First, let’s put some things into perspective. The Gospel reading for this day is from what has been called “Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.” It was not the last prayer Jesus prayed but it was the last one the disciples were to hear. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane but we all know what the disciples were doing when that happened – they were asleep. And Jesus’ final prayers from the cross were only heard by John – the other disciples were too afraid of what might happen to them so they stayed away. The prayer which takes up the entire 17th chapter of John’s Gospel was prayed in the presence of the disciples during that Last Supper in the upper room. The disciples had asked Jesus many times to teach them to pray. But, as usual, Jesus didn’t give them any formulas or instructions on how to pray. He just prayed. He prayed for them right there in front of them.
We know what happened a few days later. Jesus was killed on a cross. He died and was laid in a tomb. And a couple of days later, God raised Jesus from the tomb and Jesus met those timid, frustrated, depressed and lonely disciples in that upper room ALIVE! He made appearances to them and to other disciples many times until he led them 40 days after his resurrection to the Mount of Olives. (That famous view of Jerusalem we see so often in photographs and on the news is from the Mount of Olives.) And there Jesus departed from them. He was never to be seen again the way those disciples had seen him.
And that brings us to the First Lesson for today. Luke, who is not only the author of the Gospel that bears his name but also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, brings us back again to that upper room. The eleven disciples were there as was Jesus mother, Mary and about 120 others. (It must have been a pretty big room!) They found themselves again in an in-between situation. Jesus was gone. The angels had told them that Jesus would return some day but they were not to know when that “someday” would be. And Jesus had told them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Now, you know what it’s like to be told to wait. Children get very disturbed when a parent tells them to wait for something. Adults are not any better when they know they have to wait for something – especially something important. (I have waited for almost 17 years for this day to happen. 17 years ago, the ELCA told me I had to leave my vocation as a pastor. And I have waited and jumped through all the administrative hoops since the ELCA changed its policy concerning gay pastors in August 2009 to get to this day to be able to be among you as a minister of Word and Sacrament.) Wait! It’s even more frustrating to be told to wait when you are part of a group. Just think about the last time you were stuck in traffic; or on a crowed plane waiting to take off on the tarmac; or in one of those long lines at an amusement park. Waiting is hard.
So, Peter, not being one who waits for something to happen easily, addresses the crowd to say something had to be done about the Judas matter. You see, there had been 12 of them. That biblical number must have been important to Jesus. After all, Jesus had chosen 12 to be his closest disciples. He must have chosen 12 because there were 12 tribes of Israel. And so Peter suggested that someone – someone who had been hanging around them since the day of Jesus’ baptism by John - someone who had seen the Risen Jesus – someone should take the place of Judas. They narrowed it down to 2. They rolled the dice (that’s what casting lots means). And Matthias was chosen.
Those are the historical facts. But scripture is not given to us just to get history right. And we are not here today just to be told some Bible stories. We are here, whether we like it or not, to hear the Word take flesh. To be fed by a heavenly feast at this table. And we are here today so that today, and tomorrow, and every day of our lives we will make a difference for the sake of the world.
Just like those frustrated, depressed, fear-filled, lonely disciples in that upper room, the prospect of God using us to make a difference in the world seems far-fetched. How many times haven’t we wondered why Jesus didn’t just stay in this world? Wouldn’t the world be so much better off if the resurrected Christ were still visibly among us? Why doesn’t God just take control of this world and make things right all the time?
Listen to these very wise words from Methodist pastor James Howell:
“Let’s be clear: God doesn’t sow cancer cells in people’s bodies;
God doesn’t crash planes into buildings; God doesn’t prescribe
one child to live under a bridge while so many others are in soft
beds. God is not in control. Or let’s say, God does not choose
to be in control – because God is love, and love just can’t or won’t
control….God could have made us like marionettes, so God could
manipulate us and everything to suit God. But God yearns for our
love, and cuts the strings, risking the wounds Jesus was about to incur
when he prayed for us.”
