Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C,
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
The old joke goes, “A person dies and goes to heaven, and St Peter takes them on the tour to get acquainted. They go past one room, and the person asks: “Who are all those people in there?” “They are the Methodists,” says St Peter. They pass another room, and the person asks the same question. “Those are the Anglicans,” says St Peter. As they’re approaching the next room, St Peter says: “Take your shoes off and tiptoe by as quietly as you can.” The person does so and very carefully and silently they pass the closed door of that room. Once passed, the person asks “Why did we have to be quiet and sneak past that door? Who’s in that room?” “The Baptists,” says St Peter, “and they think that they’re the only ones here.”
Now that joke is one that can be told as a fill-in-the-blank jab at any denomination, and I’ve heard many different versions of it. But the root, why we find it funny, is that there are many groups, I’m sure many Anglicans included, that do preach a message of exclusivity. Growing up as a Baptist, it was always taught to us that the Roman Catholics weren’t actually Christian, and they were going to Hell. Of course in Roman Catholic dogma, if you are outside of the Roman Church, then your salvation is questionable, and you are probably going to Hell. Generally speaking, it seems like far too often, we Christians want to assure ourselves of our salvation by assuring ourselves of another’s damnation.
I think that also plays out socially too. We all have an idea of who is right and who is wrong, and those that are wrong are simply monsters out to destroy society. Regardless of where you stand on social issues, I think we find ourselves in an uphill trek if we seek to reconcile with those we disagree, without expecting to change their mind at all. Now, there are some things that are definitely, unquestionably wrong. Racism, any sort of bigotry, harming another person, and certainly we must draw lines when it comes to putting a stop to those things. But, our greater challenge will be how to reconcile with the perpetrators of such wrongs. Just because we can’t imagine them being forgiven by God doesn’t mean they aren’t.
In our Gospel lesson today we get a portion of what is known as the ‘High Priestly prayer’ of Jesus. It is the end of John’s farewell discourse, and Jesus’ last words before leaving for the garden at Gethsemane. This prayer is believed to be not just about the disciples gathered, but, as Jesus says, “‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” Jesus is praying for these disciples, the people these disciples will bring to the body of Christ, and down throughout history to us here today. Jesus is praying that those who follow him might all be one. Jesus is praying for his disciples because he soon will be taken away. Of course for our lectionary narrative, we think both of last Thursday when we celebrated the feast of the Ascension, but also next Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming to dwell with us and guide us in the absence of Jesus.
Last Thursday, when we gathered to celebrate the feast of the Ascension, with our brothers and sisters in Christ from Holy Cross Lutheran Church and a few folks from Christ by the Lake Lutheran Church, we worshipped in the Episcopal style, singing our hymns, using our prayers, and with an agreement between Pastor Lynne and I that next year we’ll celebrate at her church with their style and their hymns. As we were preparing for the service and looking over the bulletin, Pastor Lynne noticed something and an ‘uh oh’ escaped her lips. Of all the differences, she found the one that was going to be the most jarring. Episcopalians and Lutherans chant the sursum corda…the back and forth conversation that begins the Eucharistic prayer. Sure enough, when it came time for that in the service, it got a little jumbled.
You see, we may not always worship together every Sunday, we may not worship using the same style, or even chant the same tune, but we are still one in Christ. This is our work as a part of the body of Christ: to reach out to the other parts of that body, to form connections, and much like the muscles, tendons, nerves, and bones are all required to make an arm move, it allows us, as one, to work for the Kingdom of God. I don’t think that being one, the way Jesus talks about, necessarily means we all have to worship the same way. We all have different ways of experiencing our faith practice. What it means is that we must acknowledge that through baptism we are all heirs of the Kingdom of God, and our work is always better when we do it together.
I’m not going to sugar coat this either. This whole concept is entirely difficult. Do I want to work with another church that would not accept everyone we accept here? Nope. I sure don’t want to. I don’t want to expose my flock to possible hurt, nor do I want to encourage those others to continue with their ideology. But that’s not what Jesus is asking of us. Jesus never asks his disciples to be safe. He never tells them to be cautious and self-preserving. Our work as followers of Jesus is never intended to be the comfortable, safe existence our society has led us to think it is. Jesus is fairly clear about the jobs that he has for his followers. One of those is to be one in him. It is indeed difficult, but important work.
The question is always how. How do we find ways to set aside our ideological differences to embrace together the way of the Kingdom of God? How do we meet on level ground? Surely together we are better able to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, proclaim the Good News? I continue to look for new opportunities to do just that. I continue to meet other clergy and discuss ways our communities can find common ground. Pastor Lynne and I find times and reasons for our two communities to get together.
A couple of weeks ago I in my preaching I quoted from a hymn written in the 1960s, to talk about love as an identifying characteristic of Christians. But the first verse in that hymn is also important to us and fits with today’s Gospel. It goes, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that our unity will one day be restored.” We are coming to the close of these fifty days of Easter. Jesus has not ascended, and next Sunday the Holy Spirit will arrive to continue guiding the church. Our work absolutely resides in understanding what it means to be one in that Spirit, and until we all stand around the Tree of Life in that Heavenly city, we have work to do.