This coming Sunday begins the final week of Easter culminating on the fiftieth day with Pentecost, the celebration of the Spirit’s outpouring on the Church. During the Great Fifty Days Jesus has been busily at work concluding his earthly ministry and mission. His ministry is to heal the sick, call all people to a fundamental change in perspective and action which is repentance, gather the flock the Father has entrusted to him, and outline the fundamental issue for life as God’s people, namely, to love God, humankind, and all creation just as God in Christ Jesus has loved us. His mission is to prepare, encourage, and challenge us to live our lives in the Spirit to which we have been called, gifted, and sent through the grace-filled water of Holy Baptism. We hear in John’s gospel this coming Sunday Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer,” a lengthy set of petitions to the Father of all Mercy to protect, guide into an unmistakable unity and regard for all people which is Christ’s “ecclesia,” the Church, meaning the people God has called. We also will hear a passage from First Peter, words that remind us that being, doing, and enacting daily what it is to be Christ’s Church is not simply a warm, fuzzy, Hallmark® card / channel diversion from our otherwise busy lives. Our lives are fulfilled by being and witnessing as God’s called and gifted people. That, brothers and sisters, is not always easy to do. I Peter 4 reminds us that we should not be at all surprised at what we will encounter, given what we ourselves have seen and experienced of suffering, betrayals large and small, confusion and suspicion about people’s behavior and identity, and our own failures and shortcomings. To bear and navigate the sufferings we encounter as God’s people means that we address and move through the difficulties not as the world would do but as Christ’s embodied presence no matter where we are. Lashing out, threats and curses, avoiding difficulties at all costs, abandonment, despising those around us, or just downright whiny and petty behavior are not the ways of God’s people. While God in Christ does not ask us to serve as doormats for abuse (we may on occasion have to go off to a quiet place to regroup – mom called this “time out”), nevertheless we have been equipped by the Spirit to discipline ourselves to be the people we have already been created and redeemed to be in this world.
Psalm 8 which we will speak two weeks from Sunday on the Festival of the Holy Trinity observes: …what are mere mortals that [God] should be mindful of [us], human beings that [God] should care for [us]? Yet [God] has made [us] little less than divine – [“… a little lower than the angels,” KJV]; with glory and honor [God] crowns [us]. [God] has made [us] rule over the works of [God’s] hands; [God] has put all things under [our] feet… [Psalm 8:4-6]. In this passage the Psalmist praises God for fulfilling what first was announced in Creation itself [Genesis 1:26-31]. From the beginning of time God has had big plans for us as caretakers, lovers of, and participants in what God has fashioned. Although the pristine bliss of Eden was shattered by our initial mistrust and envy, nevertheless God clothed and protected us, sending us forth with that primal commendation: have “dominion,” meaning “have the same loving regard for creation as the Lord [Dominus], the root word for “dominion.”
That tantalizing phrase from Psalm 8 – …made us a little less than divine / (angels – KJV) tells us much about God’s ordering of creation. The Greek word angelos means “messenger.” God’s holy angels have exercised from the beginning exceedingly focused tasks: they serve as God’s messengers [the annunciation to Mary as well as to Joseph so that the Holy Family flee, escaping Herod’s treachery]. They have kept watch day and night, also serving as guides unimpeded by the limitations of human existence. They offer perpetual praise around the heavenly throne which broke forth in our own hearing on the night of Christ’s birth [Luke 2:13-14]. At least three bear names: the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, variously honored and venerated among Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. However, the specific work and activities of these winged hosts of heaven remain beyond our knowing and telling.
What Sunday’s Gospel announces are not the mindboggling, logic defying tasks of the heavenly hosts but the day to day life God grants us. We may be a little lower than the angels but are still commissioned to do wondrous things by the way we live our lives, be our time short or long. In a very real sense, the people of God entrusted to Christ Jesus during his earthly ministry are granted the mission and needed gifts to serve and witness in the world around us as Jesus once did in a tiny region on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. We are sent forth to assist in people’s healing, their reconciliation, and welcome into the growing community of faith. God’s really not into flashy heroics, but desires us to live life fully and graciously wherever we are in whatever situations we encounter. Whatever makes God’s desire difficult to realize (including our own selfish and spiteful tendencies) is definitely NOT on the side of the angels. Moreover, our calling and mission say much about loving, caring, and encouraging others to embrace that same hospitable life Jesus himself commends and we are clearly to model. We are to stop trying to be “like God” with our own futile and pointless attempts to determine who is IN and who is OUT. That task God thankfully reserves for the blessed Trinity.
Jesus’ words of farewell this Sunday conclude: And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one [John 17:11]. Unity, never division, bickering, and wrangling IS the sign that we have begun to embrace the gracious life God has granted us. In this way, Jesus assures us that he will be glorified in us. So, look around, take note of what is going on and what each of us is doing to assist, for the mission field is directly at our doorstep. While it might step on our toes now and again, that IS the Good News of the Easter season!