Sunday, May 8, 2016

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

Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me.

Wait. I don't think any of us are very good at waiting. We do learn some patience as we get older, but there's always something we just can't control. Even as adults we get anxious or excited. We worry, we wonder, we watch the clock. No matter how good we are at driving, all of us manage to creep up on the stoplight as we anticipate it changing. We look forward to big events, sometimes because we want them to be over. We get frustrated in grocery store check-out lines. We have no patience to sit and wait so we find something to do. We take a book to the doctor's office. We surf the internet on our phones while we wait for our food to arrive. We sweep the floor while we wait for our children to finish getting dressed in the morning. We can't just wait; we have to do something to make good use of our time.

I suppose the same can be said about the disciples in those days between the Ascension (tomorrow) and Pentecost (ten days later). Jesus told the disciples that they would be His witnesses, but that they needed to wait for the gift He would send. We know that gift is the Holy Spirit that would come upon them and fill them with the things they would need to do His Work. So, this Sunday is a day of waiting, wondering and praying.

Now, the question I have been pondering is this: didn't Jesus give the disciples the Holy Spirit when He appeared before them on the Resurrection day. Just a few weeks ago John told us, "Jesus therefore said to them again, 'Peace be to you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.' When he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit!'" (John 20:21-22, WEB) So why did they have to wait; didn't they have what they needed?

In the passage from John, Jesus continued by telling them, "If you forgive anyone's sins, they have been forgiven them. If you retain anyone’s sins, they have been retained." This was a moment about forgiveness. Now, if we see John's Gospel as a whole, we can see that he designed the story around Jesus being the Temple of God. "Destroy this temple," Jesus said, "and in three days I will raise it up." The rest of the Gospel shows Jesus as the bread, the light, the door, the shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth and the life, and the vine. These things all line up to items found in the Temple (but that study is for another time.)

Now, forgiveness came in the Temple during the festival of Atonement, when the priest entered the Holy of Holies with the blood of the lamb as a sacrifice for God's people. It was the only day in a year that the only man -- the High Priest -- could enter that space. However, he could not enter only with the blood for the people. He first required forgiveness. So, he entered the space with his own sacrifice, blood sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant, to atone for his own sin, then he could do the same for all God's people.

Jesus Christ was the Lamb of God. He died and His blood atoned for all our sin. The disciples who were called and sent to take forgiveness into the world needed to experience forgiveness as did the High Priest so that they could do the same for the rest of God's people. Jesus breathed on them that they might experience the absolution that comes with the sacrifice. The breath of Jesus in John 20 was just a foretaste to make them ready for the gift that was to come, the indwelling Spirit that would give them the power and courage to do the work God was sending them to do.

In Acts 1, the promised gift will make the disciples witnesses for Jesus Christ. It is not just about forgiveness, which is done through the blood of the Lamb, but it is about giving them the power, the strength, the boldness, ability, and the confidence to be witnesses for Jesus. This means not just telling people that Jesus died for their sins and for forgiveness, but calling them to new life, to be transformed, to walk away from sin and death and dwell in the light and life of Jesus Christ. As disciples it is never our job to condemn someone, but it is our job to make disciples and teach them to obey God's commands. Some people would like to stop at the forgiveness part, to live and let live, to tolerate everything and encourage people to follow their heart. The Holy Spirit is given so that we can pursue a higher calling as witnesses not only to Christ on the cross, but to the life He has made us free to live.

So, Jesus sent the disciples back to Jerusalem to wait. They are no different than you and I, though, unable to be patient. In today's reading from Acts, Peter says, "We need to replace Judas." Jesus chose twelve and so surely they should keep that number. Too often we think that Jesus had a small group of twelve that traveled, but it is likely that there were as many seventy men and a number of women who went in and out among them regularly during Jesus' ministry. Luke tells us that there were a hundred and twenty there in the room waiting. There were at least two that qualified to be one of the Twelve. They knew Jesus from the beginning. They walked with Him, saw the miracles, and heard the teachings. They were witnesses to the crucifixion and resurrection. They cast lots and the lot fell to Matthias.

There are those who suggest that the disciples should not have chosen another to replace Judas, that Paul was the one whom Jesus intended to be the twelfth. They certainly could have been more patient to wait until after the Holy Spirit came upon them so that their choice would come by His power, not their own. However, I don't think Paul was ever meant to be part of that group. Paul was called to a different ministry. While the disciples were sent first to the Jews, Paul was always chosen to be a witness to the Gentiles and thus separate on purpose. God meant the Gospel to go out to the whole world, to all people, that all people might come to Him.

