In the world not of the world

In the world not of the world

Sermon for the seventh Sunday in Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 and John 17:6-19

Today we mark the seventh and final Sunday in Eastertide. It is a kind of an in-between day really; landing as it does between Ascension Day—the 40th day after Easter Sunday—and Pentecost—the 50th day. On both of those days, the church tells rather wild stories; stories that stretch the imagination. On Ascension Day, it is a story of the resurrected Jesus being swept up bodily into the heavens, which among other things means that he did not grow old and die, but rather continues to live in the presence of the God he calls “Father”. On Pentecost, it is the story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is experienced as wind and fire and an almost unspeakable power, which frees the tongues of the disciples to speak their truth in a multitude of languages.

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In the in-between, they finally manage to do what Jesus had told them to do; they go back to Jerusalem, and they assume a posture of waiting. In the verses just prior to today’s reading from Acts, we are told that “When they had entered the city, [the disciples] went to the room upstairs where they were staying [where they] were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” “[C]onstantly devoting themselves to prayer,” which to me speaks less of a ten day prayer meeting, and more to a posture of radical openness and expectation. They’re keeping a kind of vigil, in other words; rather than doing—which has been Peter’s default setting all the way through the gospel accounts—they are finally simply being.

There is, though, this one piece of work to which they find they must attend, and it is hardly surprising that it is Peter who sets it in motion. “In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people);” pause there for just a minute. We’d just read that the disciples had with them “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers,” which is in itself notable. It wasn’t just a little band of eleven men; there were the women and Jesus’ own family members as well. Now Luke tells us that in total there were about a hundred and twenty people who were part of this movement; a hundred and twenty people prepared to risk being known as the followers of the one the Romans had crucified. Even in these in-between days, something is clearly happening.

And Peter said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” Judas had been numbered among us—he’d been one of us—and he had a share in this ministry; as much a share as any one of the twelve. But his betrayal and ensuing death has left them as a company of only eleven, and so Peter initiates a process to replace Judas. It isn’t something they keep doing every time one of them is killed—and that will begin soon enough—but rather something that seems to have been important in this in-between time. Twelve was an incredibly significant number in Judaism, because Israel was made up of twelve tribes. The prophets had long spoken of the re-gathering of the tribes, most of which been scattered and then disappeared seven hundred years earlier when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Assyrian empire. Now in this space of openness and expectation, there is a sense that they need to signify their faith that Jesus really is messiah by naming a twelfth disciple.

And so Peter continues with a very basic qualification: it must be someone who has been with us right from the beginning. There were evidently two men who fit the bill: “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.” They prayed that the right selection be made, and then simply cast lots. As N.T. Wright teasingly observes, this “striking method of selection if applied today would simplify clergy appointments no end.” But that’s not really the point. The lot falls on Matthias and he is added to the twelve, yet after that his name doesn’t even appear in Acts. Neither does the name “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus.” The important point seems to be the number twelve; it is twelve disciples, in the company of some a hundred and twenty others—and notice that a hundred and twenty is actually twelve, ten-fold, which may also have a significance—who wait in a posture of openness to what is about to unfold.

What is about to unfold is also the subject of the prayer Jesus offered in John 17, part of which we heard read aloud today. “As you have sent me into the world,” Jesus prays, “so I have sent them into the world.” They are about to be unleashed; not just the twelve, either, but everyone who catches this vision of discipleship. It’s a hundred and twenty in Acts 1, but it will soon spread like wildfire such that by the end of Acts 2 there will be talk of some three thousand being baptized in a single day.

Yes, the Jesus movement is about to be unleashed into the world, and as Meda Stamper observes in her comments on this gospel, “The ‘world’—a word that appears thirteen times in these fourteen verses—is complicated in John.” It sometimes sounds as if “the world” is a place that is all threat, danger, and hostility; “the world has hated them,” Jesus says, “hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” And yet it is this very world that “God so loved,” as John 3:16 puts it. ‘”Indeed,” Jesus says in John 3:17, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

“In the world, but not of the world;” it is a phrase that can roll off our tongues very easily. That’s the answer; to be “in,” but not “of.” And yet as N.T. Wright puts it, “the smooth little steps by which ‘in’ turns into ‘of’ are the dance that comes naturally to our wayward feet.” It’s not an easy balance to maintain; and it is just so easy to find ways to justify this, that, or the other thing as being just fine, inconsequential, justifiable. Suddenly you’ve got medieval monasteries owning vast amounts of land and holding common people in servitude, or churches with investments in the armaments industry, or pastors of mega-churches driving Roll Royces and Bentleys as a sign of God’s favour. And those are just the more obvious examples of the kind of dance that comes naturally to our wayward feet; all of us are quite capable of rather more subtle slippage…

The other side of that, though, is what Wright calls, “the strides by which ‘not of’ becomes ‘not in’, which can march us toward a dualism that makes nonsense of the incarnation itself.” To be fearful of “the world” is to risk rejecting not only its brokenness but also its beauty, its gifts, its possibilities and promise, and so to effectively try to over-ride the prodigious love God has for a prodigal world.

It was precisely these same questions that the disciples and the others in their company had before them as they waited through those ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the explosion that was Pentecost. Where is God about to take us, in a political, social, and religious world that was so violently hostile to Jesus? How will we be disciples in a world like this? And don’t you remember him saying how much God loved this world? How much God wished to save this world? How shall we live and pray and follow into that?

And they wait, and they pray, and they be in open expectation, which is the gift given us and the claim placed on us on these last ten in-between days of Eastertide. Wait. Pray. Be. With open and expectant hands and open and discerning hearts. In a world broken and abused yet oh so lovely, how shall we live and pray and follow?

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