A while back, a friend of mine once observed and commented to me that the Church is often like a hockey game: it is 12 guys slugging it out on the ice, in dire need of a rest being watched but 19,000 people in real need of some spiritual exercise. This thought came to me again as we look to another Sunday, to Baptism, and to the Anniversary of my ordination as a deacon on the Feast of the Ascension. And while some may consider these things to be totally diverse, I have noticed that there is a commonality amongst them – then ongoing life of the Church community and the need to witness to the reality of all that God has done in Christ for us.
The Gospel this week (John 17:1-11) is the high priestly prayer for Jesus and his followers before the events of the Arrest at Gethsemane take place. The first thing that I cannot help but notice is that the lectionary does not include the entire prayer. Jesus prays for himself, that he may glorify God and do everything that needs to be done to make salvation possible for us. Jesus also prays and gives thanks for those who have followed him on this earth and who have witnessed all the things that he has done. And that is where things are left off but it is not where Jesus stops. Jesus goes on to pray for those whom he is leaving behind and will be entrusted with the mission he began. And he prays for those who will come and will participate in the proclaiming of the Gospel through their ministry - he prayed for us: for you and for me that we would be where he is. He prayed that we would be in the presence of the Father and come into the kingdom.
The whole prayer is about the unity of the community. He prayed that all that needed to be done would b done and would glorify the Father and bring the kingdom. These days, it seems like there are so many other things that are demanded but are not a part of the unity of the Church. Unity is not about the doctrine a Church holds, it is about learning to be in whole and healthy relations with those around us. Unity is not so much about what we believe as learning to live and express a real and true love out of obedience to divine will. This is what Jesus did. Jesus lived his life in love and obedience to the Father. He listened and did not take his eyes off of what the Father was asking of him. he lived it to the full and because of that the Father responded by raising him not only from the dead, but also to his right place at the right hand of the throne of God.
For the Church, unity is not a lofty goal on a chart or in a business plan – it is and must be a lived reality. It is the hardest and yet the most powerful thing I have done in my life, having spent five years as a student and as an officer in the Church Army. There were days as a student that I would have to work, pray, and eat with someone that I just argued with in the classroom. We had to find ways to make things work to hold the welfare of the community together both for the sake of our common witness and for the good of those with whom we served. In doing so I learned that faith is not a dreary duty but rather a refined joy. The faith that we hold is not just about memories, it is about where we start with Christ and return to him when we have stopped following. Finding the faith and rediscovering the hope that is always there for us because of the Spirit. He brings us all kinds of gifts, starting with faith, hope and love. In this way, God gives the Church unity in such a manner with such strength, that it can never be achieved through human will or creativity.
Why does the Ascension matter? It is what makes us focus on “What’s next?” It draws us into worship because we recognize that God has affirmed Jesus’ ministry and has given the Holy Spirit to enable, empower and embolden us in ours. We are at work with God because God is here and has called us into his labour. We have been left behind, but not as orphans – he is here and we are with him. And remember, in all of this, the Father is watching.