Parish Eucharist 13th May 2018
The inbetween time
Readings: Acts 1.15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5.9-13; John 17.6-19
Living in 'in-between' times is always tough. And we’re going through it right now waiting for the outcome of our governments negotiations with the European Union: should we, will we, stay in the Custom’s Union, the Single Market even? Certainly not if Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liam Fox have anything to do with it! Our Prime Minister has said it clearly: we are not remaining in any Custom’s Union - but is it going to happen in some subtle way behind our backs? Some of us may be hoping so. And then, what is going to happen to Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller? Will he or won’t he call the President to answer questions directly - before that is, he is fired by that same President? Indeed, no matter the historic meeting lined up with President Kim of North Korea, will President Trump be impeached? America, as the UK over Europe, is divided over the future. How will we manage our very different competing standpoints?
Today is the Sunday after Ascension - and one Sunday before the Day of Pentecost. An inbetween time. That strange time of waiting with all its uncertainties. Those who have followed Jesus to Jerusalem, a hundred and twenty believers we are told, are gathered together to consider what they will do next. Jesus had chosen twelve senior disciples from among his followers, twelve representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Judas has betrayed him - and hung himself. They must choose another to complete again the symbolic Twelve. As they wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit Jesus promised at his ascension they fall back on an old, tried and tested method of the Hebrew people for the discerning of God’s will: prayer and the casting of lots. In a time of waiting this will do.
The lot falls on Matthias - whose feast in the Common Worship calendar is tomorrow. A resolution then to the immediate problem of that first Christian community. A restoration of the symbolism of the Twelve. The mantle of Israel, her mission to bring God’s light to the world is passed to the Christian community - and right here in Jerusalem. Traditionally, John the Evangelist is one of the Twelve,
and taken to have written both the gospel and the epistles given his name. Probably written in Ephesus between the years 90 and 100, John’s gospel is strongly influenced by Greek thinking, and in particular that of Plato’s theory of ideal ‘Forms’. A theory of everything where what we conceptualise on earth is an inferior replica, a shadow, of its transcendent Ideal.From which thinking came the idea of an absolute separation between that which is divine and that which is of the earth. A notion which would have a major influence on the development of Christian thinking and doctrine. Thus in John’s gospel Jesus is definitively divine, his humanity restrained. Sinless, he is not actually baptised, neither does he go through the agony of Gethsemane. Jesus’ teaching is sublime, not to say otherworldly - and esoteric.
The letters of John while still sublime are more practical. They address a growing church - but a church that has experienced schism. A church where some have chosen darkness rather than light, have indeed become, according to the epistle, anti-Christs. This letter is a profound plea to walk in the light of love. We do not know exactly what the rift was about, but it would seem that it relates to that understanding of the relationship between Christ’s divinity and his humanity: while Jesus appeared to be human, was this merely an illusion? In his divinity was he truly human or really a divine spirit manifest on earth.
These differences in perception posed a dilemma and an important question: how were those early Christians to discern who were faithful teachers - and who were not. What should they believe, and what not? For the writer of John’s epistle, the answer lies in the quality of love evinced in our daily living. By their fruit you shall know them. By the calibre of the light in which they walk you may know the truth of what they say.
The early Church was in a time of waiting, a time of expectantly waiting for the second coming of Christ, the advent of the new heavens and the new earth - at any moment. And still they are waiting ....
In such times minds wander to new ideas, new solutions. People begin to gather around new thinking - and the seeds of faction are sown. What is true? The epistle’s answer: we may know what is true in the light of love. We are then to discern truth in the fruit of our actions, as Jesus famously prays for us to ‘be one’. As we all know, a task more easily called for than accomplished. What does it mean ‘to be one’? It cannot mean that all Christians should think and believe in exactly the same way as each other - for this would preclude Jesus' teaching that the Spirit will lead us into all Truth - that is, we are always growing in understanding. Such as we see in Peter’s astonishing conversion where through repeated dreams, the Holy Spirit forcibly reveals to him that the Gentiles are not impure. They are equally loved by God, embraced by Christ. Unity is not to be found in being the same as each other, our unity is found in our shared relationship with Christ, in our mutual following of his Way. Which is not, and never will be, uniform.