Unity

Sermon May 13
Rev Felicity O’Brien
Today’s Gospel is a remarkable passage. Jesus is praying extensively to his Father, not for himself and the journey he knows he has to undertake, but for his followers. His concern and compassion is for all those who have been listening to him and believing in him.
Jesus makes it clear that the disciples he is praying for belong to the father – They are yours, he says. Jesus is future-planning for the disciples – he knows that he is going away, and on Thursday we celebrated the ascension, when Jesus left the earth, as his disciples watched his feet disappearing into the clouds. He knows that the disciples will face huge challenges in the time to come, and asks God to protect them. He has a reason for that protection; ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are One.
It is really important to Jesus that the body of the church will remain as one, just as Jesus and the Father are One. In the ensuing centuries the church split apart many times, some temporarily, others permanently, as people struggled with biblical authority and revelation. On Wednesday General Synod voted to allow the Anglican church of NZ Aotearoa and Polynesia to offer blessings to same-sex couples. This has been a subject of debate for over 50 years, and very visibly in recent times. Many people have felt strongly about the issue on both sides, and there has been a great deal of frustration with how long the process has taken.
This is the third time general synod have debated this issue. But at the forefront of consideration was this idea that the church be one. It has been of vital importance that we could still journey together as the body of Christ after the decision was taken, and that we would not see a split between factions, leading to disunity. This is why it has taken so long – the need for respecting each person’s deeply held convictions has taken much careful and prayerful work.
The next part of the reading concerns the placement of the disciples in the world. ‘The world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as 1 do not belong to the world’. In NZ, we have not suffered from much discrimination as Christians – our legal system is based on the ten Commandments, and certainly here in Christchurch the city was founded by the church. But we are, not always understood as people of faith – Christians are expected to be judgmental and unforgiving, and to live up to a hig’her standard than anyone else, and if they fall, the Press are quick to gleefully point out the hypocrisy. Our society doesn’t have church at its centre, like the English villages Christchurch was based on of two hundred years ago. Shops are open on Sundays, sports games played, and it’s treated as a day to relax and enjoy some leisure. Going to church on a Sunday is very counter-cultural when only 10 percent of the population do so. This can make it hard to share our faith – people don’t even know what faith is, let alone that there is a risen saviour who cares for us and loves us, and is always with us by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus refers to the root of the problem -when he prays: ‘1 am not asking you to take them out of the world, but 1 ask you to protect them from the evil one’. It is a bit un-Anglican to refer to the evil one. These days any talk about the devil, the enemy, the evil one, is thought to belong to an earlier era of hellfire and brimstone, scare them into heaven type sermons, or over-the-top Pentecostal churches where the Pastor drives a fancy car. But that doesn’t alter the fact that there is opposition to the kingdom of heaven. Ever since evil entered the world there has been a struggle. Sometimes we may just see it as bad luck, or misfortune, when things seem to conspire against us, especially when we are stepping out in faith.
Last week at a meeting a fellow clergy-person spoke of all the confirmations and baptisms that they had celebrated over Easter, then told us of several tragic pastoral situations in the parish. The thought struck me that these two facts were not unrelated. The devil hates it when progress is made towards the kingdom of God. New members being baptised and confirmed were strengthening the presence of God’s kingdom here in Christchurch. I’m not saying that it is a direct cause- and-consequence situation, but prayer for protection from the enemy is always needed when we are working for the kingdom.
In the Lord’s prayer we ask: ‘ deliver us from evil’. Evil is real, and we are not powerless against it. We can ask for help. Not just as an automatic rendition of the Lord’s Prayer once a week in church, but daily as a part of our prayer life. 1 encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to protect you, so that you can be more effective, more bold, in growing the Kingdom of God.
Our reading from John’s letter tells us clearly that ‘God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life’. In order to have eternal life we need the Son of God. Yes, you say, I know that, I have known that since I started coming to Sunday school 80 years ago. How about your friends? How about your family? How about the lady who cleans your house, or the man in the greengrocer’s shop? Do they know? Many people don’t want to think about eternal life, they think that when they die they will cease to exist and that will be the end of it. It’s as the time comes closer that people start to wonder.
There are many reasons to believe in a continued existence after our bodies have finished being functional. The first witness is that of Jesus. He tells us that we will be with him in eternity after we die. The Epistle writers tell us about life after this one. There is also a large body of witness from people who have had near-death experiences, and I personally find them very comforting, knowing that Jesus will welcome me into His presence when my body stops working.
This is the reason why we need to share the Gospel. As I said before, it’s not easy. People think you are a bit weird if you talk about being saved, about what is next. Sometimes they think that this life has been so awful that the thought of it being eternal is their idea of hell. What we need to tell them is that life eternally will be in God’s presence.
And in order to live with God later on, we can live with God now. Jesus will always be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, supporting and comforting us, healing and guiding us. Living in the kingdom of God is what really living is all about. Jesus sent his first batch of disciples out into the world with the support of the Spirit, and today we are disciples too.
May you go cheerfully in the spirit, knowing that God is with you always.

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