May 28 2017
Readings: Acts 1: 6-14 ~ 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 ~ John 17: 1-11
Its been seven weeks since Easter but our gospel is still with Jesus on the night before the crucifixion. It’s almost time for him to begin the journey from the cross to the resurrection. Jesus has done his best to prepare his disciples – his community – for what lies ahead. All that’s left now is to hand them over to God in prayer.
Jesus begins, Father, the hour has come, glorify your son so that your son may glorify you. That word glorify has nothing to do with being idolized. Its not attention seeking. It’s about shining a spotlight on God to reveal God and God’s love for the world. Eternal life comes from knowing the God of Jesus Christ and that starts right here and now.
Holy Father, protect them in your name – so that they may be one, as we are one. Usually, when we ask God to protect someone, we mean we want them to be safe; free from harm. But Jesus is more concerned that his followers not lose faith along the way or the community break apart when things get tough. He’s counting on God to protect his disciples so that they can carry on his God-revealing, healing work. He not only loves them, he needs them to continue spreading the experience of the commonwealth of God to the next generation and beyond.
This is Ascension Sunday. The visits Jesus has been making to his disciples to prepare them for what lies ahead have come to an end. It’s been one heck of a ride but now it’s time for Jesus to depart and the disciples to go and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower and guide them. But, like people watching a plane disappear over the horizon, the disciples stand gazing towards heaven as Jesus disappears from their sight.
Suddenly, two men appear and ask Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Seven weeks ago, two men asked the women at the tomb Why do you seek the living among the dead? In other words, you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s time to move on. So, the disciples return to Jerusalem to regroup and get ready for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And as they wait and pray, they allow themselves to be transformed from orphaned disciples into an empowered community ready to rise and continue the movement begun in Jesus.
As we turn our face towards Pentecost, we find that the church of today has a lot in common with those first disciples. It’s like we have returned to that time to ‘re-find’ ourselves and the church of Jesus Christ.
It’s as if we took a detour in the early part of the 4th century, when Constantine accepted Christianity into the Empire. No longer a persecuted faith, the Christian church grew into a strong institution. And as it grew, there was a tendency to domesticate the Gospel to make it a smoother fit for the Empire.
That’s the socially acceptable, institutionalized way of following Jesus that most of us grew up with. And we don’t need to beat ourselves up about that. Scripture is full of stories of the people of God taking detours and God sending prophets to call the people to return to the way of the Lord. That way of being church we all grew up with is now in a time of incredible transition as we seek to reclaim and proclaim the God and way of Jesus Christ.
For more than twenty years, folks like Brian McLaren have been calling our attention to what’s happening. This past week, I picked up Verna Dozier’s book, The Dream of God. It’s one of the EfM (Education for Ministry adult education course – Ed.) books for this coming year. Written in 2006, Dozier suggests that its time to acknowledge that the institutional church lost its way and now its time for the other church, the people of God, to hold up the dream of God so that we can get back on the track or way of Jesus of Nazareth.
Here at St Paul’s, we’ve spent some time looking at the ongoing changes of Christendom and tried to discern our path in this time and place. Prayer has been and continues to be an essential part of our journey. But like the disciples at Ascension, we cannot just stand staring up into heaven waiting for God to act.
As one book says, “God can’t steer a parked car.” I never thought about it like that before. Personally, I prefer the image of a boat that needs to decide to set sail so that God can adjust our direction with the wind of the Spirit.
Christianity was never designed to be a static, institutionalized religion. Yes, the church needs some organization, some structure. As Dozier suggests, there need to be places where the story is treasured and passed on in liturgy and education. There need to be islands of refuge where the wounded find healing; the confused, light; the fearful, courage; the lonely, community; the alienated, acceptance; and the strong, gratitude. And there needs to be room for the Holy Spirit to work; to empower us and move us along the way.
The good news is that Jesus continues to pray for his community. And there is a growing movement – an uprising of people – gathering energy to follow in the way of our Lord and continue his work.
As we turn our attention to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, I ask us all to use this week to pray for wisdom and courage and direction for the church as we move into this next chapter.