May 13, 2018

7th Sunday of Easter Year B

The Gospel reading you just heard is part of what is commonly called Jesus’ high priestly prayer, toward the end of a much longer passage where Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper. Immediately after Jesus concludes this prayer for his disciples, he will travel to the Garden of Gethsemane where he will be betrayed by one of the disciples he has just prayed for, Judas. The one who will betray Jesus with a kiss. The sign of affection becomes the signal of deception.

Several of us gathered a few days ago at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Springdale to celebrate with other Episcopalians and Lutherans one of the great feasts of the Christian Church, one that has lost its observance in our Christian calendar, the Feast of the Ascension.

Forty days after the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, the church commemorates Jesus ascension to be reunited with his heavenly Father so that he might send his Holy Spirit to his disciples to lead them into all truth and be their comforter in his absence.

So we find ourselves on this seventh Sunday of Easter without Jesus or the Spirit for the ten-day period of waiting and praying before Pentecost next Sunday. It is a peculiar place to be without Jesus or the Spirit. I have wondered at times why it took Jesus ten days to get back to God before he sent the Spirit. Or why after getting back to heaven it took ten days for the Spirit to make it back to earth? Did the Spirit need convincing? Or was it that the Holy Trinity wanted to have a party with each other after Jesus’ triumphant resurrection, the first time the Godhead had been back together for thirty-three years, kind of like a Beatle’s reunion. In the end, we don’t know, other than that God’s timing is not ours and waiting often helps prepare us in ways that instant gratification does not.

The eleven apostles and the 120 in the upper room are without their leader again. Jesus has been appearing to them for these forty days in his post-resurrection body. At various times and in various places instructing his disciples about how to understand all that he had tried to teach them before his passion and crucifixion. But they simply couldn’t grasp how that could be God’s plan for bringing in the peaceable kingdom - God’s reign in the world by a suffering servant which is so different from a worldly kingdom of power and oppression.

The lectionary gives us the reading from John’s Gospel to highlight this difference. These are Jesus last words to his disciples before his arrest and they take the form of a prayer, for them and for us. Jesus says, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” And what is the essence of this joy that Jesus desires for them and us?

“And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” It is a joy grounded in the truth, the truth of the word Jesus has spoken to them. The truth that Jesus is the personification of that word. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Jesus has come that the world might see who God really is. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son … who has made him known.”

Jesus came so that we might know the truth about God – that God is for us and not against us; that God is love and not hate; that we are loved and valuable in God’s sight; that God cares for us like a shepherd cares for his sheep; that there are no outcasts in God’s household; that everyone deserves a place at God’s table because God is no respecter of persons and regards everyone with equanimity. This is the good news Jesus came to proclaim. This is the good news that Jesus embodied. This is the good news that welcomes each of us.

To trust in a God like that is not difficult, if you actually believe a God like that exists. And that seems to be the crux of humanity’s problem – surely God is more like us, than like Jesus. Surely God cannot be that good and holy and pure, that God holds no grudges and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. Surely God is not so empty of pride that God would allow God’s messiah to die the death of a criminal in order to take upon himself all the violence and evil of the world, rather than fighting back and teaching those Romans exactly who is really in charge?

And yet, that is the story we are given, but not the whole story, because even death was not strong enough to quench the goodness of our God, even the grave could not prevent life itself from beginning to make all things new.

And that is the joy Jesus was speaking to his disciples about, the joy of knowing this God who is better than anything we can imagine and to know that we are loved and accepted and forgiven – that life has more meaning when we give ourselves to God’s purpose in building this peaceable kingdom alongside each other.

So in this in between time in our Acts reading, Peter takes charge and instructs the disciples that they need to draw lots to fill Judas’ place in the twelve. Of course this seems to make sense since the twelve apostles are the new representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel and Jesus isn’t around to choose, so let’s go back to our old way of determining God’s will. But weren’t we told to wait for the Spirit. Maybe the Spirit might have something to say about who get’s chosen, since it is Jesus’ Spirit being sent?

Justo Gonzalez, a 20th Century theologian, writes that he believes the Apostles make a mistake by doing this. The problem, as Gonzalez argues, is that the apostles sought to choose someone like themselves, but that may not have been what this Jesus’ movement needed. Maybe they needed someone like Paul, who would see the mission of God’s kingdom to include the Gentiles too, those who were truly outsiders to this new way that Jesus had inaugurated.

If Gonzalez is right, then we should again look to the Spirit to inspire us in God’s mission to our world, to the outsiders here in Siloam Springs, and Northwest Arkansas and the world. The good news is that God’s love is big enough for them too! All we need to do is look to the Spirit to show us the way.