In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus prays for His disciples. He is praying, perhaps, very specifically for those who were with Him in that Upper Room, whether it was twelve or seventy or more. But He was also praying for all those who would be filled with His Holy Spirit, sent into the world to share the Gospel that not only forgives but also transforms.

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 disciples did not agree about everything. The story about choosing Matthias is just one example. If they agreed on which disciple should become the twelfth apostle, they would not have had to cast lots to choose. So much of Luke's book of the Acts of the Apostles has to do with resolving issues. These apostles traveled to the four corners of the world and there were divisions among them even in the 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.

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 Gospel. "The glory which you have given me, I have given to them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that you sent me, and loved them, even as you loved 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. Some were educated, others not so much. 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 the stories in the scriptures, particularly the New Testament, show us how to be unified even if we can't agree.

The problem is that we hold on to our ideas, we have to win, we have to be right, we have to hold on to our truth no matter what. That's why we often jump into tasks while we wait; we don't want to give anyone a chance to get control of our world. The disciples chose one out of their own to be the twelfth man because they couldn't risk a stranger like Paul to take over their ministry. We think that what it means to be of one mind is that they will be of our mind, but the mind about which Jesus talks is not a human mind. The one mind 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 Gospel, first the forgiveness of sins that is given to all who believe through the blood Jesus shed on the cross and then the life of faith and discipleship which we are made free to live. This is our command, our mission. This is what we are called to do.

I have to admit that sometimes I get tired of waiting for the promise to be made real. I am in no sense suicidal, but I'm ready for heaven. Life in this world sometimes seems so hopeless; it seems like nothing I do is making a difference anyway. I know the only real answer to all our fears is for Jesus to return. I want to dwell in the garden that John described in the text from Revelation last week and this week. Who doesn't want to walk beside the river of life that flows from the throne of God?

The Garden is now the New Jerusalem. 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. God spoke and there was light out of nothing. 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 eat from the tree of life because that would mean eternal life in a broken relationship with their Father. But now, thanks to the reconciling work of Jesus Christ, the Tree of Life will be available so that all can eat of the fruit and live forever. 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.

I don't want to wait, but I must. There is still work to do. There are still people lost in the darkness who need to hear the forgiving and transforming words of Jesus Christ. There are still people that need the Gospel so that they can join me under that tree, along that river, worshipping God for eternity. 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.

Isn't it funny, though, how we are so impatient for so many things, but we do not have the sense of urgency needed to do the work God is calling us to do? We don't mind waiting for the right moment to tell our neighbor about Jesus. We don't mind waiting to call someone out of darkness and to repentance so that they might experience the forgiveness Jesus has promised. After all, perhaps tomorrow is a better day. Perhaps tomorrow the neighbor will be ready to hear the truth.

We don't feel the same sense of urgency that the first Christians heard because we've had two thousand years of waiting. What's another day? 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.

Our work is as vital today as it was two thousand years ago. We don't know what tomorrow holds; even if Jesus doesn't come again as He has promised, we might just lose our chance to be the witness God has called us to be. One more day in the world makes every heart harder to the Gospel message. Every lie that is told makes the truth harder to believe. Every moment takes each one of us closer to the end of our life on earth. What if today is the day for you or your neighbor?

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. "See how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to live 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.

We are His witnesses, sent to share the Gospel message with the world that continues to be lost in darkness and sin. We are the witnesses who will call them to repentance, reveal God's forgiveness and call those believers to a life of faithful living in this world. Though we may have to wait another two thousand years before Jesus returns, there are those today who need to hear the Good News of Jesus. They need to be healed. They need to have their demons cast out. They need to be baptized with water and spirit so that they too can become part of the unity that we have in Christ Jesus. The need is still urgent, the mission still immediate. Jesus is coming. Soon. Let us continue to live in the expectation of the promise, knowing that God will make good come from all we do, even when we seem to fail.

We are still waiting, but not for the promised gift; that came to all those who believe beginning with the apostles at Pentecost. We might have to wait for heaven, but as they did in the Upper Room for those tend days, let us wait in prayer and worship, encouraging one another with reminders of the forgiveness Jesus Christ won for us when He atoned for our sins with His own sprinkled blood. For now, we are sent into the world and we have the power, the strength, the boldness, the ability, and the confidence to be witnesses for Jesus today because He sent His Spirit to make us one with Him.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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