Thursday, June 9, 2011

Easter 7 of Series A (Acts 1:12-26)

“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the First Lesson read a few moments ago from the opening chapter of the book of Acts. Dear friends in Christ, in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus prays for us. He has finished the instructions and encouragement of the past few chapters, and now, before they depart the upper room and go to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus turns to His Father in prayer. Chapter seventeen of John is called Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, for here Jesus intercedes on our behalf. He lifts you and me up to His heavenly Father, praying that we would be strengthened and sustained as we live in this sinful world. He knows that He is departing, that even though He will rise again on Easter morning, forty days later He will depart again, ascending to the right hand of the Father’s throne. Jesus prays for many of our needs throughout this great prayer, but what He especially prays for is unity. “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

Fast forward forty-three days or so. Jesus has been crucified for our sin, He has risen again as He promised, and He has even ascended to the throne of God, there to rule all things with the power of His Word. We celebrated that day, Ascension Day, on Thursday. Now they are waiting. Jesus promised in John’s Gospel last week the same thing He promised moments before His ascension: the Holy Spirit is coming- wait for Him! In obedience to the words of Jesus, the disciples do just that- they return to Jerusalem and they wait. They have ten days to wait (although they don’t know that), and how do they spend that time? “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers.” They spend their time in constant, continual prayer, no doubt praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit. That by itself is amazing, but Luke also tells us that they prayed “with one accord.” They prayed in unity, together with one accord. This earliest church was in unity. Jesus’ prayer has been fulfilled! He prayed “that they may be one, even as we are one,” and Luke here tells us that God has answered that prayer. No breaks, no divisions- they are one, they are united, they are unified in constant prayer.

Come on, Luke, let’s get serious. Are you really telling us that any group of people, even Christians, could be united? That is absolutely ridiculous, unrealistic, fanciful. You must have your rose-colored glasses on, you must be trying to pull a fast one on us, because people quite simply don’t have the capacity for unity. Division, separation, yeah, we’re good at that. We see it in our families, amongst our friends, in our churches, and between churches. We know the cause- sin- and we can’t stop. Our sin drives others away, it divides us from our spouse, our children, our friends and co-workers. We have a terrible time bringing people together, but division is easy- too easy. Our words and actions are soiled with sin, and it drives others away. Division is something we’re great at, Luke. Have you seen the divorce rate in our country? Or even more to the point, have you seen the divorce rate of Christian churches? Because of sin, Christian churches have divided from each other over and over again through the centuries. For good reason, too. We shouldn’t pretend to be in unity when we interpret the Bible differently. Thirty years ago, churches divided over the authority of Scripture- today they divide over homosexuality. Not to mention the divisions that happen within churches. No matter how small a congregation is, we divide from others, there is always a ‘we’ and a ‘they.’ Some doctor you are, Luke. I’m glad that you didn’t treat me- you’d probably have told me to put a band-aid on a broken arm!

But Luke won’t give up that easily. He anticipates our protest, the protest of all those who will read his account of the early Church, and so he moves immediately to counter it. ‘Don’t believe me? I’ll give you an example; I’ll show you how the church was in unity.’ And so he doesn’t just tell us about unity, Luke gives us an object lesson. In those ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost, the early Christians were presented with a problem. “Peter stood up among the brothers and said, ‘Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry… So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…one of these men must become with us a witness to His resurrection.’” The problem is one of leadership. Judas betrayed Jesus and hanged himself, and now they needed to fill his spot. Well, that shouldn’t be too divisive, right? Leadership is never a contentious topic- just watch the commercials during election time, everyone is always so kind and courteous to each other.

Peter has dropped a bombshell into the midst of the believers. How can unity survive the choosing of a new apostle, one of the all-important Twelve? Many other religions in the world, including more than a few Christian denominations, have divided over this exact same issue. How can they solve it? First they turn to the Word of God. Peter declares, “It is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it;’ and ‘Let another take his office.’” Unity can only come on the basis of the Word of God. God’s perfect Word unites us as Christians in fellowship together. It tells us how to live in community and in families. When division arises among people, we turn to the Word. When division arises in the church, it cannot be solved by committees but by studying God’s Word. This is also true of unity between church bodies; we can’t pretend that we are unified when we disagree on the Word of God. Unity can only come through searching the Scriptures and coming to agreement. Therefore, after proclaiming the Word, two men are put forward. But they don’t hold an election, they don’t debate. Instead they pray. “And they prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’” Prayer preserves unity; the reason Luke can describe the early church as “of one accord” is because they “devoted themselves to prayer.” They turned their concerns, the potential causes of disunity over to the Father.

For true unity comes only from God. Jesus didn’t pray that we would create our own unity, but instead that God would work unity among us. “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” The early Christians realized this, and so they left the choice of Judas’ successor up to God. “They cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven disciples.” Now, I’m not saying that we should flip a coin for every decision that we make as a congregation, but those first Christians here demonstrate that it is God alone who creates unity. Unity is a gift, a gift bought by the blood of Christ. He shed His blood for all people, to cover their sins. Each of us, you, me, and all believers are forgiven sinners, those purchased by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Unity comes through the cross of Christ, for His righteousness covers us all. Through His redemption we have forgiveness for our sins of disunity and division. We have forgiveness for when we have pushed others away, for when we have created separation. Only through His forgiveness can divided families, friendships, and congregations be restored and reunited. Jesus’ shed blood cleanses us from all sin, for He died only for sinners. The greatest divide caused by our sin was between us and God. It was a division that we had no ability to heal, a division that had eternal consequences. Through Jesus’ redemption that relationship is restored, we are brought back to our Creator, and we cry out to Him, ‘Abba, Father,’ for He truly is our loving Father and we are His dear children.

We have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, there He placed His Name upon us, the Name which the Father gave to Him. Jesus prays that the Father would keep us in that Name so that we may be one. In Baptism, we are brought into the Church, we are made children of God with all others believers in Christ. Despite all of our other divisions in this world, all Christians share in common that they have been baptized into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism makes us one; one with the Father, one with each other. Today, we come to this altar in unity. We come forward because we are unified as members of this congregation, because we publically confess the same teaching based on the Word of God. We come to this altar together, not as individuals, but unified, as the Body of Christ here in this place. That is unity that only Jesus can create, only He can sustain, a picture of the unity yet to come in eternity.

Unity is a gift that that will ultimately be given on the Last Day. On that Day, all divisions will be erased, the Church will be perfectly unified, and no relationship will ever be severed again. In this world, the Church will continue to walk divided, for sinful humans belong to her. That is appropriate, for it is much better to acknowledge our differences than to ignore them. We pray for unity, we pray for a healing of division, knowing that this prayer will finally be answered on the same day when sin and death are abolished. On that day, Jesus will return from where He ascended and will take you to the Father’s throne, where you will worship in unity with all those redeemed by the blood of Christ for eternity. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen

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