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Bible readings:

7 Easter, Year A (June 1, 2014)                                                                      St James', Peace River

One of the “facts and figures” about church congregations that’s always tickled me, is the one that says, “When you’re 75% full, you’re full.” Apparently there’s a certain level of crowding that’s optimal, and past that people will decide they would rather be somewhere else. Now, part of what makes me laugh about that, is the “You wish” element. Wouldn’t it be great to be 75% full! But it also makes me think of all those great cavernous historic churches – designed like ours only on a much larger scale – where you show up on a Sunday and see 20 or 50 or even 100 people, all sitting as far from each other as they can possibly get. I wonder if even 25% full would be too full for some folks?

It used to be, this was seen as one of the advantages of Anglicanism. The spaciousness of how we do worship – not just the literal space of how the pews are arranged, but the way worship is directed to a God who is far above and beyond us; the mental spaciousness created by the use of words, music and silence; the lines of action that draw us in through the door and eventually up to the altar, and then back out again. Whether you sit in the back pew or the front, you can be just as much a part of this kind of worship as you are ready and willing to be. And you share the experience with others only in the sense that they too are being drawn in and sent out alongside you. We meet in silence at the altar rail, like atoms of some gas that have been compressed a little too tightly – and we quickly scatter to the winds.

There is a lot in that experience of transcendence that is valuable, and that we are committed to maintaining. But in the lifetime of most of us here, we’ve also recognized what we’re missing when we barely notice one another. And gradually we’ve brought that other dimension back into our worship as well: putting greater weight on the music in our services, which is often the time when we truly feel like we’re participating together; not just acknowledging but actively greeting each other, when we arrive, as we leave, and as we share the Peace in preparation for coming to the table; and of course, lingering a little longer afterwards for coffee, cake, soup and buns, or whatever is on offer on any particular Sunday!

And then, even more gradually, that experience of worshipping together is going with us back out beyond the church doors, so that fellowship “in church” means something more in our day to day life as well. We have come to set greater store by what we do together – enjoying the time we spend with one another, whether it’s “just visiting”, celebrating special occasions, working on a project, doing something for the community around us, or simply noticing as we pass in the street, “there goes my brother/sister”. And that’s the key piece to this – it’s not simply that these are friends or neighbours, whom we would naturally enjoy spending time with. In fact one of the neatest things about church fellowship is that it brings us into contact with people we would never have met otherwise – and perhaps don’t even feel naturally at ease with – yet here we are, connected by something much bigger than us which makes us closer than neighbours and friends, closer even than family, close enough to be “one body with many members” even when we aren’t gathered in one place.

It’s funny that we are only now finding our way back to that experience of what it means to be the church, when in fact it is at the very heart of how the church began and why it became what it did. Picture that scene from today’s first reading. Not the awesome part where Jesus is lifted up and taken out of their sight, now to continue his life eternally in heaven at the right hand of the Father. The part after that, where the disciples have to go back without him, back to the city, back to Jerusalem, back to the place where they were staying, back to the “room upstairs”. What do they do?

I bet the first thing they did was look at each other and ask exactly that question, “What do we do?” But the thing they are surest of, that they don’t even have to ask about, is that they are staying together. The whole of the rest of the story, from that point on, happens with that togetherness at its heart. They begin by praying and waiting, together, expecting – together – that God has not simply left them behind, but will show them (and equip them for) what comes next. When the Holy Spirit arrives like wind from heaven at Pentecost, it settles on them together. The impact they begin to have on the people of Jerusalem comes first of all from the way they share what they have, look after each other’s needs, and speak and act with such unity of spirit that those who see them wonder why. Even as they begin to move out from the city to take the good news elsewhere, they take great pains to work together and to be accountable to each other. And everywhere a new nucleus of Christians develops, it forms on the same pattern. A small group of people huddles together in a room somewhere and discovers two things: God is present in their togetherness; and, based on that conviction, they can live their faith boldly – and together.

So perhaps you can begin to see what foolishness it is when someone says, as you occasionally hear, “I don’t really care for church, I’d rather be a Christian on my own!” Even if that were possible – and I don’t think it is – why would you want to? The new kind of life which the risen Jesus both embodies and plants within us, is a kind of life where it turns out you actually can stand the person across from you. And not just tolerate them, but appreciate, respect, work with and love them. And enjoy it while it’s happening. And accomplish things together that neither of you could achieve separately. That’s exactly what we mean when we give glory to “God’s power working in us to do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine”. The new life in Christ isn’t about winning us over one by one; it’s about redeeming and transforming our whole humanity, which means us in relationship to everyone else around us.

Now, as with everything else God has won for us in Christ, that’s a costly gift, and one whose consequences are still being worked out around us. You don’t magically get along with everyone just because you wish it were so. Even the apostles had the occasional falling out: just keep reading along in the Book of Acts! But the story of the first disciples – and our own, if we reflect on it – shows us that it is possible, desirable, and in fact essential to embrace our shared identity as one in Christ. It is possible, only if we allow it to happen –only if we let God take down the walls which we put up, to protect ourselves from being loved by other people for being exactly who we are. But that’s also what makes it desirable – in order to be the people we are truly destined to be, in order to be loved into fullness of life, which is what we want most of all – we can only get there in each other’s company.

But it’s also essential – essential for us to walk this path of togetherness that God sets in front of us; essential for us to open our lives up to each other, to share what we have, to share what we can, to share even what we’d rather not. This is the only way the story works – our story, and God’s story for the world and everyone in it. We need to see for ourselves, and to let other people catch a glimpse of it too – that this really is the way of life; that the new kind of life God is giving us is a life that is meant to be shared. That sounds fine in principle... but we’re not called to be disciples in principle – we actually have to face all the detailed challenges of being part of each other’s lives. The willingness to let others see our true selves when we may not be exactly proud of who we are; the patience to give ourselves and others time to embrace this new kind of life; the generosity which bears with one another’s faults until we start to see them as something much more glorious; the willing sacrifice of time and energy and all the other resources it takes to build up a genuine, real community.

We have to work at that. But to be honest, the only way we could do any of that, and stick to it, would be if we had help – God’s help. (As we say in our baptism promises, “I will, with God’s help.”) I think there are two places where we can clearly see that we have God’s help. One is in the prayer that Jesus makes in John 17, which we heard part of earlier. It’s a prayer for his followers – the disciples gathered around him in that moment and through all time since then, so it includes us. He asks his Father that we may be one, just as he and the Father are one. That’s a powerful image, and a powerful prayer. If this is what Jesus wants for us, we can have some kind of faith that he will help us do what needs to be done for it to happen.

But the other place we see God’s help is when we simply try to live closer to one another. We just have to look for it. When we get to know each other better, we start to see that God really is at work. Often it’s true that we see God’s hand in each other’s lives more clearly than we do in our own. But as we begin to learn each other’s stories, and to speak more clearly about who we are and what it means to share this life in Christ, it can be mind-blowing to see what God really is up to. And it doesn’t stop there. God works miracles between people when we let him – enabling us to grow and change in ways we would never dream possible by ourselves. And that’s what our neighbours and friends notice – when people see a community of disciples experiencing God’s presence and God’s activity in their togetherness, they can’t help but wonder, and ask, what is going on, and whether it might be for them too.

That’s the glory, and the truth, and the life, that Jesus prayed for, for all his disciples, including us. The glory of God, the truth of God, the life of God: and the place we get to see it is the place where we meet each other and share those gifts together – whether here at the altar, over a kitchen table, or passing on the street. Remember what a gift your brother or sister is to you, because when you are with them, wherever you are, you are with Christ – just as he promised.