Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Lee Ann Tolzmann – June 2, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Lee Ann Tolzmann, Canon for Mission Leadership, the Episcopal Church in Connecticut
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday of Easter: the Sunday after Ascension Day
For seven weeks, we have been in the season of Easter, joyfully celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And during that time, St. Paul’s has undergone a great change – the departure of your beloved twenty-six-year rector. That’s huge. But let’s think for a moment about what that first seven weeks must have been like for the disciples. Only two days before Easter, they had thought all was lost. They then found themselves suddenly in a literally unbelievable new reality, one in which their dead friend and leader had been raised to new life. For forty days, Jesus appeared around the Jerusalem area, bringing a message of love and forgiveness and making an irrefutable witness to God’s power over sin and death. This past Thursday, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Ascension, the day that Jesus rose into heaven, not to return until God’s plan of salvation is at the point of ultimate fulfillment. So, from the disciples’ perspective, Jesus was alive; then he was dead; then he was alive again; and now he’s gone – leaving them with the yet to be fulfilled promise of the Holy Spirit. Stay tuned.
The events of those first weeks following the resurrection demonstrate in incontrovertible ways that God is a God of love and forgiveness, of hope and healing. It becomes clear to Jesus’ followers that God cannot be defeated or even constrained in any way by sin and death. We believe that even in an everchanging world, God is constant, unchanging. The coming of Jesus Christ into the world, his life, death and resurrection, did not signify a change in God. Those events happened in human history. They changed the world. And their transforming power travels through history, through time and space, right into our own lives.
We are comforted by the idea of God’s immeasurable love. We tend to be a little less receptive to the idea that the purpose of that love is to change us. We are meant to embrace God’s transforming power, unleashed into the world and into our lives through Jesus Christ. Yet we seem to spend a lot of time and energy trying to ignore or deny it. Because, if it’s true that God loves us with a love that transforms, that means that we are not perfect, that we are in need of God’s healing grace. To follow Jesus Christ, the resurrected Son of God, is to admit that, both as individuals and as a community, we are always in process, always becoming. God is never finished with us. We are in relationship with the God of resurrection, and that means that we have to be open to change, to change happening in us and around us. Our very human tendency is to deny or simply ignore God’s power to transform. We’d rather fight with God than cooperate with God. Because to surrender to God and God’s power in our lives just might mean giving up some of our own ideas about who we are and how the world should be – and maybe even how the Church should be. The resurrection did not happen because everything is fine in the world and should just keep going along the way it always has. The purpose of the resurrection is to make us new people, and the world – this world right here – a new creation. The resurrection is a witness to and an instrument of transformation, and that transformation begins in us and unfolds in our lives.
Today’s gospel passage is from the last chapter of Jesus’ lengthy “Farewell Discourse.” The entire last chapter is an intercessory prayer. Jesus is praying for his disciples. And he says that he’s not just praying for those with him, but for those who will come to know him through the word of the disciples. That means he is praying for us. That is good news on so many levels. It is a sign of a relationship that extends through time and space. It means he knows us and cares about us. Jesus is not praying for us to be good or holy. He is praying about our relationships, with God and with each other. In the obtuse circular language of the Farewell Discourse, he is saying that he is God’s love incarnated. He has brought that love to us, and he is leaving it in us. God’s love is part of who each of us is, and it binds us together. Jesus is praying for unity, but that does not mean uniformity. The connection we have, our unity, does not come from anything we decide to agree on. It is not something that comes even because we have all decided to believe in him. Jesus prays that we all may be one as he and the Father are one. Our unity in our diversity is a gift given to us through the unity of God and Jesus.
