After witnessing the ascension of Jesus into heaven the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Upon reading this verse over the course of a lifetime, my thoughts have really gone out to the apostles and I have wondered what they were thinking. They were of course instructed to gather at Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to arrive. But in those several days waiting, watching and praying I wonder how many of them sat wondering (not wanting to be the first to say) “Well, what do we do now?” Here their leader was gone, but the faith he had left them was quite alive in their small group. But they were all still very human, and so as the days wore on, I have often wondered if the frailness of being human would have overtaken them in anxiety if the days had gone on past ten.
Two years ago this month, here at Saint Nicholas, our rector at the time, Fr. Bagen, resigned abruptly due to some personal problems. Much like the apostles in the reading this morning, there were about twelve of us left here to wonder, probably much like those apostles in the upper room, ‘Well, what do we do now?’ But, as we eventually found out, God is truly faithful and really did have a plan for us and eventually with the help of the Holy Spirit and our bishop, everything fell in to place perfectly. And although what at first seemed like a tremendous loss became for us who were left a sort of rallying cry to carry on forward and fulfill the mission that was the beginning of Saint Nicholas Church at its inception back in 2007, which was with the intention of providing authentic Christian worship, teaching and outreach to a broader community in northern Erie County. And so here we are today as a congregation – stronger and better than we were and actually growing in numbers.
And isn’t that what Peter spoke to us about today in the second lesson when he wrote . . . Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed . . . Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
This indeed is the promise Jesus makes to his church; that he will be with us always, even unto the end of the world . . . providing that we keep his commandments and fulfill the mission of his church, which is to preach the gospel to all people. In his final prayer, which is part of the gospel lesson today, Jesus asks his Father in heaven to protect those whom he leaves behind. It is perhaps the most important prayer in scripture as it affects all of us who are left . . . both then and now . . . “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. ” . . . . so that they may be one.
But of course we are not all one are we? We are many different groups with differing ideas of what it is that Jesus taught us. The church has been splintered into hundreds of different factions, some who are orthodox and have kept the faith and others who have gone off on a path of their own choosing and have left behind the faith once delivered for us all by the saints. Like in the story of the wheat and the chaff, today the church has been separated perhaps forever into two groups . . . those who continue to believe and keep the faith, and those who have invented for themselves a new revision of the faith once offered.
As you know, the first gay bishop in the Episcopal Church filed for a divorce last week from his gay partner. To me, the Bishop Robinson saga is a symptom of a deeper disease within much of the church today in general. Free thinkers have attempted to give it a kind sounding label such as “revisionism” but by whatever name you call it, it has infected not just the Episcopal Church from which many of us have come, but nearly all the protestant denominations. We can see its beginnings as people start questioning the meaning of terms such as “tradition”, “Biblical authority”, “marriage”, or when they diminish the writings of Paul, or they question the validity of the witness of the Gospel writers. It boils down to a disease of unbelief in anything but the self. Self-worship ensues, and with self-worship there is no longer any need for the Church other than to give self-worshipers a place to strut their stuff, and who really wants to get up on Sunday morning to see that?
And maybe this would be okay if it ended there but it doesn’t . . . because once people start believing in a lie, the truth becomes a threat to their sense of a higher calling and so the truth must be marginalized at first and then finally stamped out of existence thru false accusations and propaganda.
We can see the beginnings of this this week when a UCLA professor and the news media tried to link the killings in California with conservative Christian orthodox theology and the latest weaponized label of ‘white privilege’.
Scripture tells us that as time goes on, the church, the real Church, will continue to be maligned and accused of all sorts of atrocities just as the false church will accepted and acknowledged for doing the ‘right thing’ by calling what is evil ‘good’ through a revision of morality.
Even today, in the latest Gallup pole there are some truly astounding statistics on morality that people, in just one generation have basically turned the tables upside down from just 40 years ago. For example, today, the vast majority feel that having a child out of wedlock is now morally acceptable, as is divorce, homosexual relations between same sex people and casual sex between unmarried adults. Doctor assisted suicide is a coin-toss, but even it beats out abortion by 10 points.
So what is it that is unacceptable in today’s moral standard? Believe it or not, adultery is still considered unacceptable, as is suicide, cloning of humans and polygamy . . . but you have to wonder . . . for how long do you suppose?
The apostles, sitting in that upper room, waiting on the Holy Spirit, probably had no idea what changes they were about to make in the world, in their belief in God and his messiah that they now embraced.
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Christian witness has been and will be unstoppable until the end, when Jesus returns to call back his own. The orthodox Christian church of which we are a part will remain faithful to its calling until that time . . . but it will be assaulted, abused, maligned and marginalized just as Jesus was . . . and so long as it is, we will know that we are on the right path and doing the right thing.
So what can we do as individual believers in Christ? Peter tells us in his letter today that we should discipline ourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.