Transforming our Community
May 28, 2017
The United Churches of Olympia
The passage that we have before us in the gospel of John contains the last words of Jesus before he is arrested and led to his death on the cross. In this gospel, Jesus uses his last words to pray for his followers. Reading these last words got me to thinking about last words. I have a friend who took good care of her father as his health declined. She is his youngest child and only daughter. As he laid on his death bed, she stood at his side ready to assist in any way possible. At one point, he crooked his finger toward her to draw her close. She leaned in with her ear near his lips with anticipation. What would her dying father say to her? What inspirational words would he leave as a legacy? He whispered to her: “You need to lose some weight.” Seriously? Those were the last words that my friend who is beautiful, athletic, kind and caring heard from her father.
I asked the Bible Study group this week what their last words would be if they knew that they were going to die. By and large their responses included telling those attending their death that they love them very much and they also offering words of encouragement to them such as: “Don’t worry about me.”
When you read this prayer of Jesus in John 17, you might find the language convoluted and difficult to follow. It sort of boils down to a sincere prayer by Jesus, asking God for the help that Jesus’ loved ones would need right then and also in the future. Jesus prayed that God will watch over them. He prayed that God will protect them from evil. He prayed that they would be safe. Jesus reminded God that he has loved the followers. Jesus acknowledged that he and God are one and prayed that his followers will understand that they are also one with he and with God.
Let’s pair this passage with the story we read about the Ascension in Acts. The story from John is prior to Jesus’ death on the cross. The story in Acts is 40 days after Christ rose from the dead and after he has been seen by his disciples. He continued to teach them about the realm of God, and somehow, they still thought that the mission of Jesus was of a political nature, that Jesus would restore the kingdom of Israel.
Jesus told them to stay together in Jerusalem and to watch for the activity of God, to watch for the Holy Spirit. Jesus reminded them that they would receive power and the Holy Spirit, and that they would be a witness to what God is doing to the ends of the earth! This announcement is followed by another one of those “mountain –top” mystical type experiences with Jesus ascending into heaven surrounded by angels or other mystical figures like Moses or Elijah.
The followers, overcome by these mesmerizing moments of mystery, were perhaps surprised when the heavenly figures asked them why they were just standing and watching. I know if it were me, I would want to cling to the mountain top experience as long as I could, because it is heavenly and moving and hopeful and inspiring. I would want to savor it for as long as possible.
Wouldn’t we all want to look up as long as possible? Because when we look down, when our gaze drops, then we are eye to eye with one another. We look at each other, possibly just as the disciples did, and we think “The future cannot be up to us!” It definitely seems easier to look somewhere else.
In fact, the future, is absolutely up to us. Jesus ascends to heaven and his body, the body of Christ is reconstituted as the church. Doing acts of love and justice, standing up to the powers, transforming the world is our job as the church, as Christ’s body.
Sometimes we treat the church as if it is just one more volunteer community organization. Certainly, many of us belong to other such civic organizations in our community that do very important work. Non-profits are working to care for the poor and to lift up the down trodden, protect the immigrants, reduce gun violence, eliminate racism as well as a myriad of other important missions. These are amazing organizations and the work is crucial, but none of these are the body of Christ. Only the church is Jesus among us. The mission of the church is to be consistent with the mission of Jesus. The love we have for the church is the love we have for Jesus. The church is the closest we will ever come on earth to having Jesus to care for and to love. On Ascension Sunday, we are called to reassess our devotion to one another as the physical body of Christ still among us.
Ascension Sunday reminds us that we are each, individually, a part of Christ’s body. To honor one another as the church as we honor Christ is also to remember that in a powerful way, we are each a part of this body of Christ. When we neglect our part in the mission of the church, we disable the body of Christ. As the apostle Paul said, each of us is a physical part of the body of Christ. We are the arms and legs, the eyes and ears; we are limbs and organs of Christ’s present body. When we fail to do our part, the body breaks down. Christ becomes less effective without the limb or organ that each of us is called and gifted to be. (See 1 Corinthians 12.)
