Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
I wonder, a lot of the time, about the stories chosen from our scripture for the lectionary. The lectionary, remember, is a three-year cycle of stories that guide us, week by week, through the seasons of the church year. This is the seventh Wednesday in Easter and our story is in a sort of odd in-between space. Jesus is about to ascend into heaven. Next week, we’ll celebrate Pentecost, the arrival of the Holy Spirit in the life of the apostles, the birthday of the Church. And so this week, the apostles have some business to attend to.
Throughout the ministry of Jesus, there were 12 disciples. There were 12 of them because 12 was an important number to the people Israel; there were 12 tribes among them, and so having a corresponding number of disciples would represent a completeness, a wholeness.
The traumatic and dramatic events of the last several weeks, which include the horrific death and miraculous resurrection of Jesus, also include the death of Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples. The different books of the New Testament tell slightly different stories about Judas’ death, none of which I will describe for you because they are all grisly. But Judas is dead, and the disciples are incomplete. They’re incomplete because there’s literally an empty seat at their table, and they’re incomplete because one among their trusted circle seems to have brazenly betrayed everything they held in common. Filling his seat, so to speak, will right this wrong to varying degrees.
They discern that it should be one of two men: Joseph or Matthias. These two candidates are worthy, in their eyes, because they have been part of the movement from the beginning. Peter says that they were there for the baptism of John—one of Jesus’ first public acts—and were there when Jesus was arrested and killed. They understand what it means to be a witness to the resurrection, going out into the world to continue the work.
They are, apparently, equally qualified, because the disciples are comfortable “casting lots” to determine who will join. “Casting lots” is a phrase we’ve heard before; do you remember when? The Roman soldiers at the crucifixion of Jesus cast lots for his belongings. Casting lots is sort of like rolling dice, in that we are not the ones doing the choosing. But this practice is more spiritual than that, in that it was believed that the result would be left up to God. Casting lots would show God’s will in the situation.
So to determine which of their friends will officially join the roster of apostles, the 11 gather to pray and then to let God’s will be done. And Matthias it is! The apostles are 12 again, whole again, complete again. The first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles—literally—comes to a close.
In this week’s portion of the Gospel According to John, we drop in on Jesus in the middle of a prayer. As you heard, this is one of those times when Jesus talks for a long time but seems to say the same thing several times in several ways and we have to read it several times to get it all.
It’s a recap of his ministry—“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world”—and a plea for safety—“protect them from the evil one”—and some instructions for the apostles to overhear—“as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:6,15,18).
Biblical scholars call this part of this book Jesus’ “farewell discourse” as he says a lengthy goodbye (three chapters long) to the disciples. I think it’s interesting to look at how Jesus prays for the disciples, and to think about what that means for us.
One of the lines that sticks out to me the most is when Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11b).
Jesus knew, in the very beginning of the life of the Church, that one-ness would be hard for us. He knew we’d need God’s help, straightaway. Verses from this chapter are the guiding mission of and organization called the World Council of Churches. This is a network of hundreds of denominations around the world, who gather under the one-ness of our common Christianity. It is notable that we are not one Church, one denomination, one congregation. We are millions of people, in thousands of communities, in hundreds of countries. As usual, Jesus was right. We need God’s help.
Christian history is full of division and injustice. We have a troubled past, no matter where you begin. We engage in quote-unquote holy wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, genocide, terrorism—gravely slandering the name of Christ. Every time we draw a line between who is in and who is out, we’ll find Jesus on the other side.
I wonder if we’ve misunderstood this prayer of Jesus. I wonder if we’ve misunderstood one-ness and unity as uniformity, assimilation, and erasure. We’ve looked out into God’s world, in all its brilliant diversity, and determined that our way is the right way, and that everyone else must change or die.
This is wrong.
Christianity’s allegiances with white supremacy, and colonialism, and imperialism, and militarism, and environmental degradation are all wrong. The one-ness that Jesus speaks of here is not whiteness, or Westernness, or maleness, or even humanness. The one-ness Jesus prays we will attain is much deeper than any of our divisions.
You have probably seen at least an image or a tweet about the massacre in Gaza this weekend. Dozens of Palestinians were slaughtered by Israeli forces. This sermon will not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I hope it will not perpetuate it, either.
Our holy lands are holy because they belong to God and because we belong to God. They are not made holy based on who purports to own them.
Every person—Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, White, Arab, Black, Latinx, able, disabled, immigrant, indigenous—every person is beloved of God.
If we believe that anything we do is in the name of God who created us or the Christ who redeemed us or the Spirit who guides us, we must never forget that that is as true for every other person as it is true for us. God loves you, and Jesus prays for your safety and your wholeness, and the Spirit moves among you to this very day. Our completeness is based in that, and only in that. Our completeness cannot come through war, or death, or violence of any kind. Jesus prays for us, that his “joy may be complete” in us. His joy. As people of God, as the Body of Christ, we are made for life and for joy, not for death or for fear.
Let us go forth into the world in peace, not in terror.
Let us go forth into the world in joy, not in sorrow.
Let us go forth into the world in hope, not in fear.
Let us go forth into the world in life, not in death.
Let us go forth into the world.