I remember when I was in primary school, when the teacher used to go out of the room, he 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, pigtails pulled, drawing pins placed on the seat of the fat boy in front. I wonder if he ever realised ...?
So today – on which we take part as a Church in the Week of prayer for Christian unity - Jesus our schoolteacher is telling us he has to go out of the room for a few minutes and 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. Makes sense – if we 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. Mr Brown and Jesus both need to leave the room so we can start to get for ourselves the value of what they’ve been showing us all along
Of course with the teacher gone from the room, Luke tells us, the disciples do their best – praying, sharing their possessions and resources, caring for those of their number who are most vulnerable.
Yet, despite the cosy picture of this earliest Christian community, we know they are already fragmented. In the very next verse of John, we hear ‘not one has been lost, well, except the one who was destined to be lost’. In Acts, two verses on from our reading, the disciples choose Matthias to take the place of Judas whose just rewards are described in over-graphic detail.
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. Apparently musicians rehearsing a part often get special CDs they call ‘minus one’ recordings so they can practice their parts against what they are going to hear from everyone else. But just imagine being in the orchestra that performs Mozart’s Adagio for Strings minus the violin. I have the feeling this is what we might call 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 in our reading from Acts, ‘to go to his own place’?
I’m not talking about what we do when someone stops coming to church because they don’t like the preacher, or the coffee isn’t up to standard, 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? 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. We find ourselves playing a ‘minus one’ tune – our unity is diminished and we all share in the failure of trust when men and women 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 - how might we begin to practice that commitment amongst ourselves?
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 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 – and that happens in the very next chapter – we celebrate that gift next week – but we also know that fragmentation and dispute, conflict and separation are just around the corner. What are we supposed to make of the liturgical snuffing out of Annanias and Sapphira, who decide not to put all the proceeds of their property deal in the collection plate? 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 know that all heaven’s going to break loose just up ahead, in chapter eleven, when the infant church splits 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 with 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, it was a nasty, divisive argument – between lovers of God and followers of Jesus who passionately, devoutly, 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 – as right now our own Church finds itself on the eve of consecrating its first female bishop. It’s been a long and at times hurtful battle to come to the point where women are able to exercise their gifts of ministry at all levels of the Church, and for all who, like me, believe that this is a long-overdue recognition that God’s Holy Spirit works equally in men and women there are others who find themselves unable to accept this. And yet – I want to suggest that real unity depends on something more fundamental than agreement - as Bishop David McCall reports in this month’s Messenger, at the most recent Bishops’ Conference those on both sides of the argument acknowledged the depth of their differences but committed themselves no matter what to staying in creative and loving relationship with one another.
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’. Because the community of Christians that gave us John’s Gospel and the Letters of John, saw itself as very much threatened by the world they lived in – they decided unity was for internal consumption, the love that 1 John speaks about so eloquently is for insiders, not for outsiders – this is a community that, to borrow a phrase from B Grade Westerns, has decided to circle the wagons against the outside world, and so in their writings Jesus too 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? A Church that struggles to stay in communication with the world around it. Do we decide that the conversation of love and transformative forgiveness just an internal dialogue, or is it something that is supposed to connect us with the world we live in? Well, 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 in the world around us.
I think it’s really appropriate that in the Week of Christian Unity Cheyne and Cheyne are joining God’s family in baptism. They are committing themselves to working out who they are in relationship not just with Jesus but with God’s Church, and we who welcome them into the Church are called to think about what exactly it is we are welcoming them into. What do we think Christian unity really is? As we welcome them today, why don’t we invite them to help us work it out?