And that returns us to take a closer look at that High Priestly Prayer in today’s Gospel. Jesus knows that the chosen ones were going to be frustrated and lonely and confused and afraid and so, in their hearing, Jesus prays for them. And what does Jesus pray?
“I have made your name known to those you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. They know that everything you have given me is from you…….they believe that you sent me.” They were fishermen, a tax collector, ordinary people – not biblical scholars, not the upper crust by any means. But they get the idea that the Jesus who had spent three years among them teaching, preaching and healing is meshiach, Christos, anointed one, Son of God. They believe that Jesus and the Father are One. And we are here today to confess that we believe too. We may not be able to explain the intricacies of the Holy Trinity but we believe that Jesus is God.
Next, Jesus prays: “Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world…….Holy Father, protect them……so that they may be one, as we are one……and so that they may have my joy made complete .” During all those times when Jesus was challenged by Jewish authorizes and his own family; during those times when the Pharisees accused him of forsaking the laws of Moses to help the undesirable; during those times when his disciples deserted him; during his trial and his crucifixion, Jesus knew that he was One with the Father. And now, in their own hearing, Jesus prays that they will know the joy of being one with him, one with the Father, and one with each other. “Sanctify them in the truth!” Make them holy in their knowledge and in their faith. Holiness, however, is not a separation from the world but an immersion into the world. Jesus prays for us too this very day that we will be sanctified, made holy so that we may be immersed into our world.
Jesus prays that in that one, holy faith they and we might continue his ministry in the world. Not of the world but in the world, they and we are to be the presence of Christ. St. Teresa of Avila said: “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on a hurting world; yours are the feet with which he goes about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”
We have listened to Jesus pray in our very midst. Jesus, Word made flesh, knew and knows the world’s challenges, its disappointments, even its hostility. We may not be happy with certain aspects of this world, but this is where we are and this is what we have. At times we may feel betrayed by political leaders or even by the church, and we may be disappointed by those with whom we are in community, but we will never be betrayed by or disappointed in God. We have a God who loves us, a redeemer who prays for us, and we have one another.
Remember the view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives? Well, at the top of the Mount of Olives today stands Augusta Victoria Hospital. Built more than a century ago by German Lutherans, it provides the best medical care available to the Arabs of metropolitan Jerusalem. And a portion of your offering today, combined with those of Lutherans from around the world, supports that hospital. A little piece of you continues Jesus’ healing ministry. We need to look for all the opportunities the Spirit puts in our path to bring Christ to our homes, our communities, and our world.
So with that faith; with that joy and strength; with that holiness and truth; what small acts of love can you do that will make a difference in the life of just one person? What words of comfort? What stand for justice? What careful act for creation? What gift of the Spirit do you have to offer to the world? Jesus is counting on us.
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” And just like that, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry! It was a kind of, spirit interruptus, if you will. Until that weekend, Peter and Cornelius thought everything was fine, existing and living in separate worlds, tolerating each other’s communities, but having no integration, much less, unity. Our 1st reading from Acts is only the conclusion to a long story about the conversion of Cornelius, and some say, the conversion of Peter, as well. But as we have seen throughout this novella, this book of The Acts of the Apostles, it’s really the Holy Spirit who directs the action of the disciples, and so many other characters.
What strikes me about the breadth of this story is how the plot concentrates simply around the 1 on 1 conversation, which the Holy Spirit arranges between Cornelius and Peter. The two are, step by step, little by little, brought together. Two unlikely strangers, meeting for the purpose of furthering their faith and the work of the gospel, even though they were ethnically estranged, and have no idea what it is they will talk about or collaborate on together.
So, there is a kind of hesitancy and nervousness about even getting together. Cornelius is a Roman soldier, an officer and leader of 100 troops, part of the same military that helped crucify Jesus, and who represents the occupation and bondage of the Jews, and the followers of Jesus – not unlike the U.S. military who occupy Afghanistan today. But Cornelius was also a believer, who practiced his faith in sympathy with Judaism, with regular prayers and generous offerings. He is close to the realm of God.
