Year B — The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Commentary for May 20, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
You gotta love Matthias; he is the poster child of unsung heroes of the church everywhere.

It is “The Twelve” that get most of the attention during Jesus’ ministry — and, of course, it is the Big Three (Peter, James, and John) who get the most ink on top of that. After the shocking betrayal of Judas and the hurry-scurry days that followed Jesus’ resurrection, it takes a while for the leadership core to get around to filling out their numbers with another apostle.

An aside — I’ve sometimes wondered why Jesus himself didn’t ask them to pick a replacement for Judas. Was it just not on his radar during his post-resurrection appearances? He certainly had business with Peter (“feed my sheep”) and Thomas (“don’t doubt any longer”) and others who needed him. Or was Jesus just not that concerned with the numbers?

I know that we have a nearly legendary concern for numbers, and reports, balancing the books, filling up committees — sort of ecclesiastically rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, if you know what I mean. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Or is there? Are we consuming a good bit of our time and energy with the functional details of ministry, when we could be spending it on things that are more relational?


At any rate, Matthias is chosen to round out the Twelve. Check his record of consistency and persistence: he had been with Jesus and the other disciples “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.”

Never held a position, never had a title, never noticed until the moment of need, not even a consensus candidate during the first round of balloting. But, in the end, he was present, available, willing and able. I like the guy…may his tribe increase!

Psalm 1
Psalm 1 is perhaps the clearest presentation of the Hebrew concept of the “two ways” in all of the Bible. Exercising the distinct human gift of free will (choice,) we may follow the way of the LORD — the righteous path — or the way of the wicked.

Both ways have attendant rewards and consequences; both paths require effort. It is the latter point that impresses me as I read Psalm 1 again. We often hear words along the line of, “It’s just too hard to follow God; God expects too much of me; I just can’t keep all those commandments.”

But we fail to realize that it takes a good deal of effort to walk the opposite path — to follow the advice of the wicked, one must first take time to listen; taking the path that sinners tread requires actually walking along that way; sitting in the seat of scoffers doesn’t “just happen.” You have to decide to stop and sit a spell, so to speak.

1 John 5:9-13
John writes very much in line with the concept of the “two ways.”

The church’s testimony has always been, as summarized in v. 11, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” That’s it. Jesus is the Savior of the world. In our fractious dissent (borne of that same pesky free will we just mentioned?), we have often debated just exactly HOW Jesus is the Savior of the world — but never IF.

Whatever the HOW, John holds that the inevitable conclusion is: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Thus, has the church been given a “great commission” to teach, tell, instruct, show, demonstrate and by any and all means get the message out to the world — “believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”

John 17:6-19   
Jesus’ prayer of protection for his followers — also known as a prayer for the unity of his followers — is rooted in this same mission of making God known in the world. “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.”


Part of the church’s life (at least) is to live in imitation of Jesus; what he does, we seek to do. Making God’s name known — through the life of Jesus — seems to me to be a basic part of the church’s job description.

Who are the ones that God has given us from the world? Who are we to pray for, protect, love, minister to? In whom — and in what ways — is God making our joy full as we share the life of Jesus?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
 

Jesus prays in John’s Gospel, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
We are called to be united as the community of faith; yet we look around us and see much disunity and division in the churches.
One of the churches I served in North Carolina had had a church split in the 1890’s. It involved hurt feelings and loud meetings and even a Synod President (now called a bishop) threatened with arrest. After the dust settled there were three churches where for the previous 150 years there had been one.
Most of us agree that we want unity, we desire oneness. We lament the divisions and debates that drive us apart, we do not want to be divided, yet all too often, we are.
Why? In the face of our Lord’s command and our desire, why do we so frequently find ourselves at odds with each other?
The witness of Scripture is pretty clear on two points here:
1) Our disunity springs from seeking to do things our own way, and
2) The path to unity and oneness lies in seeking to do things God’s way.
Many hundreds of years before Christ, King Solomon built a temple, a place for the people of God to gather in worship.
II Chronicles 7:14 tells us of God’s response to King Solomon’s prayer of dedication:
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, forgive their sins, and heal their land.
Time and time again when the people of God lose their focus on God, trouble ensues. This trouble is not punishment from God; it is the natural result of what are essentially spiritual beings failing to attend to necessary spiritual things.
It is in unity with the holy, the divine, the spiritual, that we find wholeness within ourselves and unity with each other.
The words atone and atonement have an interesting history in English. We generally speak of atoning for our sins as somehow doing something to earn forgiveness, or performing some act of penance or restitution to make up for the bad that we have done.
In theology, atonement has become the name for the doctrine of what God in Christ accomplished by his death upon the cross.
What’s interesting is that the English root word doesn’t exactly mean making up for or paying for one’s sins or mistakes or crimes. The root word means “reconciliation.”
It comes from the Middle English atonen “to become reconciled” and from the French at on “in harmony” at +on = one (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, p.56).
How do we achieve unity, oneness, harmony? With God and with each other? Well, it seems obvious it begins with Christ and the cross.
Jesus stood amongst his disciples at the Last Supper and prayed that they might be one.
Then he went out and did something about it. He reconciled, he harmonized, he “at-oned” us.
Christ made us one with God and one with each other.
My favorite professor at the Lutheran Seminary in Columbia, SC, Dr. J. Benjamin Bedenbaugh defined God’s act of reconciliation as “God hugging the world to himself in an embrace of love.”
(Classroom lecture, Spring 1983)
God has made peace with us and, by extension, between us. If we are one with God, then we are also one with each other.
Dr. Paul Tournier, author of THE MEANING OF PERSONS has been quoted as saying: There are two things we cannot do alone. One is to be married, and the other is to be a Christian.”
We need to be one with one another within the body of Christ, the church, if for no other reason than without it we cannot learn to love and to be loved alone.
It is within the daily bump and grind of life together, of living and working and playing and praying together as the people of God that we find out what it means to be genuinely forgiven for our failures, praised for our efforts, appreciated for our virtues, prayed for in our sorrows, helped in the midst of our troubles, and loved in spite of ourselves.
It is only within the community of faith that we learn to be genuinely loving and praising and forgiving and helping toward others. We need each other in order to learn and to practice what it means to be Christian, to each other and to the world.
Our calling today is to do all that we can to be agents of at-one-ness. It begins here and goes spilling out those doors into the world, walking out of here with arms wide open, seeking to embrace the world with love of God.
Amen and amen.

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