Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Power of Unity

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
April 17, 2016

Year C: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

The Power of Unity
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            After the 10:00 service last week, at coffee hour a longtime parishioner told me, and I quote, “We need more time for the peace. I’m not able to get to everyone.”
            I’m tempted to pass the buck on this one and say that the peace lasts as long as Gail plays and sings - Gail who, each week, gives us such a beautiful soundtrack for our exchange of peace and greetings!
            In all seriousness, I was both surprised and not surprised by this parishioner’s comment.
            I was surprised because I think we give a reasonable amount of time for the peace, though, since, thankfully, we’ve grown, it’s true that there’s not enough time to greet everyone. I always say that we can continue our fellowship in coffee hour, but, of course, that’s not possible for everyone.
            And, I do worry about the length of the service, trying to respect everybody’s time while not flying through our worship, either.
            But, I wasn’t surprised by this person’s comment because, for most but not quite all of us - I know the fear of germs is an issue for some - and some of us are introverts who find the peace absolutely excruciating! - but, for most of us the peace has become a central part, even maybe the heart, of our worship.
            In a way, the church doesn’t really come alive until the peace.
            And, it’s beautiful, right?
            I’ve told you before how when Sue and I first arrived here, about 17 years ago now, the exchange of peace made the deepest impression on us.
            We were moved – shocked – even a little intimidated by how happy everybody seemed to see each other – all kinds of people greeting one another with smiles, laughter, handshakes, hugs, and, yes, some chitchat.
            Through all the changes at St. Paul’s over the years, the love and unity shared at the peace has never changed.
            And, the way the service flows, after we are united at the peace we then together come forward to the Lord’s Table and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, united with the Risen Christ.
            Here at St. Paul’s, if we’re open to it, each time we gather we become one with each other and one with Jesus who is one with the Father.
            Despite our very real differences and our beautiful diversity, at our best - at our truest - we are one.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            And, this kind of unity is in short supply out in the world, isn’t it?
            The gap between rich and poor, the division between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider.
            Our government is broken and paralyzed by disunity, with both political parties moving further from the center, seemingly unable or unwilling to compromise for the common good.
            Disunity prevents our leaders from facing and dealing with our most pressing problems.
            And, I’m sorry to say, that this largely discouraging presidential campaign won’t really change that disunity. No matter who wins, he or she won’t be able to bridge the ever-widening gap between Democrats and Republicans.
            They probably won’t even be able to bridge the gaps in their own party.
            There’s nothing really new about disunity, though, right? It’s an old, old story in the world – and it’s an old, old story in the church – just look at all the many Christian denominations right here in Jersey City.
            These past few Sundays we’ve been reading and hearing excerpts from the Gospel of John, the last of the four gospels to be completed, finished around the year 100, seventy or so years after the earthly lifetime of Jesus.
            There were cracks in Christian unity even before then, but by 100, there were some big divisions.
            There were disagreements about who Jesus was and what he meant for the world.
            There were disagreements about how Christians were to live in the world, what rules they had to follow and which they could, or even should, ignore.
            And, by 100, it was becoming harder for people to be both Jews and followers of Jesus. Often, people now had to make a choice – and that choice was hard and it was painful.
            I’m sure many of us can easily imagine how difficult it was – is - to leave behind one’s religion – one’s history, culture and identity. And, at least some of the Jewish followers of Jesus just couldn’t bring themselves to do it and so they abandoned their faith in Jesus the Messiah.
            There was a lot of disunity among first century Christians.
            So, it’s no surprise that in the Gospel of John we hear a lot about disunity - we hear so much anger about “the Jews” rejecting Jesus.
            And, as you’ve heard me say before, all these centuries later we always have to remind ourselves that pretty much all the people in the Gospel were all Jews – Jesus himself, those who first followed Jesus and those who didn’t believe he was the Messiah – all Jews.
            So, yes, in the Gospel of John we hear about disunity but we also hear about unity – about the unity between the Father and Jesus and the unity that Jesus wants so very much with us and among us.
            So, for example, in today’s Gospel passage we hear “the Jews” asking Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
            This question gives Jesus the opportunity to talk about unity – the unity of Jesus’ sheep, the disciples who hear his voice and follow him – the unity of Jesus’ sheep who are given eternal life.
            And, then Jesus concludes this passage with the bold and what must have been a shocking statement: “The Father and I are one.”
            We come here to St. Paul’s and we unite – we become one – as we pray together, as we exchange the peace, as we line up at the altar rail and extend our hands and open our hearts.
            We come here to St. Paul’s and as we take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and souls – we become one with Christ – or, more accurately, Christ becomes one with us.
            Unity. So, rare and so beautiful, right? Such a great gift.
            But, there’s more.
            There’s the power of unity.
            We all know that the Apostle Peter was a flawed character but, as we heard last week, he was forgiven and loved by the Risen Jesus. As we heard last week, the Good Shepherd himself commanded Peter to love and tend the sheep.
            Jesus the Good Shepherd was united with Peter the Shepherd, giving Peter, as we heard in the first lesson, the power to raise Tabitha from the dead.
            Christ was united with Peter and so Peter had the power of Christ within him!
            And, look at the power of that unity! Look at what Peter was able to do!
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            And, look at the power of our unity! Look what we are able to do!
            If you’ve been at St. Paul’s for a while – or even if you’ve only been here for a short while - you know what the power of our unity with Christ and with one another does around here all the time.
            The power of unity warms cold hearts, heals old wounds, makes sweet music, feeds empty souls – and fills more and more empty stomachs.
            I see the power of our unity – our unity with one another and with Christ – I see the power of our unity all the time.
            And, now, I’m so excited that we’re starting to take the power of our unity out into the world.
            We certainly saw the power of unity on Monday night as about 900 of us, diverse in many ways, but united by our love of God’s people came together, demanding safer streets, better schools, affordable housing, and, yes, a more just tax structure.
            Frankly, I think the power of our unity was so strong that our elected officials were thrown off their game – I don’t think it’s something they’re used to!
            Yes, on Monday night we felt the power of unity – the power of our unity with one another – and the power of our unity with the Risen Christ.
            The power of unity.
            So… since our unity is so unusual, so beautiful, and so powerful, I think we can take a little more time for the peace!
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!