In the fall of the year our family moved to Acton, ON, my previous pastoral charge, we planted a Magnolia tree in the back garden. The unusual shape of its beautiful large leaves had drawn my attention. Moreover, it promised to produce yellow blossoms, an unusual colour, in my experience, for a Magnolia. Every spring I waited eagerly to see the blossoms but the buds grew into leaves without a single flower in sight. Every spring for three years we were disappointed. We waited, half with doubt and half with hope, to see if it would blossom. The fourth year, the buds seemed a little different than the year before, a bit fuller and lighter in colour. One day I was so curious to see whether they would blossom, I opened one of the buds by hand. I was going to open it just a little bit to look inside but ended up opening the whole bud. Still, it was hard to know because the inside of the bud was still so green. Behold! A few days later, the tree burst forth with beautiful yellow blossoms, as if it was telling us to “be patient.”
My impatient and silly behavior reminded me of a story of a little girl who once asked her mother, “How come whenever I open up a flower, it falls apart, but when God opens it up, it stays together?” How do you think you would answer that question? The mother didn’t know how to respond, but then the little girl said, “Oh, I know, when I open it up, I open it from the outside, but when God opens it up, it is from the inside.” Her answer gives me pause. Here is a theologian, talking about God existing in all living beings. To use her image, we could say that when the love of God in us and among us opens us up, love shines through us and around us.
Today is called Ascension Sunday. According to the church calendar, today is the closest Sunday to the day of the Ascension of Jesus the Christ, which was this past Thursday, May 26th. The Ascension of the Lord reminds us we are living in the “in-between” time between the Ascension of the Lord and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, which is next Sunday.
To know where we are standing and living in terms of a biblical passage, let us first reflect on our time. The gospel reading appointed for the “in-between” time, the seventh Sunday of Easter, is from the Gospel of John. This passage is the conclusion of Jesus’ farewell prayer before departing for the Garden of Gethsemane and the events of the Passion and crucifixion. For the last six weeks we have been celebrating the resurrection of Jesus; last week the risen Christ was pictured as going into heaven to be with God. In these circumstances, the followers of Jesus must feel orphaned; their loved one is not with them anymore in a physical sense.
In our time many people may feel like orphans. Last week we were pained to hear of the tragic gun violence in Texas where a teenager killed at least 19 children and two adults after storming into an elementary school. The people who lost loved ones must feel orphaned by the death of their children and teachers. Our hearts are broken to think that the children, ranging in age from seven to ten, will have no chance of realizing their potential. How is it possible that a public school should become a place of such unimaginable violence?
Now, we should be troubled if we feel we have been left orphaned by the death and ascension of Jesus. We are left alone only in the sense that the risen Christ is not here in a physical sense. To comfort the orphaned-like disciples and followers back then, and us today, Jesus offers a series of prayers before his ascension. From John chapters 13 to 17, Jesus offers four different prayers directed to the church, to heaven, the disciples and, in today’s Gospel reading, to us. In particular, today’s Gospel reading is Jesus’ prayer that we will be guided in how to live our lives in the Spirit of Jesus.
On the eve of his death, Jesus speaks to God on behalf of the faith community. In this prayer, Jesus entrusts his hope for the future of his followers to God. Jesus’ last words before his final hour on earth are not last-minute instructions to the community about what it should do in his absence; instead, he turns the future of the community over to God. Jesus does not leave his followers orphaned; on their behalf he calls on God, asking God to give them what God has already given him. When Jesus predicted his impending death, he prayed for the least of the people and for the church universal, “that all may be one.” What does this mean? Through this prayer, Jesus tells us how to overcome the power of death. Jesus tells us that when we are united with each other as Jesus is united with God, we have new life, life that changes the world. When we live in close relationship with God and with each other, when we are united in love and when we give our hearts to God and others, then we all may be one.
In today’s scripture reading, Jesus uses the word love five times within six verses. In the prayer, love is the key descriptor of divine relationships and of divine and human relationships. In this time of sorrow, we are encouraged to ponder what it means to love one another. We are encouraged to ponder the ways in which this gathering of people, along with those not here this morning, is a faith community where we practise God’s love for one another. The foundation of our faith community is securely grounded in the love of God. Our community sings the ancient song of love in old and new ways. Our faith community’s song springs from the enduring, unconditional love of God who dwells in us. Our ancient love has no boundaries, no fences, no conditions; it is inclusive and creates ‘radical hospitality.’
May the love of God that dwells in us open us up from the inside, shine through us and around us and on all we meet. Even as we respect the vision of other faith communities, may Jesus’ prayer, “that all may be one,” be the vision for our faith community here. This is the vision of the United Church of Canada. It is the scriptural foundation for the United Church from its inception in 1925. In this vision we, West Point Grey United, seek to practise God’s ministry and mission to realize God’s love for others. Thanks be to God who dwells in each and every living being as love. Amen.