Easter 7A at Holy Apostles Church

Oneida, WI
June 5, 2011

5 June 2011
Holy Apostles, Oneida, WI
Diocese of Fond du Lac

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

Did you notice those disciples at Jesus’ ascension? “A cloud takes him out of their sight,” and they stand around staring into heaven. That is, until two angels come along to see what’s wrong. They remind the eleven remaining disciples that he will return in the same way they saw him leave. We didn’t hear the rest of the story this morning, but they are also told to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the gift of holy spirit. That’s why they go back to the upper room, which is what they know as a safe place.

That upper room is the same place where they had the meal with Jesus, where he broke bread and blessed wine, and told them to keep on doing it to remember him. It’s the same place where he washed their feet, even though Peter wanted a full bath. It’s the same place where Jesus turned up after the resurrection, and came back a week later to talk to Thomas. That upper room is their hangout, their place by the fire, their kitchen table, their local Starbucks. That’s where the little community gets together, in grief or celebration. It’s also the birthplace of a council circle – eventually that upper room gave rise to the log church built here in 1825.

When Jesus leaves the earth, the disciples have to start figuring things out for themselves. They can’t go ask Jesus what to do next. This waiting in the upper room is a between-time, while they get organized, recover their courage, and wait for a little help from their friend Jesus, in the shape of the spirit – that Pentecost visit we’ll mark next Sunday. This between-time is like waiting for graduation after you’ve taken all the final exams – or the first job after you leave school.

There’s a very interesting collection of folks in that upper room – the eleven disciples who remain after the other Judas’ departure, Mary the mother of Jesus and other women, and Jesus’ brothers. All the male disciples are named, but the women other than Jesus’ mother are not, nor are Jesus’ brothers. These form the nucleus of what will eventually become the church – the whole church, not just Holy Apostles, or the Diocese of Fond du Lac, or The Episcopal Church. The beginnings of all the varied parts are found in that group are gathered in that one room.

Jesus’ prayer about that group hints at the difficulty: “protect the ones you’ve given me, that they may be one.” The diversity contained just in those two dozen people is both gift and challenge. We learn of that challenge almost immediately, as the gift of the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, and all those gathered get the same message, even in their diversity. Holy Spirit keeps them one.

The ongoing challenge of Jesus’ friends is their oneness – how to bless the diverse ways in which we have been created and at the same time keep a common vision about where we are going and how to walk the road together. We clearly don’t do it perfectly.

The proto-church, that first generation of friends of Jesus, called themselves the way – it took a while before they were labeled as Christians, or “followers of the anointed one.” It’s also apparent that there were struggles even within Jesus’ own family. Early in his ministry, Jesus says those who do God’s will are his relatives, not necessarily the mother and brothers standing outside calling for him. His brother James becomes leader of the church in Jerusalem, and his mother Mary is the subject of some tension over who will care for her. There is tension between brother James and disciple Peter over leadership. The women, particularly Mary Magdalene , slowly disappear from the church’s consciousness, even though it’s clear that their hospitality and leadership was essential to the development of the early Christian communities. This body has always struggled to stay one, in the face of human tendencies to say, “I’m in charge” or “I have the full truth,” with the accompanying implication, “and you don’t.”

The history of this part of the body of Christ is no exception. Some followers of the way came to North America convinced of their duty to share their understanding of good news with those who didn’t have it yet. They came with the belief that they had found godless savages, that the spirit was absent from this land, and they proceeded to impart the gospel mixed up with a whole lot of other things that weren’t exactly good news. The reality is that none of us ever has a pure and unadulterated message, even if we act with consciously good intentions. We’re all limited in our ability to understand the gospel. We do seem to do a better job when we can keep that body together in its diversity.

Keeping the body one has something to do with blessing the other, discovering what is good and right in another person. It’s related to our image of the Trinity – one God in three persons, coequal and consubstantial – of the same dignity and essence. The church remains one body when its members are in right relationship, when we recognize the image of God in others and value others as we value ourselves.

Sometimes the early body of Jesus’ followers remembered this. Paul challenged those who thought some part of the body was better than another when he said, “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female.”

Sometimes the church has assumed that unity is just an internal problem, that if and when it can achieve oneness in itself, the work is done and everybody can rest.
That search for purity only destroys, usually sooner than later. It leads to death because God is creative, and always doing something new. Denying that creative force is to put yourself in hell, trying to escape the presence of God at work. We have plenty of examples of that misguided course, from Jonestown to David Koresh at Waco at the more extreme end, to the insistence that all the churches in a diocese have to think and do things exactly the same way, as happened in Fort Worth and San Joaquin. In large part, those who disagreed were forced out. That urge had something to do with residential schools and the insistence that Native peoples learn “white” ways. That same search for purity is motivating a lot of the anti-immigrant rhetoric in our country today.

That search for purity is not the road to oneness. We will be one as Jesus and the Father are one only when we can bless the image of God in those who differ, when we can see difference as God’s creative spirit at work, giving birth to new life in our midst, when we can value the particular gifts of this community as an expression of God at work, and see the unique gifts of another community in the same way. We are more likely to find that blessed diversity as we come in and go out, leaving this place for the world, and returning to the body found here. What if we did what the Israelites were challenged to do? ‘Put these words on your doorposts and in your hearts: “hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.”’ As we come in and go out of this place, remember – only God is fully one. We’re still on the road.

The upper room is an important way station on the road to oneness, as a place of prayer and nourishment. But we can’t stay here for long. We will be sent out to discover God at work in new fields, in the variety of God’s ongoing creation. We will find oneness in seeking and loving the image of the one God in every creature, as we come in and go out, for in returning and rest we shall be saved, and we shall become one.


[1] Called “apostle to the apostles” by the Orthodox, for she was first to announce the Resurrection.