Today is perhaps the most poignant Sunday of the Christian year, this time in between. We have known the joy of Christ’s presence and his resurrection victory over death, but he has both come and gone. He has left his earth, leaving us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. In these days between his Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we live mostly with his absence. We stand in that challenging place of transition when the past is gone and the future unknown. Some call this Expectation Sunday, but how do we live in such a time?
We, like those early Christians, must ask ourselves--How do we make it? How do we manage when we are left behind to carry on? So we pray, “Do not leave us comfortless.” On his last night with his disciples, Jesus prayed that we might be one, one as he and the Father are one. Before he ascends, he promises the Holy Spirit to strengthen us.
Yet we let one another down, and we let Christ down. The ways we fail and hurt one another are a constant obstacle to unity. We know this in our families, in our church, in the nations of the world. We know this in the life of St. Barnabas.’
Yet unity is not about liking each other, agreeing with one another, or sharing every part of our lives. Unity comes from sharing a larger purpose and, therefore, making a commitment to one another because of that larger purpose. So it is with marriage vows. Christian marriage has that third partner, Christ, at its center and looks out to the world that it serves. We pray in the marriage service: “Give them grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault, and to seek each other’s forgiveness and yours.”
Since his death I have thought much about Nelson Mandela’s leadership of South Africa through a dramatic transformation. The level of unity achieved began with his forgiveness and lack of bitterness as he left prison. He united his country by finding ways for divergent groups to value one another’s traditions. He brought out the better angels in all parties. Michael Mayne, Dean of England’s Westminster Abbey in those days, called it the “lesson of Good Friday and Easter, a dying that brings forth new life. A dying to the clamour of self; a dying to prejudices and past hurts, to remembered injustice and unforgiven words and actions; a dying to my needs and desires for the sake of the greater good of another….” (Pray, Love, Remember, p. 122)
Forgiveness was the foundation of South Africa’s transformation and new life. It lies at the center of all healed relationships. It heals the one who forgives most of all as well as the one who is forgiven. When we do not forgive, we pass up the gift of Easter’s transformation. As has been said, “Refusing to forgive is tantamount to re-crucifying Christ. Instead of seeing stones rolled away, we throw stones at one another.” (John Christoph Arnold, “The Power of Forgiveness”) The power of forgiveness can roll away the stones that entrap us.
I remember late in her life when my mother confessed a regret that troubled her. She apologized for the time when I was a seventh grader in the hospital being evaluated for seizures. After going to church and singing in the choir, she arrived at the hospital to discover I had already had a spinal tap. After all those years, she sought my forgiveness for not being there. For me, that was nothing to forgive. Frankly I loved the independence of the experience. Yet she needed the assurance to forgive herself. Now there were other things for me to forgive and plenty of reasons for her to forgive me. So that request for forgiveness healed many memories.
That is the way we live with brokenness. Never do we have perfectly forgiven and reconciled relationships. Yet we commit to a journey with one another. We do what we can to find healing and come together as the imperfect persons that we all are. There will be times of surpassing unity and times when only partial communion is all we can reach.
Our unity in the church is based on Christ at the center. Perhaps this moment between the Ascension and Pentecost is the place where we usually are in this life. We stand in the time of remembering—remembering the mighty power of God among us, the victory over sin and death, Jesus among us in both power and powerlessness but always in love. Like the early church, we also remember betrayals and disappointments—memories that need to be healed.
Michael Mayne gives us some guidance here with his title, Pray, Love, Remember—words that sum up the essence of the Christian life. Here are his wise words: “Why do we need to remember? Because the opposite to remember is to forget, and what is forgotten can never be healed or forgiven.” (p. 123) He also tells us, “…to remember is not only the opposite of ‘to forget’; it is also the opposite of ‘to dismember.’ To dismember a body is to take it apart, limb by limb, like a man strung up on a cross until his heart ceases to beat.” (p. 128)
So he invites us to re-member, a hyphenated word—to put those pieces together again. It is what the thief on the cross seeks when he says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” So we like him say to Jesus: “Lord, re-member me, recreate me, make me anew, put me together again, but now in your own likeness and as you have always intended me to be.’” Here is the purpose for us all. Finally this is our calling. As he says, “That is what every Church on earth exists to do: to bring us into the Kingdom, damaged, dysfunctional people that we are, and re-member us, recreate us as the Body of Christ in the new creation that exists since that first Easter day.” (p. 128)
So we do the work of re-membering and asking Christ to re-member us, weaving the threads that can make each of us whole and draw us into greater unity in Christ. In our life together here at St. Barnabas’ in recent months, we have begun that re-membering in conversations of confession and seeking forgiveness. Some of the threads of re-membering are there as we forgive others and forgive ourselves. We have begun a journey into the unity for which Jesus prayed. It is truly said, “The way through the door of unity is on our knees.” (Thomas Ryan) Unity indeed requires the constant prayers of us all.
Now we draw near to Pentecost, the arrival of the Holy Spirit, a time of reconciliation of divisions. We await the reversal of the Tower of Babel as every tribe, language, and nation comes together. For several years now in our Dialogue on Race, we have pondered our movement from repentance to reconciliation. Early on we asked, “How will we know when it is time to celebrate reconciliation?”
Once we laid a hope for this Pentecost, we realized that it is a journey. We will not fully arrive in this life as a reconciled people, but we still live into the promise and hope of forgiveness and reconciliation. So it is in our personal relationships, in racial relations, in our church community, in our world. We look toward the promise. We celebrate the glimpses of reconciliation that are ours—even as the journey continues.
In the meantime, we gather at a table, the place where the gospel is remembered. We come to be molded into the pattern of life Jesus gave us. He says to us: “This is me. This is the pattern of my life. You are now to re-member me…to be my body in the world, your lives offered to God, your lives lived thankfully, your lives broken and shared in the costly service of others.” In his body and blood, we partake of Christ’s glory. At this table we find our unity in the truth of the gospel. Here we receive our commission to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Let us remember. Let us remember the past to find strength for the present. Let us remember the past that we might be healed. Let us remember God’s future that we might know the Kingdom of God among us even as we pray for its coming.
-- Rev. Linda Wofford-Hawkins, St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church