Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
“He will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end…We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
We’ll say these words together in a few minutes. We say them every Sunday, so easily and quickly that they can fly by without our ever really taking notice of them. What do we think we’re talking about?
Thursday night I went to Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant for dinner, over on Wheeler Road. When I arrived I was seated in the dining room, where I listened to a man seated at the next table tell his dinner companions about his exact views on “the coming kingdom of God,” and exactly how to get there, and exactly who would be welcome. And what would become of those who didn’t learn the secret handshake, in time to enter this exclusive club before disaster struck.
I was fortunate that this individual’s remarks were not directly addressed to me, but I kept wondering if I was on a TV reality show. The level of anger and hate and aggression in this man’s voice and body language were palpable in the room. As the waitress dropped the bill at my table I remarked “Y’all do get all kinds of folks in here.” She rolled her eyes. “Yes, we certainly do!”
This man believed that he knew—beyond a shadow of a doubt—how it was going to happen. If I’d had the nerve to ask, he’d have probably been willing to tell me when and where as well.
The international foolishness a couple of weeks ago, with the followers of the radio evangelist Harold Camping predicting the beginning of the end on May 21st, is another instance of the same impulse, the same desire. The disciples ask the question in the reading from Acts this morning: Is this the time? Will the end of the world as we’ve known it, the restoration of all things, happen right away? Is God going to jump in and punish our enemies and fix all our problems?
And Jesus answers them: You don’t get to know that. Period. Full stop.
And then he’s gone.
Traditional representations of Jesus’ ascension shows a view of Jesus’ feet only, peeking out of the bottom of a cloud, as the disciples stand below, slack-jawed, looking up into the sky.
Two men dressed in white robes—a literary convention telling us that these are the heavenly messengers, sent to explain what’s going on—speak to the disciples. “Why are you standing around with your mouths hanging open? He’ll be back, just as you saw him depart. But stick around…don’t go anywhere just yet.”
The disciples are in a very in-between place just now. They’ve seen one chapter of the story end, in front of their very eyes—but the new chapter hasn’t quite started just yet. So they’re in-between…which is a very uncomfortable place to be.
We’ve all been there, in those uncomfortable in-between places. In some ways it is the human condition—to be on our way from birth to death, and always transitioning from one thing to another. We get comfortable in one place, or one condition or state in life, only to discover that we are called to go from that place or condition, to somewhere or something else. God may be timeless and unchanging, but God’s people are the heirs of Abraham and Sarah, who left their homeland to follow God’s call into in strange and foreign places.
I’ve kept watch many times with folks who are getting ready to die, and with their families. It is a desperately hard place, and the great temptation is to try to do something, try to fix it, try to somehow make it better. But other than bringing hot coffee and cold water and kleenex and just sitting there, being together, there’s usually not a lot to DO. The work is in the waiting, and it is hard work indeed.
The disciples are told today to wait. That something is going to happen, and they need to be together when it does. So they go to the place where they last were together with Jesus, in that upper room where they ate their last meal together, and they wait. Someone brought food, someone else water, someone else a vessel of wine, someone else brought pillows and blankets, and some first-century version of hot coffee and kleenex.
They are gathered in expectation that SOMETHING is going to happen. But what—and when—and how—they do not know. (You’ll have to come back next week to hear what does happen…)
The Gospel lesson, a part of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, reflects this in-between waiting as well. He has washed the disciples’ feet, and told them that this—loving service and care for one another—is to be the sign by which his followers will be recognized, by one another and by all the world. And he is on his way to the cross, which in John’s gospel is Jesus’ ultimate triumph over the powers of death and destruction and disaster. In his death is the new beginning of all things, prepared before the beginning of all things.
In the garden, in this in-between place, Jesus prays. Not for himself—not for deliverance from his coming trials—but for his followers. For those whom God has brought to him—Peter and Mary and John and Martha and James and John and Magdalene. And Marilyn, and Liz, and Naomi and Helen; Lynn and John and Faye, and Gary and Toni and Robert and Emily, Kim and Charlie, and Genie and Mort and Kai and Bekka and Josh and Maddy and Nancy and Bob…for all of us.
The writer of John’s gospel is adamant in understanding—and in expecting us, the readers, to understand—that Jesus and the Father are one. That in seeing Jesus in human form, the disciples and followers saw and experienced God present in this world.
And this Jesus, now, prays for his followers: “That they may be one, as you, O God, and I, are one.”
It would appear, from this passage, that it is Jesus’ intention that his followers—which includes every one of us—should experience a connection with, and presence of God, just as much as Jesus himself does.
We talked about this in Bible study on Wednesday morning. I drew pictures on the whiteboard in the vestry room—a ring of three double-headed arrows pointing back and forth between God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The vocabulary word for the day was—and is—Perichoresis. (Per-ih-kor-EE-sis) This used to be translated as “interpenetration,” and referred to the active inter-relatedness of the three persons of the Trinity.
From the Greek: Peri, meaning around or about or “in the vicinity of.”
Choresis, from the root word “Choreo”, where we get the English words Choral, chorale, and carol. A verse-and-refrain musical structure, where a soloist sang the verses, the whole group sang the refrain, and the participants held hands and danced in a circle together.
So better than “interpenetration,” we use the word perichoresis to describe the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as three eternal dance partners.
And apparently, Jesus wants us in the dance too.
“That they may all be one, as you, O God, and I are one.”
By this prayer, Jesus asks God to ask us—all of us, each and every one—asks God to invite us into the dance. To bring us into a relationship, a way of being, that transforms us, and everyone around us, in ways that we cannot begin to imagine.
Now, for those of us for whom dancing is not second nature (or even third, for that matter) this may not register as good news. Two left feet, right here...or so we may think.
The old African proverb comes to mind:
If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance.
It’s not about perfection, or some external checklist that we have to work through in order to make ourselves good enough for God to love and welcome us. (In fact, that’s the false gospel the guy in the restaurant the other night was preaching—that we somehow have to EARN God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness.) Dear friends, if you take home nothing else from church today, take this with you: We do not earn the love of God by our good-doing; nor do we lose the love of God by our not-good-doing. We are loved by God—each and all of us—unconditionally and without exception, because that is who and what God is.
The most we can do—the most we can ever do, and this also by God prompting us through the Holy Spirit in our own day—is to say “Yes, thank you, I would love to dance.” And step out onto the floor, leaning on the Everlasting Arms.
May it be so in us; may it be so among us.