I remember when I was learning to ride a bike. My dad had bought a second-hand bike for me, and I “helped” him do it up, and dad carefully explained what all the parts were and how they worked. And then he started to teach me to ride. He showed me how to do it, and he explained the theory. I couldn’t quite get my head around why, on two wheels instead of three, you wouldn’t fall over every time, but he assured me you just don’t, if you keep peddling, and if you watch where you’re going, then you will stay upright. And then, when all the theory had been explained, we started to put it into practice. Which meant, at first, me sitting on the bike trying desperately to hold on to the cross-bar with my knees while dad held on to the seat and pushed. Every time he let go, the bike stopped dead and slowly keeled over. But he wouldn’t let me give up, and many bruised knees later the day actually came. I remember it clearly Dad wasn’t even there. I got on the bike with my big sister’s help, and without warning she gave a mighty shove – and I rolled right across the front lawn and into the rose-bush. It was a wonderful feeling, and from that day on I just rode.
How do you get from theory to practice? From following Jesus around with mouths wide open in wonderment, listening to him telling us what God’s kingdom is like, watching what happens when he demonstrates in his own actions the transformed priorities of his way of love and forgiveness – watching in shocked amazement as he shows us he really means it, that he’s prepared to die for it. Blown away with wonder at the realisation that not even death can stop the chain-reaction of transformed lives set in motion by one life of self-emptying love, grounded in the source of love itself. Lives transformed by the encounter with the mysterious and impossible presence of the one who inexplicably was not, and would never be, absent.
Yet – just in case you missed it, Ascension Day having slipped past almost unnoticed in the middle of the week – it’s a presence that also, in a pretty obvious sense, actually is absent. The Acts of the Apostles, as most serious scholars point out, simply doesn’t work on the level of narrative history. Yet the comic image of Jesus’ followers standing around with wide open mouths – again – and also probably with cricked necks, gazing up at the sky as Jesus slowly recedes from view, disappearing, perhaps, behind a cloud and then maybe reappearing as a distant speck – ‘is it a bird, is it a plane – no, it’s ...’ – what the Acts of the Apostles very accurately portrays is the problem for Jesus’ followers as they find themselves careering out of control, across the front lawn, heading for a rose bush, filled with a mixture of exaltation and dread.
In short, you’ve read the book, you’ve seen the movie, now you’re it. And we see Jesus’ followers working through to an understanding that they themselves are now Jesus’ body in the world, the Church, in fact, is the true resurrection body of Christ. Your training wheels are now, officially, off. And we ourselves, every single year, retrace the same steps. We’ve wondered, through the holy season of Lent, at the depths of a love that is prepared to share the burden of our own conflicted humanity, we’ve watched in anguished fascination as love pays the price of human violence and we’ve woken in wonder to the realisation that love is indestructible, springing up renewed out of the heart of death itself. And then we’ve listened to the words of Jesus with, perhaps, a deeper understanding: ‘That’s what God is – love. And so that’s what you also have to be’. Like Jesus’ original followers we’ve been given time to wonder, to relive the stories and to reflect how this resurrection helps us to be who we have been called to be. But now we get the shove in the seat that sends us off across the front lawn. ‘Be the body of Christ.’
Today’s readings take it to the next level. This is the point in our journey – not, you might notice, just our journeys as individuals but our journey together as the Church, where we have to ask ourselves, ‘what next? We’ve got that we’re supposed to be Christ’s body, we’ve got that he is sending us into the world just as his Father sent him into the world. Just – what do we actually do next?’
I find it rather a delicious coincidence that we have an Annual Meeting coming up, that feast of practicality where we scratch our heads over the parish finances and elect office-holders. Maybe sometimes with a sense of relief that somebody else has put their hand up for the hard and unglamorous work of worrying about pest control or cracks in the brickwork. Because of course in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles the disciples are doing something very similar. The first step in being the Body of Christ seems to be electing the right number of people to Parish Council.
And we might be a bit amazed at how they do it. When Jesus calls the original disciples we are struck by the sense of clarity and purpose – they leave whatever they are doing and just follow. For many Christians it’s like that when they first realise they want to follow the path of discipleship. Jesus calls, and we hear it really clearly. But now, when the disciples need to fill the spot left vacant by Judas, it seems that discernment in the everyday life of discipleship, which is the Church, is a lot less obvious. And so of course they do it by tossing a coin.
Maybe the disciples haven’t worked out yet that discernment takes time, that listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit is something the Church does collectively. For example, when a person believes God might be calling them to the priesthood, the Church invites them into a period of discernment that takes a number of years, and commits itself to listening alongside them. Discernment is what we should be doing when we get ready for an Annual Meeting or decide to run an Op Shop; it’s the organic way in which the life of the Church needs to grow out of a collective listening to the Holy Spirit. Discernment is an art that gradually grows in us as we become more sensitive to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the real, essential point, is that discernment depends on the very things Jesus is praying for in today’s Gospel reading, which also are the fruits of that process.
Firstly Jesus prays that the community should be protected from evil. I think that’s not so much to be understood in the sense of being shielded from external events, because Jesus himself models a life of vulnerability and openness, but in the sense of choosing to walk the way of holiness, of loving what is good and lifegiving. Above all, as a community, the Church needs the moral strength of being able to recognise and nurture what is good, to recognise, renounce and repent of what is destructive and self-serving. The goodness of the Church needs to be palpable, our structures need to be open and accountable. This is why, for example, the failure of the Church to protect children and young people from sexual abuse strikes at the very heart of what we are called to be.
Then Jesus prays that we might have unity. You know, I think there’s a lot of who-hah about unity. It doesn’t for example, mean that we all have to agree, because creative disagreement can be a wonderful resource that leads to new understanding. And unity doesn’t mean ‘niceness’ or politeness, because these things can all too often disguise competitiveness and disfunctionality. Unity means learning to see all our individual perspectives and abilities as mutually reinforcing – valuing our differences and learning from one another but above all, recognising our individual perspectives as gifts of the Holy Spirit for building one another up. In a sense, the unity of the Church isn’t something we can just decide on, it is already a reality of Jesus’ resurrection life that we live into more deeply as we learn what it means to be God’s people.
And Jesus prays that we might have joy. Isn’t that something? He doesn’t pray that we should be serious or dour or high-minded. But that we should have joy. Note I’m not necessarily equating ‘joy’ with ‘fun’ – sometimes living with integrity as Christians means there’s opposition, and that’s not fun. But I think it does mean ‘delight’. We are called to delight in one another, and we are called to delight in the goodness of God’s creation. Because if we do, then we will also seek for one another’s good. To delight in one another means to take pleasure in one another – something that came home very strongly in the movie Chocolat that we watched last Sunday evening at Paul’s home. To delight in one another means to love one’s neighbour as oneself.
And finally, Jesus prays that the life of the Church should be distinct from the life of the world. I’ve heard it said that the besetting sin of Christians in another age was to withdraw from the world – in our own age Christians are more likely to be immersed in the culture of the world and to live in conformity with its prevailing values and politics. To be distinct from the world means to be reflective, it means to live in the heart of the world with a deep awareness of the holiness and the integrity of creation, at times to be uncompromising, always to live with integrity.
And I think it means to live without fear, secure in the knowledge that even though we might wobble a bit, if we keep peddling and watch where we’re going we will stay upright - because that’s the gift of the Holy Spirit.