Texts: Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
You may have seen a premature invitation to wear red for Pentecost. That was my mistake. Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter and the church’s color is still white. Pentecost is next Sunday. I got ahead of myself.
Actually, I know that the season of Easter is seven Sundays and lasts 40 days. 40 is God’s preferred prime spiritual number. It’s when freedom finally happens. Because, after 40 years exile in the desert, 40 rainy days in the ark, after 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, right?
So 40 days after the resurrection it’s Ascension Day, which always falls on a Thursday, and was, in fact, just this past Thursday. From there we count ten more days to Pentecost for a total of fifty days from Easter to Pentecost. Which we will reach next Sunday. You can check my math on that if you want… And please, feel free to wear red next Sunday. (Or again, if you did today!)
Why ten more days? Well, the lessons we have for today’s service, suggest that when Jesus had ascended on the 40thday, there was still some important home work for the community to do. Only after that would they be ready to hit the streets with the story of Jesus and resurrection.
Between Jesus’s ascension and the day of Pentecost the twelve disciples, along with Jesus’s brothers, Mary, and other faithful women and men, spent that time together in a room, doing two things – praying, and waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. Acts 1:14 says so.
The gospel of John gives us a hint of what they might have been praying about. After all, they had just come back together again after being scattered by fears and doubts. And now Jesus gave them a hauntingly beautiful prayer about his own oneness with God and the critical importance of his community modeling that oneness even, and especially, after his departure.
The community of Jesus was wise to wait for the Holy Spirit and to pray long and deeply before going out with the story of Jesus’s resurrection. They had a beautiful message of hope to share. They would draw many believers to resurrection hope.
Yet they would also encounter a variety of negative responses ranging from disbelief to rejection, shaming, and even violence. Facing all this, their most powerful strength was the unassailable oneness of their community, and their unity in the message of Jesus Christ.
We get many messages. There’s a whole industry based on messaging. Advertising is just messaging to sell products. Political campaigns depend upon messaging to promote candidates and win support for various policies, and to advance various agendas.
Right now we’re hearing lots of messages related to the pandemic. We’re getting messages about which necessary businesses are open. We hear the message that we can still go to the hospital ER for an injury or to be evaluated for one of those many failures of our bodies.
Most of us have gotten the message to, “stay home, stay healthy,” and messages like “flatten the curve,” and “be together apart,” right? Christian communities are helping to send messages like “choose kindness.” Because tragically, there’s way too much unkindness going on.
The lessons today send a message about unity in a clear and consistent way. They all use the plural form of “you.” So as the gospel says, Jesus made himself known to the community. Jesus prayed for the believers to be protected as a community. In Acts, the apostles questioned Jesus about the kingdom when they had come together. Jesus was lifted from their sight as they watched together.
In the letter of First Peter the community shares the sufferings of Christ together, not individually. Blessing and the presence of God’s Spirit are promised to the community. And together the community resists the devil. How long that adversity would last was not clear. But as they stuck together God would strengthen them and, after a while, restore them.
In last week’s gospel Jesus promised that he would send the Spirit to comfort his followers after he had ascended. The name comforter suggests calmness despite chaotic and demonic forces that thrive on division. Jesus also said that the Spirit would always tell them the truth.
What Jesus said is important because it is the devil’s work to present a narrative that divides us by provoking doubt and fear. When that is so, our failure to be in unity can yield spectacularly awful results. And because we are free to make our own decisions, and since we are diverse, and there is a relentless pull from our extreme edges…finding unity is always hard work.
Is it overly dramatic to call the devil a roaring, devouring lion? Perhaps not. When unity is the goal, the devil pulls relentlessly until the center comes apart. It is devilish and very destructive work that sets the edges against the middle. Like the suggestion is that smart people don’t find the center ground respectable. So, the devil is rightly called the adversary, and the preventer.
Whatever influence the devil is, it operates against the very core of our faith - that God formed creation withinthe very center of utter chaos. Within this space God’s good can prevail. But chaos surrounds us, pressures us, wants that space back, and demands the freedom to achieve it.
Sometimes demonic forces succeed in convincing us with subtly divisive messages to abandon unity and let chaos invade God’s good creation. Evil thrives in these circumstances unless we stand together against it. So if there is one clear message from the Gospel of Jesus Christ to God’s people today it is this: we are called to hold the center whatever the cost.
Jesus came to bring this message to all. In fact Jesus wasGod’s message, offering good news: grace, mercy, forgiveness, a new start. Whatever it took to foil the disunity of chaos, to restore goodness within the exercise of freedom, and bring peace, Jesus did it. Even dying for it.
In refugee camps, parents calming hungry or terrified children hold the center. In stores, shoppers who take only what they need hold the center. Churches that choose not to worship in buildings again until agreeing that the time is right, hold the center. Veterans who serve for the sake of God’s justice and good, hold the center. We are all God’s blessing as we hold the center. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 00 parishes in the Western United States for 20 years.