Peter is also a leader, of course, of this fledgling Jesus movement called, “the Way.” He is evolving as a leader, much like President Obama on marriage equality, both of whom finally had no other choice but to do the right thing. Peter’s own opinions were led by the Spirit, and she shaped and transformed Peter, until it became clear there was only one faithful choice to make, include the Gentiles.
Peter’s conversion is the proto-typical story of every believer. His conversion is not just one moment in time, but always evolving. Was it when he walked on water with Jesus? When he confessed Jesus was the true Messiah? When he jumped off the boat after that miracle catch of fish to swim ashore and meet the resurrected Jesus for a fish fry and then receive the three-fold commission from Jesus to feed his sheep? Was it in this story, of meeting up for a 1 on 1 with Cornelius, and having the Holy Spirit fall on him and everyone present, opening their eyes to a Roman soldier’s baptism, the first Gentile convert? With the Spirit, it seems, conversion, whether Peter’s, or our own, is an ongoing enterprise, a thing of beauty in progress, a never ending work of art, which God is creating.
Which is not to say it’s always smooth or without controversy. When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ goyim, unclean household, the first words out of his mouth are, you know I’m not supposed to be here, so if you don’t mind, can we just get to the “why did you send for me,” part? ‘I’m not sure,’ Cornelius says, why don’t you sing me a few bars! To which Peter winds up into one of his wonderful speeches about Jesus fulfilling the scriptures, and offering life and salvation. But in the middle, as he’s waxing eloquent, the Spirit interrupted! …which is where our reading in Acts begins today: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”
At our special Council and Vision Steering Team meeting this week, I had a similar experience! The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry! You see, as I waxed eloquent about the vision, and possibilities Unity has, in developing a Mission Plan, and for applying for a synod mission grant, which is the impetus for calling John to Unity as a part time Assistant Pastor – and believe me, I did wax eloquent – “the HS *interrupted* [and] fell upon all who heard the word!” Not my words, so much as God’s word that reached through and touched our hearts! And our vision for mission began to grow wings and take flight! Enough talking about what we should be doing, it’s time to actually do it! Why don’t we enlist the talents and passions each of us has for outreach. Why are we holding them back?
As Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing [Cornelius, and his household] who have [clearly] received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” In our meeting, we discovered that there are talents people are already willing to offer here at Unity, but which have not be authorized or put into action. And though unintentional, it’s the same really, isn’t it, as having blocked or told them their gifts are not welcome. Enough! The Spirit has fallen on us! How can we withhold the water for baptizing each others gifts, and for empowering and enlivening one another in mission?
So, when the Spirit interrupts, a movement can be ignited into action, and dare not wait for a formal process or council to discuss it to death. I believe the Spirit is alive and well and blowing through us, the church. And our mission plan is to identify the power of the Spirit, directing our vision and core values. Our mission plan is, not to get in the way of the Spirit, so that each of us will be set free, to “put our faith into action courageously!” In our 1 on 1 conversations with one another, and with neighborhood leaders and groups, we can learn to be on the look-out for the Spirit, realizing how they are simply occasions to build a relationship with others we don’t yet know, even with strangers, like Cornelius and Peter were. We may not even know why God is calling us to meet them, we may only have a hunch, maybe a silly dream in the middle of the night, or during prayers. Our mission plan is to stopping babbling, and get out of the way of the Spirit’s power – to recognize the faith, and God’s Spirit of life, in our neighbor right in front of us, and to empower them to offer their gift and let them do the same with us.
Ironically, as Acts was being composed, the church was already in the process of quenching the Spirit, codifying doctrines and boxing her up in worldly hierarchies of exclusion. The Spirit works well for movements, but fares poorly in institutions, which has been the Churches struggle ever since.
