I remember when I was in primary school, when the teacher used to go out of the room, he would give us the sternest possible look and tell us to work quietly – he’d know if we didn’t. Of course as soon as the door was closed it was mayhem. Arguments would break out within seconds, the air would be full of flying objects …
So this morning, Jesus our schoolteacher is telling us he has to go out of the room for a few minutes — in the Gospel reading he prays as though he knows all too well what we’re going to get up to when he does – Jesus prays for our protection and that we may be one, even as he and his Father are one. If I don’t go away, he told us a chapter earlier, you won’t be able to receive the gift I want to give you – the gift of the Holy Spirit. This makes sense – if my classmates and I didn’t get the experience of Mr Brown leaving the room when we were in grade six we might not eventually have come to realise the value of an internal sense of discipline. Psychologists tell us something similar about the need for children as they grow up to internalise the voice of parental authority as the voice of conscience. Jesus also needs to leave the room so we can start to get for ourselves the value of what he’s been showing us all along. Of course the difference between Jesus and my Grade 6 teacher is that when Jesus ascends to his Father he is not actually absent from us.
And with Jesus no longer physically present, Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples do their best – praying, sharing their possessions and resources, caring for those of their number who are the most vulnerable. Yet, despite this cosy picture we know they are already fragmented. ‘Not one has been lost’ - Jesus prays in St Johns Gospel - except the one who was destined to be lost. And in Acts, later in the chapter we read from, the eleven remaining disciples choose another - Mathias - to take the place of Judas. The body of Christ is broken and incomplete, right from the start - and that, perhaps, is the point.
Eleven is not a round number, it’s a ‘minus one’ number, a number that makes you keep thinking of the one that’s missing. In a sense this is the primordial wound in the Church, the incompleteness we started with that in so many ways we’ve struggled to make up for ever since. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter why Judas acted as Judas did, was it simply a personal failing, lust for money, jealousy – or a conflict of loyalties, did Judas really believe that salvation for Israel lay down a different path than the one Jesus seemed to be taking? The question I’m more interested in posing today, is, what happens to us as a church when one drops out, as Peter euphemistically puts it, ‘to go to his own place’?
I’m not so much talking about when someone just stops coming to church because they don’t like the priest, or because nobody talked to them, or the coffee isn’t up to scratch - although that too might be revealing. Do we, as a church, experience ourselves as diminished by the absence of one who simply opts out because she or he couldn’t agree or connect with us? Do we reflect on our own failing in hospitality, or inclusiveness? But there are other empty seats in the pews, or up in the sanctuary, that leave even bigger holes, because they involve betrayal, violence or loss of faith. About the biggest and most damaging experience of this, in our own as well as other denominations, involves clergy or church workers who commit sexual abuse against children and vulnerable adults. A less dramatic example happens when clergy or church workers simply burn out through lack of support, and disappear. And we find ourselves playing a ‘minus one’ tune – our unity is diminished and we all share in the failure of trust when sisters and brothers find no other option than to leave to ‘go to their own place’. And yet the crucifixion shows us God’s commitment to remaining in relationship with us no matter what – despite or even because of the reality of human sinfulness. If it's good enough for God, how might we start practising that sort of commitment amongst ourselves?
Well, we all know the idyllic picture Luke paints for us in this first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles can’t last. Today the disciples gather in Jerusalem to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, that work of God in us that draws forth our gifts and creativity, that draws forth from us the capacity to love, the capacity for joyful recognition that in the end all there really is, is God. They wait for the gift that they can only receive on the other side of resurrection and ascension, the internalisation of God’s Holy Spirit that they experience as the presence of the risen, ascended Christ in their own lives. This happens in the very next chapter, and of course we will celebrate that gift next week on the Feast of Pentecost – but we also know that more fragmentation and dispute, more conflict and separation are just around the corner. What for example are we supposed to make of the liturgical snuffing out of Annanias and Sapphira, in chapter five, who decide not to put all the proceeds of their property deal in the collection plate? Not St Peter's finest hour, I've always thought. We still see bullying practices like these in parts of the Church today, unfortunately. What makes the lofty ideal of unity and communal living turn into abusive attempts to coerce and control?
And we also know that schism is lurking just up ahead, in chapter eleven, when the apostles split in two over the question of how Gentiles can be accepted as followers of the Way of Jesus. Are they going to have to be circumcised and obey all the Jewish food laws, or can they shortcut all that by being baptised and experiencing the Spirit of Jesus without buying into all the ritual observance of Judaism? By all accounts, based both on what we have in Acts and what St Paul write himself in the letter to the Galatian Church, this was a nasty, divisive argument – between lovers of God and followers of Jesus who passionately, devoutly, but dogmatically held opposite points of view. Because it’s possible, isn’t it, for us to come to opposing but deeply held beliefs about what being a faithful Christian is all about – even after much prayer, reflection and conversation – whether over the big issues of the day like same-sex marriage or Christian responses to the looming disaster of climate change. Or even at a parish level, where disputes about day-to-day issues can be equally bruising. And at the base of it all, how do we listen together for where God is calling us and how do we read the scriptures to give us a clue about what God might think of our arguments? We have to love what God loves. But the point is that Christian unity all too often has to be expressed and lived through the reality of conflicting points of view. We can only struggle towards an understanding of what God is like, and how God might be leading us, if we remain committed to one another in love.
In our reading from John’s Gospel this morning Jesus prays that his disciples may be one as he and his Father are one – but then the Gospel writer has Jesus add this somewhat troubling disclaimer – ‘mind you, I’m not asking on behalf of the world, only on behalf of the disciples’. The community of Jewish Christians that gave us John’s Gospel saw itself as very much persecuted and ostracised by the religious mainstream of late first century Judaism. So much so that they decided unity was for internal consumption. John's community around the end of the first century has been forced to separate from the synagogue community and is painfully feeling its way to a new identity, and if you read carefully the love that it speaks about so eloquently is for insiders. Maybe this is why in the writings that bear a connection to the Fourth Gospel Jesus is made to say both more and less about love than he does in the other three Gospels.
It’s just as much a live issue for us in the Church of the 21st century, isn’t it? We too have become a Church that struggles to stay in communication with the world around us. Do we decide that this conversation of love and transformative forgiveness is just an internal dialogue, or is it something that is supposed to connect us with the world we live in? Well, I hope you know what I think about that – the Way of Jesus is like the pebble thrown in the pond that makes wider and wider circles until it covers the whole surface. We ourselves only get transformed by Jesus practice of love and forgiveness to the extent that we’re prepared to live as a transforming community, making wider and wider circles of love in the world around us.
Jesus is leaving the room — in the picturesque language of the Acts of the Apostles he is ascending slowly upwards into heaven to sit at the right hand of his Father. He’s not leaving us, of course, but it does mean we have to make some grown-up decisions about what it means to live as his disciples. 'What would Jesus do?' — or as you used to see it on wrist bands and jewellery, WWJD — is not quite the main question. What would Jesus have us do?