I have this feeling that life is actually a series of beginnings and endings; of hellos and goodbyes.
Often, well, actually, always, it is hard to tell the difference. Every ending is the beginning of something else, and every beginning is in its own way, an ending.
Do you remember how we start the narrative story when we celebrate communion? We always say, “On the night before Jesus died…” And that recognition brings us back to a very clear remembrance that Jesus did die – that the hopes of the disciples were dashed, and that everything changed.
Of course, those events of the Last Supper and even the crucifixion turned out to be just a beginning of a different kind, of the season of Easter – the time when Jesus, or rather, the resurrected Jesus, was present in the world and interacting with the disciples to help them continue his work.
Now the time has come to say farewell once more.
Over the last seven weeks we have journeyed with the disciples as they have come to terms with Jesus death and resurrection. From the first day he appeared behind the locked door, we too have had to try and understand what it might mean that Jesus was resurrected. How does it change things? What happens now?
Take a moment and think about that… what does it mean to you; this whole Easter story? What does it mean that Jesus was brought back from the grave?
The opening to this Sunday’s service could well be “On the night before Jesus left…”
“The glory which thou has given me,” he tells God, “I have given to them…”
The passing on of a mantle, of a mission, of a calling to share God’s love with those who would come after; and in doing so, to reveal God’s glory.
I remember that when I was ordained it was a pretty powerful moment. A group of clergy placed their hands on top of my head and said very similar words, passed something on to me… a tradition, a calling, a challenge… and set me free to live my faith.
Baptism and Confirmation are times when that same glory is transferred to each and every one of us. Jesus said, “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word.” This is not only a goodbye prayer for the disciples, it is a continuing blessing for us – their followers.
“I in them, and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one.” That the world may become perfectly one. This is the prayer that Jesus has for us.
This Farewell Prayer always calls to mind the prayer once offered by Elie Wiesel to someone who was about to be ordained a priest: "May this day mark the beginning of a mission that will bring many, many people closer to each other, closer to God, and closer to themselves." I wonder if Elie Wiesel knew he was paraphrasing Jesus' last prayer for all of us. For this mission is the one mission we all share, no matter whether we are Christians and Jews, Islamic or Hindu; we are the people of God.
And this unity is possible – Because God’s love is a powerful force for good. We are one, because we are unified in God’s love. And that love is with us in every instance of our lives – it sets us free.
Just look at Paul and Silas. They were trapped in the deepest darkest prison, shut away from their friends and companions, not knowing what was going to happen next – they could even die. And in the midst of that what are they doing? They are having a hymn sing! Even in this moment God’s love still rings through their heart.
There is a freedom there that hopefully many of us will never have to experience, a freedom that allows us to live the abundant life Jesus promised no matter what is happening around us. It makes me think of the Slaves in the Southern States, who even though they were born into a harsh life of absolute slavery, still wrote songs of great love and beauty – like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”; or take a moment and turn to hymn 577…
“I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got joy like a fountain, I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul.” Can you imagine singing those words over grits in your slave shack? Do not underestimate the power of God’s love to make us whole – to bring us that glory that Jesus spoke of.
A story is told of these two soldiers who wanted to bury their companion over in France. They looked through the village until they finally found a small church with an adjoining cemetery. It happened to be a Roman Catholic graveyard and the man was a Protestant. So the two friends went to find the priest and ask permission to bury their friend. The priest refused because the man was not Catholic, but seeing how disappointed they were he told them they could bury their friend just outside the cemetery fence – which they did.
A few weeks later they returned to visit the grave and looked high and low but could not find it. Their search led them back to the priest and, of course, they asked him what had happened to the grave. He told them that during the night they first arrived he had been unable to sleep because he had made them bury their friend outside of the fence. So he got up and moved the fence to include the dead soldier.
“I in them, and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one.”
It’s a powerful statement of unity and the calling that Jesus left us with. But the other interesting thing about unity is that we are not talking about making everyone exactly the same. God’s love does not require us to all look alike, or think alike, or act alike. This is a unity of spirit, a unity of love, in which all of our differences actually help to strengthen us.
Ralph Milton tells a story which I would like to share today; a story about concrete. He writes:
I watched them pour the driveway to our house. The workers laid down steel rods, then as they poured the cement, they pulled the rods up so they would be in the middle of the concrete as it hardened.
“What do you need the rods for?” I asked one of the workers.
“It makes the concrete stronger. Reinforced concrete.”
“Yes, I know, but how do the rods make the concrete stronger?”
The worker picked up one of the rods. “Look, if you push down on it, it bends real easy.” His muscles bulged and the rod bent. “But you can't pull it apart. This hunk of rod could pull that truck over there. On the other hand, a piece of concrete is easy to pull apart. But if you push down on it, it won't bend."
“So?” Ralph asked.
“So they've got opposite strengths. The steel is strong when you pull, the concrete is strong when you push. Put them together, and you've got reinforced concrete, which is strong both ways. That's how they make all those big buildings and bridges. Concrete by itself or steel by itself wouldn't be strong enough.”
Jesus knew that no one person would be strong enough to pick up where he left off, but he knew that together we could share God’s love the way it was meant to be shared. He prayed for our unity so that we might pick up where he left off – but he also prayed that we might come to understand God’s love and live out of that place of freedom that allows prisoners to sing in the dark and slaves to laugh.
And so, on this last Sunday of the Season of Easter we pray to God as Jesus prayed; that God's love might continue to dwell in us - and that we may be one. We pray that our love for each other - our unity - may be shown not only to each member of the family of God that walks through these doors - but to those outside these doors as well - so that all might believe. Amen.