Can we hold together?

Can we hold together?

Easter 7: 21 May 2023

Susan Adams

Acts 1:6-14

John 1:1-11

Towards the end of the preceding chapter in John’s gospel, there is delightful comment from the disciples. I like to think it shows great self-awareness on the part of the writer of the gospel! It says “Ah! Now you are speaking plainly! Not in any figure!” (Chapter 16:29)

I’m a bit relieved by that because often these texts seem to tie me in knots!

The disciples might well have said just this given chapter 13 to 17 in John’s gospel is largely in the writers convoluted eddies as Jesus moves, for the last time, toward Jerusalem and the political strife between the temple and the pontiff that waits him there. John is telling the story of what is happening, and in his story Jesus is ‘explaining’ and praying with his close circle of friends.    .

            In the churches liturgical calendar the ascension was celebrated during the past week and next Sunday is               Pentecost so today’s readings are transitional as we move from the Easter events and reflections to Pentecost             and different experiences for  Jesus followers.

The verses we have set for today in the Gospel of John are best simply listened to without attempting to understand them as a linear logical argument of fact or history. They paint a feeling picture for us against the background of continuing political upheaval, which, I imagine, includes some disappointment that Jesus is no longer there to lead them.

It would seem the writer is concerned that those who  are followers of Jesus, the embryonic Christian community for whom he was writing some 30 years after Jesus death, would hold together in the face of the pressures surrounding them.

The writer, and I am following convention and calling him John, was undoubtedly aware of the potential for fragmentation within the community where there were many differing expressions of how to faithfully follow the teachings of Jesus, and what Jesus teaching had been all about. There were those who followed James, or Paul’s interpretation; and there were independent spirit-led groups, for starters. Then there were the gentile Christians with all their different cultural and faith backgrounds. So much difference! So much potential disarray!

Yet! It would appear from the text that John saw the difference as ‘gift’: all the different people and groups were ‘gifts from God. Not persuaded to attend to the ‘way and word’ by Jesus’ own efforts, but because God was already at work within and through their difference. Now, at the end of the first century, with all the pressure that wad on them,  the task was to build all these different people and groups into a community. Could they, would they despite their differences, hold together? Would they keep the vision alive of how human communities could live and work together honouring all, caring for all, including everyone, teaching, preaching, and practicing generous love?

We know they didn’t. Despite Constantine’s efforts to unify everyone and set out a system of beliefs in creeds and doctrines, we know they eventually fragmented into different groups who sought to express their interpretation of it all in ways that worked for them… But for now, for John’s audience at the end of the 1stC, could they hold to the big vision? Could they work with the myth that was growing around Jesus and let it shape their attitude to life, to relationships with people who might be ‘other’, and to the way we live together in earth.

These are relevant questions for us in an election year when the pressures of difference and extremes seem to be greater than most of us have experienced before, when there is fragmentation every which way we turn. So it’s important to ask “can we hold to the big picture of life and  hope, to inclusion, protection and partnership?”

We could say ‘live and let live’, or ‘everyone is entitled to their point of view’, or ‘freedom of speech must be fought for’ – but I’m daring to suggest that at any point where any of those different perspectives alienate or disrupt the flow of generous inclusive love, or exclude people who are different, or diminish life and hope, then they need to be changed: we need to work at the fear that gives rise to them, we need to re-inscribe notions of community and mutual wellbeing .

Attitudes and behaviours that demonise, that alienate, that take away from others their capacity to live with dignity and without fear, these attitudes and behaviours  have no place in Aotearoa-New Zealand. This nation has struggled since the earliest of days when the colonists arrived to find ways to live together with harmony. Since 1840 we have struggled to honour teTiriti o Waitangi, the document that provides the founding vision of how we can live in harmony with Māori and  the environment if we have the heart to based on what some had identified as principles of partnership, participation and protection.  And, in the light of those three ways of being in relationship we have struggled together in our national life over decades to find ways to respect the place and potential of women in our society, to care for women and children, to support those who are unable to secure economic independence,  as well, more latterly  as to respect and honour the variety of genders and sexualities in ways that give everyone a place of respect and access to the good things of life in Aotearoa.

A few weeks ago I was part of an interview panel. Many we interviewed were migrants. Despite impressive CVs and previous work experience they were finding it difficult to find employment. I asked one person why they had come to NZ. I was somewhat astounded by the reply that set out a vision of our society that I only wished we all experienced in reality all the time. the vision they painted was what they had deduced from reading and from watching online media before applying for immigration. They experienced some of it they said, enough to make them want them to stay, enough to make them want to work for more of the generous kindly love for all that had glimpsed. I felt both proud and deeply sad as I listened.

We feel like a deeply worried nation – perhaps we are reflecting the anxiety and stress of the global community. It seems some amongst us are motivated more by fear than hope; more by scarcity than by generosity. This approach to our human community is pathological. shrinking into an ever smaller community of concern leads to a dystopian future. Eventually it will be the death of us.

Rather, we need hope, and a vision of an earth that can continue to provide for all living beings. We need the skills and dreams of groups different from ourselves, we need the confidence to listen to the other’ with an open mind; we need of a re-evaluation of ‘enough’ – of what it means to be satisfied and thankful, and generous.

As a community of faith, can we hold together despite the differences among us and between us and despite the growing pressures that the complexity of issues brings? Will we continue to work together for the wellbeing of all, reminding ourselves week by week that we are OK, that we can care about the life of others, that the life-giving spirit of God is alive and at work in the world if we will only open our eyes and minds to see where, and be prepared to join our efforts with it. Somehow it seems really important that, in our time, we hold up a vision of how it could be; and that we be bold enough to speak to our vision when faced with proposals and plans for the future – always remembering the core values and themes that shaped the dreams of Jesus’ followers. next week we celebrate the Spirit, the hopefulness and the commitment of Pentecost once more, declaring ‘the Spirit of God is alive amongst us.’

In John’s gospel Jesus declares that those who follow him will do the work he has done, and even greater work (14:12). I wonder if we will be able to hold to the vision of our nation that those who worked and died for the wellbeing of people and the land before us held to.  And, I wonder in what ways we will build on the core themes of honour, inclusion, love and respect, and material wellbeing for all in relation to the issues that face us today.

Many complex issues confront us today – they challenge us with our very future – or lack of it.

Lets proclaim our vision powerfully enough to inspire all who will listen  – especially as we approach the election of our leaders for the next 4 years!