May 12, 2013

Acts 16:9-34
John 17:20-26

“Jesus is Praying for Us”

There’s a continuing theme that begins in the Gospels, continues and grows through the Acts of the Apostles, and is picked up again and again in the letters of Paul and others in the time of the earliest Churches. It’s the idea that the love of God and the Good News of Jesus Christ is for all the people of the world.

Jesus was born to a Jewish family and lived as a faithful Jew. His ministry began among the Jews and for the Jews, and then it began to spread. Jesus went beyond the boundaries of religion, race, gender, and social standing… engaging in conversation with those beyond his immediate community, reaching out in love to those on the margins of society, and by the end of the Gospels, encouraging his disciples to go and preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth, to all the people of the world.

This morning I decided to include two readings from the Book of Acts. The first one about Paul and his friends going to Macedonia, meeting Lydia, and Lydia and her household being baptized, was the reading assigned for last Sunday. We did Camp Sunday instead, so we didn’t get to hear it last week.

The second one Dorothy read for us this morning about Paul and Silas exorcising an evil spirit from a slave-girl, and then getting flogged and thrown in jail. While in jail, they keep their spirits up with singing hymns, and in the middle of the night there is an earthquake that causes all the doors of the jail and the chains to become unfastened. The jailer freaks out and is about to take his own life, thinking that all the prisoners are going to escape and he’ll be in big trouble.

But Paul and the others stay put. They reassure the jailer that everything’s going to be okay, and the jailer and his household end up getting baptized and following Jesus with their lives.

The Book of Acts provides us with so many wonderful stories of conversion! So many different people, hearing God’s Word, experiencing God’s grace, seeing God’s love in action and turning their lives to follow Christ! But Paul Walaskay, reflecting on these stories, notices especially the diversity of those who are called and the unity they share as they become members of the body of Christ, the Church. Walaskay writes: “Our narrator has skillfully expanded Paul’s groundbreaking statement in Galatians 3:28 into an elegant story.

‘There is no longer Jew [Paul and Silas] or Greek [Lydia, the slave-girl, the jailer], there is no longer slave [the slave-girl] or free [Lydia, Paul], there is no longer male [Paul, Silas, the jailer] and female [Lydia, the slave-girl]; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’”

In all our diversity of background, culture, social standing, and gender, there is room in the Church for us all. These distinctions no longer matter within the Christian community, for we are one in Christ Jesus.

Of course, we know from experience that “knowing” we are one in Christ is only the first step. Living into that unity is often the more difficult part because it means getting beyond stereotypes and prejudices we hold about others who are different. It means welcoming and respecting people with whom we sometimes disagree. It means staying together, and working through conflicts, and sometimes agreeing to disagree on some issues or choosing to let some things go. It means committing ourselves to treat each other with respect, to avoid gossip and rumours, and to listen to one another and seek to understand.

Last week when I was preparing for Camp Sunday, I started searching through my dresser for a camp shirt to wear. I chose a red t-shirt from the last time I volunteered as the chaplain at Gracefield, the Presbyterian camp in Quebec. But I also found another staff shirt from Gracefield. It was one I got 20 years ago when I was working as the Assistant Cook at Gracefield, and just taking it out brought back some great memories of the unified Christian community that we shared at camp that summer when I was 18.

The design on the back of the shirt says it all, really. It’s a circle of people holding hands. And inside the circle, there’s the theme verse that we chose for our summer together: Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

It was a silly game we liked to play that summer that got us started on the circles. We would stand together in a circle and play this game called “Ooooshaaaa!” I don’t remember the rules now, but it involved going around the circle and saying a bunch of gobbledygook words. There was a sequence to the words, a pattern to follow, and different levels of difficulty as you added more words and sequences.

Someone introduced the game during staff training and we played it all summer. Any time a group was together, we’d find ourselves standing in a circle, and we’d play the game. If someone else came along, they could join right in. If they didn’t know the rules, we’d teach them and they’d be part of the group.

