Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I mentioned in both my extemporaneous homily on Ascension Thursday and at Sue Bowman’s funeral yesterday, that we find ourselves in a peculiar time in the church calendar–Ascensiontide: a season within the Easter season which highlights the great tension we Christians have all the time, namely the concomitant truths that Christ has conquered sin and death and yet sin and death are still with us. Christ reigns over all from the right hand of the Father and yet in a very real sense the nations have not been brought fully into his fold. Just like the apostles had this strange ten day period between Christ leaving earth and his sending the Holy Spirit to comfort and empower them, so do we live in a strange period between Christ’s Resurrection on the one hand and his second coming and the General Resurrection on the other.

Sometimes this tension lends itself to an intellectual meditation on eschatology, on how precisely the world has changed and how it hasn’t and how that is to be understood in light of the coming glory. Other times, though, our response to this tricky reality is more emotional, and quite rightly so.

For many of us recent events–the murder of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas last week, shortly after the racist attack which killed ten people at a supermarket in Buffalo and the politically motivated attack on Taiwanese-Americans at their church in Southern California–elicits this more emotional response.

In today’s lesson from Revelation, our Lord pronounces “Behold, I am coming soon,” and sometimes in light of human tragedy and the fact that sin and death still seem to reign, our response might be more pointed than John’s seemingly joyful “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Indeed, it may be for us a cry of profound grief or even anger. “Lord Jesus, we really wish you’d come back already! Where are you!?” This may be how one naturally reacts after a tragedy, whether that tragedy is personal or common, and this I think is appropriate. God is big enough to take our grief and anger, and indeed, he is capable of transforming it into something more salutary.

Perhaps the greatest thing God can give us and the whole world at this moment and in all moments which cause sorrow and pain is the one thing that seems most lacking, most needful, in our society these days: unity achieved through love. This was Jesus’ final prayer before he was handed over to death:

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

This, I believe, is the greatest gift the church can give the world right now. This is our witness. It is what Jesus himself tells us is the chief way people will be drawn to this peculiar life we’ve been called together to share as Christians.

Despite our differences (socially, politically, racially, economically), we love one another. We find a greater unity because we know, to use the old proverb whose origin has been misunderstood to mean precisely its opposite, that the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb. Jesus brings us together regardless of the divisions the world seeks to impose. The greatest Christian apologist and theologian of the late Second- and early Third-Centuries in th West, Tertullian, wrote that the pagans of his native Roman North Africa would say, “look at these Christians, how they love one another.” No doubt they’d say it initially with a sneer, but in the long-run the power of this witness could not be ignored.

I say this is the greatest gift the Church can give, because the world tells us, particularly after a tragedy, that this is the time to pick our corners and get ready to tear each other apart. It has become cliché to say that our nation is more divided than ever. I pray this isn’t literally true, since during at least in one period in the 1860s we seemed at least a bit more divided. That said, we’re in pretty bad shape.

The defining moment of my youth was the attack on September 11, 2001. I was 17, and perhaps I was naive but it at least seemed like folks by and large genuinely came together and tried at least for a little while to be a bit kinder, a bit more forbearing, a bit more unified despite all that divided us. One would have hoped that hundreds of thousands dying in a pandemic, the spectre of a major war in Europe for the first time in living memory for all but the most seasoned of our fellows, and now the murder of nineteen grade school children would have had the same effect. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case.

We may blame the news media. We may blame social media. We may blame the fact that we live in a far lonelier society today, the institutions of civil society (from churches to civic clubs to bowling leagues) losing people to the choice to sit at home alone watching television or doom-scrolling on twitter. Whatever the proximate cause of this sickness, the ultimate cause is sin, the fallen-ness of our nature, and the only cure is unity brought about by love in the face of all that the power of evil employs to try to keep us apart.

Don’t get me wrong. There are two things which this does not imply. On the one hand it does not imply unanimity. It does not mean we have to agree on everything, even big hot button issues that tend to get us riled up. You all know what those issues are. On the other hand, it does not imply cheap grace, the idea that none of what divides us matters; that we can just have the Proud Boys and the Nation of Islam sit in a drum circle and play hacky-sack and sing kumbaya without repenting of evil and all will be peachy.

So, we may continue to pray, whether in joy or sorrow, “Come, Lord Jesus” and one day that prayer will be answered. But in the meantime, we have a job to do, because love takes work. It takes work to disabuse ourselves (or rather to let the Holy Spirit in us disabuse us) of the notion that we must like everything about our neighbor in order to love him. But it’s worth it, because by this the world will see how these Christians love one another in the midst of a world defined by nastiness and hate. And when we don’t know what else to do, or even how to pray in the face of grief and rage and the power of evil, St. Paul tells us, that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, praying in our hearts with sighs too deep for words.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.