Which is why we return often to our core value of “the Gospel of Jesus.” Jesus, as you know, didn’t say a whole lot about the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit was vital, in his mission, descending on him at his baptism “like a dove.” Luke adds that he was “filled with the power of the Spirit” when he returned to Galilee, to begin his public ministry, and read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4:14-18). Jesus didn’t talk much about the Spirit – the Spirit, lived in and through him, and guided him in all things.
And so, the Gospels and Book of Acts are not just a story, some classic to take off and return to the shelf, at our convenience. Remember when the disciples had locked themselves in the upper room for fear of the authorities after the resurrection, and Jesus comes and interrupts them, and “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’?” (John 20:22).
And soon after, Peter was out in the streets inviting others to meet the Spirit too! Peter wouldn’t let anyone or anything prevent him from growing and transforming the church, by the guidance of the Spirit. And so Acts is just the beginning of the story. Now the Spirit lives in us, the church, too.
The nature of the Spirit, is to interrupt, to enliven and send us out. Let us welcome her, in all her beauty and creativity. Let the mission begin!
“Everything is connected to everything else in the universe.” This has become a popular idea of late, and finds expression in novels and movies, creating beauty and entertainment for us, but mostly reassuring us that we remain the center of our own universes. So what does the 5th Sunday of Easter, have to say about our connectedness? “How” and by “who” are we connected?
In the independent film, “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” a comedy/slash/drama, the anti-hero, Jeff believes, pure of heart, in ‘the interconnectedness of everything.’ But it seems like a bad joke when we discover he’s 30, still living in his mother’s basement, and, has no job, save the little errands she concocts for him each day. His older brother is supposedly the successful one, a paint salesman, but is obsessed with making the world spin around his own selfish needs – and ends up blowing up his marriage. So it turns out that Jeff, though a dreamer, really is the most focused and single-minded, and works the hardest at fulfilling his call in God’s world. Okay, it’s a crazy vision – that he’s connected to someone named Kevin, who he’s never met, has no clue how to get in touch with him, or what he’s supposed to do if he does! And so, there are some hilarious comic dead-ends along the way, but in the end he is vindicated when he rescues a drowning man, who just happens to be named, Kevin. In the final scene, Jeff is back in his basement apartment, but now we see him in a new light, the one who really is connected up to everything, because he did not give up on his calling. Success is measured not by material wealth or status, but by his connectedness to God’s purpose.
In Acts, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch gives us some clues too. This court treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia, is a powerful player, and who, in his spare time, is determined to fulfill a spiritual journey. In the empire, most eunuchs become slaves, but some, like our protagonist, find favor in high places. Their reliability as keepers of the king’s harem, for example, was noted in the book of Sirach. (Sirach 30:20) But this Ethiopian eunuch has risen higher yet, and is incredibly well connected politically, and well-off financially. Yet for all his clout, he cannot buy his way into Israel’s monotheistic religion, his deepest desire. He is a faithful follower and “god-fearer”, who came all the way to Jerusalem just to worship at the Temple. But his sexual identity cuts him off from full inclusion. Still, he refuses to let that deter him from practicing his faith. His love of God is palpable, reading from the prophet Isaiah, as he travels back home to Africa, somewhere on the Nile south of Egypt, to the edge, and margins, of the known world. The Ethiopian Treasurer knows he is connected to everything, and everything is connected to him. Instead of being cut off from the God who made all things, he’s determined to find his place in the creation, working harder than all the rest – well, except perhaps, the Holy Spirit!
It’s the Spirit, who directs the connection of everything to everything else, in this story, and she calls on the disciple Philip to be the human connection, the vehicle and hired actor, by which the eunuch comes to be grafted on to the tree of life, though any disciple probably could have been chosen. Philip works, because, he has just been in Samaria, bringing those disconnected and outcast Jewish cousins in the hill country into the fold. Just as Jesus had reached out to the Samaritans, calling them examples of neighborliness in the parable of the Good Samaritan, instead of cutting them off for their intermarriage during the Exile years, now the Church reaches out across ancient walls of division and re-connects the Samaritans to the Spirit-led movement in Jesus’ name. So, Philip works too, for this god-fearer, from the ends of the earth!