The circle became the symbol of our Christian community that summer… welcome, friendship, fun, connection. With all our diversity of age, background, colour, culture, and experience, there was room for us all in the circle and we were one.

And later, as we faced difficulties together… tiredness and stress from the work of ministry, conflict and the unexpected departure of our camp cook, our circle of faith and friendship kept us strong and encouraged us to keep going. We reminded each other in that circle, that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Christian community feels great when we all get along and agree about what we should be doing in worship, service, outreach, and fellowship. When the Session or one of the committees or groups of the church is meeting, and when someone presents an idea and everyone says, “Yes, that seems good to us.” Or when someone shares an idea, and someone else says, “Yes, and how about this.” And someone else says, “Yes, and why don’t we try it this way”… those are encouraging and uplifting meetings!

But the reality is that we don’t always agree, and we won’t always agree. Different backgrounds and experiences, different cultures and generations, different priorities and ways of thinking will mean that finding unity will sometimes be a lot of work, not just an easy agreement.

And we’re not the first Christian community to have this challenge. Christians throughout history have struggled to find and to maintain unity, especially in the face of persecution, stress, or uncertainty about the future. Just think about Jesus’ first disciples. Remember when they were walking along the road one day and Jesus heard them arguing with each other? They were arguing over which one of them was the greatest. The one who serves the others, Jesus told them. But that’s easier said than done when it comes to our human nature.

As Jesus’ earthly ministry was drawing to a close, John’s Gospel records a long discourse that he gave. It included instructions, and encouragement, and promises for his disciples. And then it moved into prayers. Jesus prayed for his disciples, asking God to send the Holy Spirit to help them, and asking God to make them one.

And in the short passage we read this morning, Jesus prays not only for his first disciples, but for all who will believe in him through their word. Jesus prays for us. We’re the ones who have believed in Christ through the word and witness of Jesus’ first disciples, through the Scriptures and the Tradition of those who came before us in the faith.

What a gift! When we’re struggling to get along, when we’re struggling to understand each other, when we’re feeling hurt or excluded or misunderstood, when it seems like conflict and disagreement are threatening to break us apart… Jesus is praying for us. Jesus is praying for our unity and peace, that we may be one as Jesus and the Father and the Spirit are one.

Sometimes when we talk about unity, we think we’re talking about everyone being the same, everyone having the same ideas, everyone coming to the same conclusions. But I don’t think that unity is the same as uniformity. Jesus prayed that we would be one “as he is one with the Father.” In other words, our unity is to be like the unity of the Triune God.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… one God, three persons… three-in-one, one-in-three… a mysterious relationship of unity with diversity, of oneness with individual personalities, of common purpose with different gifts and roles.

Earlier this week, when we were studying this text together at our Session meeting, one person suggested that we need to find our unity in our common faith and our shared purpose: What about our mission statement? St. Andrew’s exists to proclaim the Gospel and to share in the love of God in our church and in our community.

The fact is, Jesus doesn’t pray that we will be one so that we will all feel good, or so that our churches will be pleasant and easy places to hang out. Jesus prays for our unity so that the world will believe that the Father sent him.

When we fight, either within our congregations or between our churches… when we insult each other, when we promote stereotypes and hold on to prejudices, when we engage in gossip behind each other’s backs… when we are rude, or cruel, or treat each other with disrespect because we disagree on some issues or ways of doing things… we fail to demonstrate and witness to the love, and grace, and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ.

Jesus prays that we will be one, as he and the Father are one, so that the world will believe. Jesus prays for unity within our congregation, for unity within the Session, committees, and groups of our church, and between the Churches in our neighbourhood, our city, and indeed the whole world.

Jesus does not pray that all his followers will be the same as each other. But he prays that we will be one… one in purpose, one in following him and sharing his love, one in Christ so that the world will see us, and see Jesus in us, and experience God’s love through us.

And it’s going to take some work, and some patience, and some humility, and some love… but we can do it. Actually, God can do it. After all, Jesus is praying it for us.