Ascension Sunday reminds us that if Christ’s work is to continue, it is up to us to do it. Now that is not to say we are on our own without help. Next Sunday is Pentecost, and we will celebrate our empowerment by the Holy Spirit. This divine help comes to empower us in doing the work of Christ. Jesus is no longer here to heal the sick. He is no longer here to touch the outcast. He is no longer here to feed the hungry. It is up to us, the body of Christ, to continue this work. If the church fails to be the body of Christ, Jesus is absent. If the church fails to be the body of Christ, Jesus is nowhere to be seen.
In his last words, Jesus prayed that we would all be one, as he and God are one. These are excellent and necessary last words of Jesus, because they underscore how hard it is to achieve unity. The challenge to live in unity is a great one, and the church has a long history of schism. I believe that Jesus knew that keeping the beloved followers united would need prayer.
To illustrate, I want to tell you this Aesops Fable called “Sticking Together”
There was once a family with four squabbling siblings. The eldest son wanted the youngest son to work harder and the youngest son wanted the eldest daughter to pray harder and the eldest daughter wanted to youngest daughter to stop whining all the time and the youngest daughter just wanted to grow up, get married and get away from the bickering. So as you can see, they all got on each other’s nerves a little bit.
Their father and mother would return from a hard days work to hear, “He did this and she did that!” from all four of their bitter children.
As time wore on, the father grew weak and ill, but even sitting by his deathbed, the siblings would not cease their quarreling. Now the argument had turned into who should get the money when their father died.
“I should get it, I’m the oldest”, said the eldest brother.
“I should get it, I’m the most hardworking”, said the eldest sister.
“I should get it, I still haven’t finished school”, said the youngest son.
“I should get it, I’ll need it for my dowry”, said the youngest daughter.
Finally, the father had had enough. With much effort and the little strength he had left, he heaved himself out of bed and left the room. The siblings were so busy snapping at each other that they didn’t even notice their dying father had gone.
A few minutes later, the father returned. He quietly leaned against the doorframe for support and waited for his children to notice him. Several moments went by before the youngest son saw his father hunched by the door. He elbowed his elder brother to shut up, who poked his younger sister to keep quiet who prodded her younger sister to stop whining. Finally, the house was silent.
Their father took a deep breath and held up a bunch of sticks tied together with twine. He held it out to his youngest daughter. “Try to break this bundle of twigs”.
The youngest daughter tried, but the bundle would not budge. Then the eldest daughter tried and failed. By this time the youngest son was laughing at his sisters’ weakness grabbed the bundle. He struggled till his face turned red, but was no more successful than his sisters.
The eldest son smirked and reached out for the bundle but soon his smirk melted into a sweaty frown as he too huffed and puffed, and strained and struggled but could not break even one of the twigs in the bundle.
Then, their father asked for the bundle, and after untying the twine, handed each of his children a single twig. “Now, try to break this.”
Snap! Snap! Snap! Snap!
All the twigs were snapped in a second.
“You are these individual twigs. Alone and unprotected. In times of hardship and trouble, you will snap just like the twig in your hand. But if you learn to get along, support and respect each other, then when your enemies seen and unseen attack, you will be as strong and powerful as the bunch of sticks that none of you could break.” From that day on, though it was difficult at times, all the siblings worked hard to get along and stick together.
This is a sweet and obvious sort of story, that I could have probably used at the time for the children, but it makes the point that we are so much stronger together. Friends, we are facing a time in our nation and world, where we need the strength and the courage of one another the Body of Christ.
I can’t imagine what the last words of the three men were in Portland on the MAX train, when they sought to protect two young Muslim women from the vitriolic hate filled rant of Jeremy Joseph Christian, but I am moved by their bravery and commitment and willingness to take a stand even at the cost of their lives. I pray that we too will be bold. I pray that we will be unified. I pray that we will continue together to transform this world.