A Love that Unifies

+ A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year C)/Ascension Sunday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on June 2, 2019 +

Text: Acts 1:1-11; John 17:20-26

My friends, on this seventh and final Sunday of Easter, I have a confession to make.
I sometimes have a pretty difficult time understanding Christ’s resurrection.
Yes, here at the conclusion of the week of weeks celebrating the central tenet of our faith, I must admit that I often still have a hard time explaining this core of our religious belief.
Now, before you go call the bishop and bring me up on charges of heresy, let me explain that this doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the Resurrection of our Lord, because I do; nor does it mean that I doubt that God’s promises will be fulfilled because I do trust that God is faithful to God’s word—or at least most of the time I am able to trust.
But it does mean that I sometimes have a difficult time explaining why the resurrection matters.
What does it mean for you and me today in 2019?
Because while I could spout off theology and recite our creeds, I admit it can be hard to connect this remarkable story to our everyday lives.
And I don’t just mean here in the pulpit, but also when I talk to my friends of different faiths or those without a particular religious tradition.
How to I explain the significance of this admittedly outlandish tale?
Is it the promise of some afterlife in heaven? Maybe.
Is it the assurance that our sins have been forgiven? That’s surely what some would say.
Is it the assurance that love is stronger than death? I certainly think that’s possible, but even so, what does that mean for us here and now?

But today, I think we may find some clue to this most important answer in our scripture readings.
Here at the end of our Easter celebrations, we have two readings that are a sort of bookend to the whole season.
From the Gospel of John, we hear part of what is called Jesus’ high priestly prayer.
And then from Acts we hear of Jesus’ ascension into heaven leaving the disciples to sort of stare up after him, possibly wondering themselves what all this has meant and what they’re supposed to do now.
In some ways, these two readings encapsulate this entire Easter season and may give us an idea what this whole resurrection stuff is all about.

First we have this beautiful, if admittedly dense, prayer from Jesus.
We hear him praying for his disciples and all “those who will believe in [him] through their word.”
Now before we move on from that too quickly, can we think about that for a second?
Jesus is praying for his disciples and everyone who follows after them.
Jesus is praying for Peter and James and Mary, yes, but he’s also praying for you and for me.
The same Jesus through whom the universe was created, by whom the world knows the glory of God, is praying for you individually and for each of us collectively in this gospel text.
And I like to think that he is still praying for you and for us right now.
And while the words of this prayer may sound more like the lyrics of a song from one of The Beatles’ later albums, Jesus is praying that we would all be one like Jesus and the Father are one.

IMG_3273That we all would be one.
Well, it doesn’t take a long look at the past 2000 years to see how far reality has fallen from Jesus’ prayer for us.
We see nations and peoples rise against each other in wars and rivalries and colonial conquest.
We see walls built to keep those other people out and policies instituted to benefit one country’s economy at the cost of another’s.
We see people sell each other into slavery and institute segregation and dehumanization.
We see sexual and gender violence and the stain of patriarchy oppressing over half the global population and trampling on women’s rights.
We see discrimination against the LGBTQ community throughout history and continuing today in the church, in society, and in families.
And we see the church, hopelessly fractured into countless denominations, ever obsessed with rooting out heresy and rejecting opposing theologies.
Honestly, I’m pretty confident that even when the disciples were standing on that mountain staring at Jesus going into heaven and wondering what this all meant, there were at least 12 different answers that question.
No, it’s pretty obvious that we are not one in any real way.
So what is Jesus praying for here?
That we all live in one worldwide community?
That we all think the same way and believe the same things?

I think he’s praying for something more, something deeper that may not be as visible but that will pervade every aspect of our lives.
Jesus is praying that we may be one “so that the world may know that [God] sent [Jesus] and [God loves us] even as [God] loved [Jesus].”
He wants us to be one so that we can know God’s love for us.
He wants us to be one in that love.
That the same love God has for Jesus, the same love that created the universe, the same love that the 3rd chapter of this gospel reminds us is the reason that God sent Jesus to the world in the first place, that this love is for you individually and for all of us collectively.
Jesus is asking that we can be one in knowing God’s incomprehensible love for you and for me and for all of us and in experiencing that love in our lives.