Jesus will end this prayer, and then go out to be arrested. As he is preparing to die, Jesus prays to God not for himself, but on behalf of the people who follow him. He knows that, after he ascends to heaven, the locus of God’s love in the world will move from himself to this community he has worked so hard to form. But the conclusion of the Farewell Discourse it not a to-do list. It’s not a set of instructions to disciples about their impending responsibility. Jesus ends with a prayer on our behalf. He entrusts us, our gifts, our lives, our love, to God. He puts our future and the future of the world into God’s hands. Jesus sums up his earthly ministry: “I made your name known to them.” In other words, “I have shown them who you are.” And he promises that the love that God has given him is in turn being given to us, so that we in turn can reveal and share that love with a very broken world. We are being commissioned and empowered to make God’s love known in the world, and to do it through relationship.
Our witness can never be complete. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ does not tell us everything about God or about God’s plan of salvation. It does tell us enough. In Christ, we are assured of the outcome of God’s plan, that is, the salvation of the world. But we’re not made privy to the timeline or how it will unfold. There is no promise that life in the world is going to be easy – for us or for God’s Church. That’s why he prays for us. There IS assurance that Jesus will be with us to the end. He is with us now, even as the Church is undergoing what is for most of us a very uncomfortable change – and I am not just talking about St. Paul’s here. It has become clear that the model of church that flourished in the 20th century, which nurtured so many of us (including me), is broken. Most of the ways of doing things that worked so well for so many years are no longer useful or relevant. All mainline western churches are undergoing significant losses of members and financial support. Young people are curious about God. Many want to nurture their spiritual lives. And the vast majority of them want nothing to do with today’s church. Evangelical churches are behind the mainline by about a decade, but they are not immune to these inevitable demographic trends. There is no magic formula to bring young families in to “save us.” Our best minds have been on that for forty years and it’s gotten us here. We’re being called to broaden our expectations. We’re being called to remember that our faith is rooted in resurrection. God always brings new life out of death. We also know that that new life never looks like old life. We’re being called to new ways – not just new ways of doing what we’ve always done, but new ways of being the Church. And the only way to find those ways, to discern and move into God’s future, is to be willing to let go of the old ways and be open to what God is doing. Jesus has made God’s priorities clear. The sole purpose of the Church is not to be big, successful and affluent. It is to be part of God’s radical, saving, life-giving, world-changing work.
The Church is no longer privileged by our culture. In fact, its existence is barely acknowledged. And, while that does not feel good for many of us, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We must adjust our expectations. We are on the cusp of what Bishop Douglas calls, “a New Missional Age.” We are being called to remember that the Church is a living body, and it has not always looked or lived the same way. It looked very different in the first century and in the tenth. The twentieth century Church, the church that many of us have known and loved our whole lives, is unraveling. AND the world needs the gospel message of hope and healing more than ever. It’s not easy to be confronted with the uncomfortable truth that the identity and the incarnation of the Church cannot be limited by our personal preferences, by what we think we know, or by what makes us feel good. As Bishop Douglas is fond of saying, “This is God’s Church, and God will have the Church God needs to carry out God’s mission of salvation.”
For decades, we have focused on building up our church – and maybe not so much for the sake of the gospel, maybe not for the purpose of healing the brokenness of the world, but maybe for the sake of the church itself. And now we’re being confronted with the reality that there is no program guaranteed to restore the church to the past many of us remember so fondly. It seems that we may have focused on the growth of the church at the expense of authentic discipleship. Maybe we wanted to grow the church to meet our expectations, to preserve what we have – so we could keep doing all the things we’ve been doing. The truth is that Jesus has called us not to a beautiful building, not to a convenient hour on Sunday morning, but to a transformational way of life. We are members of Christ’s body, invited by God, loved by God, equipped by God – not to save the Church or even to build up the Church – but to work with God to heal the world, a world whose brokenness has never been more obvious.
We have committed to follow Jesus, in whom we have been assured of an extraordinary outcome: new life, whole life, for all of creation. And, whether we like it or not, to follow Jesus is to be willing to give up life as we know it, not just once, but over and over again. God has not revealed everything to us. But God has revealed enough. We are in the hands of a saving God. We belong to Jesus. Death is real AND it is not the end. It is the way to new life. It does not make sense. It’s the message of resurrection, the message we have been called to proclaim, here and now, not only with our lips but in our lives.