Sermon for Easter 7 (C)
May 29, 2022
Holy Spirit, Vashon
The Rev. Jeffrey Gill
This past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, the day on which Jesus ascends into heaven, no longer bodily present, and the disciples are left to carry on his work. It ushers in this liminal time when Jesus is no longer present, and the Spirit has not yet come, and the disciples are left alone to figure it all out.
A few years ago I was at an Ascension Day service with our then-Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in Bogota, Colombia, and in her sermon she noted that artists have often depicted the Ascension with Jesus ascending into the clouds, and only his feet dangling below. Ever see one of those? Those feet, she said, are ours. We are the ones left to take his good news into the world.
And today our gospel reminds us of a piece of that good news – that we all may be one. We have heard here from the 17th chapter of John a small part of an extended prayer for the disciples who will be left to carry on his work, the so-called high priestly prayer. It was a prayer for his disciples – and for all who would follow. That’s all of us. And his prayer for our oneness was not only so that we would get along with each other. It was to serve an even higher purpose: so that the world would know that Christ had been sent from God. Our oneness with each other, as fellow disciples, as fellow human beings – would become a reflection of the oneness of Jesus with the Father to whom he prayed – and a reference to the essential unity that exists right within the nature of God’s very own being. And we in our own expressions of oneness with each other would become for the world a reflection of the divine life. It would be the fulfillment of our creation in God’s own image for which we were destined from the beginning.
That’s pretty heady language for something that is so contrary to our lived experience. Easier said than done, is it not?! We find ourselves in a time when we have rarely felt so divided as a nation. We face yet again the nightmare of a school shooting in Texas this past week, just days after another massacre in Buffalo, and yet we can’t find enough that binds us together to put solutions into law and into practice to prevent such things happening again – and again, and again. Unlike so many other countries who have done so and who rarely if ever have these things happen.
We are broken. And we desperately need to be put back together.
Jesus was praying, of course, for his disciples – both those who were present the and those who would come after. He was praying for US! It’s easy, perhaps, to think of it in the context of a group of fellow disciples, such as we are here in a local congregation. And of course, that can be hard, too, but it is a start. It gets harder when we think about the issues that divide that larger community of disciples in the wider church, across the vast spectrum of denominations and theological differences, liturgical practices, and often on how we interpret the gospel in light of contemporary social issues. And at least as hard to imagine if not more so when it comes to the wider society.
I was invited several years ago to lead a retreat for a group of clergy at the Center for Unity and Peace in Kigali, Rwanda. The invitation came from an Anglican priest and founder of this Center dedicated to reconciliation. And while the focus of his ministry is reconciliation among the Hutu and Tutsi people in the aftermath of Rwanda’s horrific genocide that took place in 1994, he is just as interested in reconciliation among the disparate parts of our Anglican Communion. And I’m not sure which is the bigger challenge! Rwanda was one of the Provinces of the Anglican Communion that broke communion with The Episcopal Church over the consecration of the first openly gay bishop back in 2003.
Father Philbert Kalisa is a dear friend, whom I met on my very first trip to Rwanda in 2008. We have spent time together often since then both here in the US and in Africa. We like to say that we are brothers from another mother. And so, when he invited me to lead a retreat for a group of about 16 clergy, I was delighted to accept. All of the clergy who would be part of our retreat had participated in the trainings he does all over Rwanda on reconciliation and healing. They were Hutus and Tutsis. Most of them were Anglicans, but some from other denominations as well, including Methodists, Pentecostals, and an Orthodox bishop. I went with some trepidation, not knowing what this group of clergy would think of someone like me. I knew that they had heard from some of the breakaway parts of the Episcopal Church that people who agreed with the consecration of Bishop Robinson were the devil incarnate. Perhaps worse for someone like me who had actually been present at that consecration!
So I did not know what I would find when I arrived at the Center for Unity and Peace in Kigali where our retreat was to be held. Philbert and I had agreed ahead of time that the focus of our retreat would not be on human sexuality or the consecration of a gay bishop. But when questions came up, I would be free to respond.
We met over the course of two and a half days. I had been asked to do a session on leadership and conflict resolution, and then to expand upon that in a session titled Leadership and Conflict in a Divided Society and Church. In an initial session, we heard our Rwandan colleagues talk about some of the challenges they face in leadership in their congregations, and some of the conflicts they have with their own leaders. It was heartbreaking to hear them speak of their sense of helplessness to deal with the extreme poverty in their congregations, and often not knowing how to answer the questions they raise about why God would let them suffer so. They often deal, too, with authoritarian bishops and church leaders who make capricious decisions about their ministries, and they feel powerless to do anything about it.
By my second talk on the second day, I put away my prepared remarks and the Power Point presentations and spoke directly from the heart to those present. I talked about the gift of our Anglican way coming out of the English Reformation of the 16th century, and contrasted it with the rigid adherence to tradition in the Roman church, and with the sola scriptura emphasis among Protestants. Most of these clergy had had little or no introduction to one of our foundational theologians, Richard Hooker, and our three legged stool of “Scripture, Tradition and Reason” as ways of balancing and testing how we know what we know from and about God. I talked about the importance of reason and experience, and I told stories and spoke about my own spiritual journey on the issue of homosexuality, and how I had come to a different understanding than the one I had inherited from my upbringing. And I talked about how difficult that still is for many people, and yet how convinced I had become that it was a part of God’s plan for the unity and inclusion of all people in the church and in society.
Through the course of the two and a half days, we prayed together, sang together, we celebrated, played, ate and drank together, sharing our lives and our ministries, our hopes and our dreams. We were one in Christ. In our final session we heard testimonies from each of them about how they had been changed by this experience, how they now understood better the context for the issues that have divided us so much better. And they testified to how much they felt our oneness in Christ.
Our prayer that we may be one must include, first of all, a desire to be one with people who sometimes seem so very different from us, and to find ways to understand and to bridge our differences. I must say that I learned a lot from my Rwandan friends on that retreat. I learned that they are dealing with problems and challenges I cannot even imagine. It changed me and how I see them. And I think they learned to see what has become such a divisive issue in the church and society from a different perspective, and to appreciate that there just might be different (and perhaps better) ways to go about understanding it.
That experience was a lesson in oneness in the body of Christ for me. It reminded me that oneness is more than just a platitude or a “kumbaya” kind of sentimental Christianity. It is a possibility for those who recognize Christ in each other in spite of our sometimes vast differences.
If fellow Christians among whom communion has been broken can learn to listen to one another and be restored, then we should not feel hopeless. If Hutus and Tutsis whose animosities led to the massacre of nearly a million people in a hundred days can learn to live together again, then perhaps there is hope for our divided country.
Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. “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… I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Those feet that we see dangling from the clouds at the Ascension are now on the ground. And they are ours. And this job of finding and living our oneness with each other is also ours. We must not give up on one another. God hasn’t. And neither should we.
I ran across a prayer this week that I’d like to close with. It comes from Fr. Richard Rohr:
God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything,
Please help us to love in our very small way
What You love infinitely and everywhere.
We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer
And that will be more than enough,
Because in reality every thing and every one is connected,
And nothing stands alone.
To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole,
And so we do.
Help us each day to stand
For love, for healing, for the good,
For the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation,
Because we know this is what You desire:
As Jesus prayed, that all may be one.
We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God,
We offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord,