Today, the seventh Sunday of Easter, is one of the oddest of all of the Sundays in the liturgical calendar. We are in something like suspended animation, or stopped motion. On Thursday, the calendar, even if we at Grace Church didn’t, commemorated the feast of the Ascension, when Jesus Christ departed from earth and from his disciples forty days after the resurrection. Next Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the gift of the Holy Spirit on the assembled disciples, empowering them to spread the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world. But today, today we’re waiting.
Both the gospel and the reading from Acts are about departures, leave-taking. They are two pieces of Jesus’ departure from his disciples. The reading from John comes from the Last Supper. Now we’re in chapter 17, Jesus’ lengthy and powerful prayer to God on behalf of his disciples. The reading from Acts gives us a glimpse into Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ ascension, and the disciples’ response to it. Together, they invite us to think about relationships—the relationship between the Father and the Son, the relationship between Jesus and his disciples, the relationships within and among the body of Christ. As such, they provide insight into what else is taking place in the life of our congregation today on this Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost, as we baptize two babies and bring them into the body of Christ.
Our collect today actually sets the tone for us: “Do not leave us comfortless.” The disciples at the Ascension are looking up at the sky in the wake of Jesus’ departure. No doubt they are shocked and perplexed by what they’ve just seen and wondering what might happen next. In these few verses, they begin in puzzlement and end in prayer. On this last occasion when the Risen Christ is with them, they ask a question that has probably been on their minds since the Resurrection: “Is now the time that you will restore Israel?” One might have hoped, or expected that after his death and resurrection, the disciples would have come to understand that Jesus Christ was not a Messiah in that political sense that they and indeed all Jews were awaiting. But no, even now, at this late date, they seem confused as ever. Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit, departs from them and they stay behind, looking up into the sky.
As they linger, their thoughts and eyes directed heavenward, they are brought back to the earth by two angels who admonish them, telling them basically, you’ve seen enough; it’s over; get back to your business. And so they return to Jerusalem, reconvene in the upper room where they had gathered the night before Jesus’ arrest. Luke takes the time to list the names of the eleven but he also points out that there were other disciples in the group, women as well as men. And he concludes, “They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” In that brief description, we can sense something of the odd state in which they found themselves. After all of the spectacular events, the emotional lows and highs, after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the disciples still weren’t sure what was going to happen next. They were waiting and they might not have quite known what they were waiting for.
No doubt part of what they were waiting for was direction, clarity on what to do next. They were probably also waiting to see what Jesus meant with his final words about the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon them and making them witnesses to him throughout the world. In that sense, the disciples were experiencing something we all experience, as individuals and as a community when we wonder, pray, and try to discern the next steps on our journey, when we wait, hoping for clear direction from God on the way forward.
In times like these, Jesus’ words in John 17 are comforting indeed. We have read over the last three weeks Jesus’ words in these chapters from John. They are his final instructions and communication with his disciples at the last Supper. They are words of comfort but also words of commissioning. Jesus is reassuring his disciples even as he gives them commands. In today’s reading, we encounter one of the most significant ideas in John’s gospel. Throughout John, Jesus has stated his identity with God the Father: “I and the Father are one;”“If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Now, he takes that identity a step further. Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
This prayer of Jesus is often used by supporters of Christian unity and ecumenism to appeal for unity among Christians. In a week when we heard the bombshell announcement that the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople will meet in 2025 to mark the 700th anniversary of the Council of Nicea, pleas for Christian unity take on new power. But at the same time, we shouldn’t mistake laudable efforts toward Christian unity for expressions of what Jesus is talking about here. Nor should we mistake our own efforts within this congregation to create deeper bonds of affection and to resolve conflict.
Jesus is speaking about something much deeper here. When he states repeatedly that He and the Father are one—he is not talking about intellectual agreement or emotional attachment. He is talking about identity, oneness. When he prays, that they may be one, even as I and the Father are one, he is praying for oneness, identity. It’s hard for us to grasp what that might mean given our culture’s century-long emphasis on individualism and autonomy. One way to think about it might be to imagine ourselves, individually and as a congregation, to be so imbued with God’s presence, so filled with the Holy Spirit, that when others encounter us, when strangers join us, they experience and know the love of God in Jesus Christ.
In a few minutes, I will be baptizing William Patrick Courtenay and Aiden Samuel Hart. It’s a joyous occasion in the lives of their families and in the life of Grace Church. We are bringing them into our fellowship, and into fellowship with Jesus Christ. They will be marked as Christ’s own forever. In the coming years, they will be invited to experience and grow into everything that such a mark might mean, growing into the stature of Jesus Christ. Their journey in Christ begins today. We are witnesses to it, but we also pledge to support them every step of the way. The ultimate goal of that journey is to be remade in the image of God, the image in which God created us. Baptism begins that journey—we become a new creation in its waters, but it is a journey that will last a lifetime as they grow, explore and discover the mystery of God’s creation and the mystery at the heart of God. May they, and all of us, seek that mystery and come to know the God who created us, sustains us, and loves us throughout eternity.