He mean? Will He feed those who have fed the hungry? Will He clothe those who have clothed the poor? While these are good works through which we might share the love of God, it is not our mission in this world. Jesus will bless those who have taken forgiveness to those who are dying in their sin. He will share His glory with those who invite the thirsty to partake of the water of life: Jesus.

In the book of Revelation we see an image of heaven, continuing from last week. Here, the river of life is flowing from the throne of God. There is no night and no evil to be found inside the city. The gates are left open because there is no need to lock out the dark things of this world. There is nothing impure, nothing shameful, nothing deceitful. There is no more sin because Jesus Christ has overcome all that is against God and reconciled the world to Himself.

As we look at this vision, we can see that it is much like it was at the beginning of time. When there was nothing, God spoke and there was light. That light is the light of God’s glory, manifested in time and space in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Garden of Eden, before the serpent, there was no shame, no deceit. There was no sin and no reason to lock the gates of the Garden. When Adam and Eve listened to the lie of Satan, it was necessary for God to cast them out into the world and lock the gates behind them. They could not stay in the Garden to eat the Tree of Life and live forever in a broken relationship with God.

In Revelation, we are returned to the Garden, but now it is a city with a river running through it. The Tree of Life is available so that all can eat of the fruit that gives life. The people who live in this city, whose names are found in the Lamb’s book of life, share in the glory of God for eternity and live in His presence. It is as God intended His creation to be, in fellowship with Him and each other for all time, worshipping God with praise and thanksgiving. The focus, again, is on God.

The focus, too, is on Jesus who is the Alpha and the Omega. He is waiting for us, and promises that those who keep their hearts and their lives centered in Him will eat from that tree. The sinners who do not turn to Him will not be able to enter the city, but we will eat and drink forever.

Jesus says, “Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to render to each man according as his work is.” It is no wonder that the people thought that Jesus’ return was imminent. The language of Jesus and the prophets insisted that the time is short. Jesus is coming! It is no wonder that they went about the business of the church with passion and immediacy.

John encourages his readers to act now. “Don’t wait until tomorrow, for tomorrow may be too late.” We are given the power and authority of God to call those lost in the ways of darkness and evil to faith. We are sent to call the world to repentance, so that they can join us with washed robes in the promise of eternal life. It is our task to invite people into the fellowship of believers so that they, too, will share in the fruit of the tree of life. The words are no less true today, but we’ve lost that sense of urgency.

It has been two thousand years, yet that message, “Today is the day,” is as true for us as it was for them, perhaps even more. Two thousand years is a long time to wait and we have lost patience and our zealousness. We have allowed the doubts and fears to creep into our faith and we justify the time by saying that God didn’t mean it the way we think. We explain away the language and claim that it doesn’t really mean what it says. We have allowed the worries and the cares of the world to temper our enthusiasm and we have followed with a skewed sense of purpose. We forget that for God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. For God the beginning of the church was just two days ago. The promise is as imminent today as it was for Peter and Paul and John.

The message of Christ is immediate; it is for this moment, for this time. Though we’ve been waiting for two thousand years for the coming of Christ, this is not the time to procrastinate. There are so many who need to hear the Gospel. We may not think the time or the place is right, but God knows and He is directing the movement of His people in a way that will bring salvation to the world. The time is now to act: don’t wait! Christ is coming. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Jesus prayed for unity, and the psalmist sings in hope of it. “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” There are those who would suggest that it is necessary for us to give up everything that we hold dear to ensure that all feel welcome. We are constantly told that we have to change the way we are doing things so that everyone will fit in.

But God is not calling us to give up our heritage or worship style; He is calling us to find the common bond and share in the Spirit of God. That common bond is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and we are of one mind when we focus on Him.

The divisions that exist today are not merely disagreements of doctrine, but are causing a dividing of the Holy Spirit because we do not honor the faith of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have built fences that divide Christ, and block the Spirit of the Living God from displaying His power to the world. He doesn’t need us, but He wants us to be part of the blessing that comes from unity of spirit. Christ is coming. What will He find when He returns? Will He find a people of one mind sharing the Gospel message, or will He find us bickering about things that do not matter.

Now is the time to tell the world that Jesus shed His blood so that everyone can live in the Garden and dwell with God forever. Now is the time to invite those who are lost in darkness to see the light in the New Jerusalem. Now is the time to invite everyone to the great and promised feast of fruit from the tree and water from the river of life. Now is the time to do all these things; one day we’ll say, “Amen,” because He has finally come and then it will be too late. Let us join together, bound by His Spirit, and take Christ out into the world for all to see, honoring and respecting one another in our differences while focusing on the one thing that matters: Jesus.

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