Because this is a love that unifies.
This is a love that unites us more than any government or creed ever could.
This is the love that Jesus proclaimed when he broke down social barriers and reached out to those who were outcast.
When he healed those who were suffering and fed those who were hungry.
When he transgressed our political and theological boarders to remind us that the circle of God’s love is always greater than the lines we have drawn and that this love will continue defying boarders and overcoming divisions and pushing us outside of our limits until every single child of God—until the whole cosmos—can know and experience the fullness of God’s love for them.

ascension-rabbula-gospels-smallWhich brings us back to that other bookend with the scene from Acts as the disciples are standing there gawking at the sky.
Maybe they can’t believe what they just saw.
Maybe they’re hoping Jesus will come right back.
Either way, he disappears and they just stand there.
But then, suddenly two men in white, possibly angels, appear and say, “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
It’s as if they’re telling them, “Why are you still standing there? Stop looking up and start looking around you. It’s time to get to work!”
They remind the disciples that they are now apostles, and as they remind us that Jesus has appointed us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, witnesses of the good news of God’s love for all people.
And now they have been commissioned to be bearers of that love to the whole world, to bring the unifying and healing love of God to all peoples.

You know, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, there are four sites that claim to be the location of Jesus’ Ascension and each of them have churches built there for pilgrims to visit and worship.
It just so happens that we Lutherans own one of those sites and, like the other religious bodies, also built a church to commemorate this momentous occasion.
But rather than a church in its own right, it’s a chapel for the Augusta Victoria Hospital.
On what could be considered one of the most holy sites in Christianity, the Lutherans built a hospital.

A mosaic of the Ascension in the chapel of Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem

I had an opportunity to visit this place, which is run by the Lutheran World Federation, and it is amazing.
Its primary mission is to serve its Palestinian neighbors, many of whom are living in poverty, most of whom live behind a boarder wall and must cross military checkpoints to even access the hospital.
Now, I’m not saying this to toot the horn of us Lutherans, but I think that this is an instance where we got it right.
The angels told the apostles not to keep gazing in the air, but to get to work in the world around us.
Get to work continuing sharing the love of God for the world—and that’s just what this hospital is doing.
This hospital serves as a real and tangible expression of love in a region divided by fear and hate.
Or as my former professor said, “This holy site at Augusta Victoria Hospital [is]…a place…where God’s people work as agents of hope and healing in the midst of struggle.”

And really, there are so many examples of the love of Christ mending the divisions that we humans have created.
Wars and international strife are at the lowest point in human history.
Witnessing to God’s love helped abolish slavery and outlaw segregation.
We’ve recognized equal rights for women in our society and next year we will celebrate 50 years of ordaining women in the American Lutheran movement.
Especially in this Pride month, we recognize how the half century since Stonewall, the LGBTQ community has experienced tremendous strides towards equality and our denomination has openly affirmed the gifts and love of our queer siblings for a decade now.
And while there are still literally thousands of Christian denominations, we have seen how the unifying power of Christ’s love has brought so many of us to a common table and opened doors of dialogue even where theological differences remain.
There are so many places where the unity we have in God’s love has overcome the divisions that remain.

Affirm2And yet, while we can revel in the progress that has been made, we know that there is work yet to do.
We know where we still see divisions along national, racial, gender, sexuality, and theological lines, not to mention economic or partisan or so many more divisions.
And while we may feel the urge to stand and gawk at the challenge we face, while we may not feel up to task before us, we hear the voice of our Lord say to us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
We hear the voice of the angels say, “People of Holy Cross, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? Go and share the love of God that you have experienced with the whole world.”
We have this gift of a love that can end wars, overcome racism, destroy violence, banish discrimination, and unify communities.
We have a God whose love will stop poverty, heal divisions, and create a place where all peoples come together in harmony.
And today we hear again that it’s our turn to bear this love that we have experienced into a broken and divided world that craves the awesome promise of its healing and unifying power.

So, on this last Sunday of Easter, I ask again: What does the resurrection mean? Why do we celebrate this outlandish story?
Because we are celebrating the love of God that is for each of us. 70b2fd64fc137918117793c45d6b20bb
The love that overcomes everything this world would throw at it.
The love that works within and through us to unify all peoples until we all can know and experience the love that God has for each of us individually and collectively.
We celebrate this story precisely because it’s so outlandish.
Because we have the audacity to trust in the promise that God loves us and that nothing, nothing, will stop God’s love.
The love so strong that even death cannot defeat it.
The love we experience when we, who are many and from a diversity of backgrounds, are gathered here into the one Body of Christ.
The love that we feel as water splashes on our foreheads and we hear those words, “You are my beloved child.”
The love that we taste at this table as the body and blood of our Lord is given for us, the love that then courses through our veins and into our very being.
The love that can, and has, and will change the world.
And yes, and we place this resurrection promise at the center of our identity not only because it not only grounds us in this love, but it also reminds us of our great duty and joy to proclaim this love to the world.
That we as an Easter people are to be Christ’s witnesses and apostles and bearers and enactors of this love even to the ends of the earth.

So one last time in this Easter season let us proclaim:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Now go and proclaim Christ’s love for the world.


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