“Get up [Philip],” the Spirit calls, “and go… down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” When he finds the Ethiopian’s chariot, “the Spirit said to Philip, ‘go over and join it.’ So Philip runs up along-side, the Spirit huffing and puffing, agitating and inspiring, him! – and, taking an active role for the first time, he calls out, ‘do you understand what you are reading, [sir]?” ‘Who can make this stuff out,’ says the Ethiopian, ‘unless you have a guide? “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,” and “in his humiliation justice was denied him,” I don’t even know if it’s about Isaiah or maybe somebody completely different!’
So Philip, interpreted to the Ethiopian, how Jesus, like the innocent “suffering servant” in Isaiah, came to re-connect us, if you will, through forgiveness, and overcoming barriers of division, in the cross and resurrection. Excited, the Ethiopian Treasurer asks to be baptized. And when they came “up out of the water,” it says, the Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing,” and Philip was transported by the ‘Spirit of the Lord, “snatched away” it says, to a city some 20 miles north. Have you ever felt like God is putting you in a certain situation you didn’t plan being in – but were able to help connect up someone in need? ‘Everything is connected to everything else in the universe.’ But we would say, human relationships are connected by the Spirit, for holy purposes, that we may be vehicles to help break down barriers that cut us off from one another through forgiveness – through us, who “burn with justice, peace, and love.”
Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” we’re connected, connected to everything. In this way, Jesus formed a new social group, the church, making new connections between families, religion, education and the economy. And so the early church in Acts lived out this initiative that Jesus started, overcoming the family and clan barriers of hierarchy and patronage. When Jesus’ family came calling for him, Jesus said, who are my brothers and my sisters? And pointing to those gathered around him, he said, here are my brothers and sisters and mother, the faithful – engaged in the journey.
The Ethiopian eunuch, of course, could not have a ‘family’ of his own, but was cut off from that life. But in baptism, he was grafted on to the vine of faith, one branch among so many other believer-branches who, abiding in Jesus the true vine, bear much fruit, and who each have, in their own way, life from its source, from the Tree of Life. In one strand of church history tradition from the 4th C, Eusebius says that the Ethiopian eunuch returned home, and was the founder of the Ethiopian Christian Church there. How are we connected? How can we be the healthy and abundant branches of the vine who in turn bear good fruit. How is the Spirit calling us and connecting us up? Who is our root?
The church today has also changed in some ways from the early church in Acts. The idea of plentiful fertile fields just lying in wait for us to spread the seeds of the gospel there, is pretty much long gone. We still need to continue sharing our faith with our family and friends and neighbors. But the mission fields, especially here in our neighborhood, are those who feel like they already know the vine, Jesus, and are not just waiting for us to arrive and enlighten them. They understand the metaphor of the vine, and how we are ‘interconnected with everything.’ And so our calling in the world, is to partner with our neighbors, for the life of God’s world that we live in and share together. We are called with a single-minded devotion to connect up with those we live with, whoever they are, beyond the walls of our self-righteousness and any barriers we have put up in our minds. Instead of a church demanding allegiance because we have all the answers, we must be the church in the world, be the vehicles of connectedness where there is division, running up along-side the chariots along the way, to make common cause, which strengthens and enlivens the whole community. We are called to be connecters, and to be bridge builders. The way of the church – which is the people – is to be a Eucharist without walls, to be partners for the good of God’s world, by the work of the Spirit.
The gospel cannot be walled in by wealth, or ethnicity, or race, or gender, or sexual orientation. Today we celebrate the faith of the Ethiopian eunuch, and the work of the Holy Spirit to make us the church. The barriers that once cut us off from one another are overcome in the resurrection life of Jesus, the vine, that connects us up with everything in God’s universe.