Sunday, May 17, 2015

There’s a fundamental tension in Christianity. We believe in an incarnate God, who was born and dwelt among us. We believe in a bodily resurrection, where Jesus came back from the dead not as a spirit, specter, or ghost, but as an embodied soul, a living human being, with physical scars from his crucifixion and breath in his lungs, who ate and drank and embraced his followers. A living human being who can never die again, who can never become an disembodied spirit. If Christmas is about the incarnation and Easter about the resurrection, they both celebrate a world in which God, in the person of Jesus Christ, walks around with us, wholly God yet also a human being with a physical body.
So where is he? Where is Jesus? If incarnation and resurrection are at the core of our belief system, and they are indeed, then the incarnate, resurrected God should be here, right? Like Thomas, we should be able to touch his hands and his side, and embrace our Lord and God. We too should be able to walk by sight, and not by faith. Because if we can’t, it rather puts a damper on this bodily-resurrected, incarnate God of ours, no? If God has a body, and we don't know where that body is, it adds a new urgency to the evangelicals' question, "have you found Jesus?"
Despite our faith in Christmas and Easter, we live in a Pentecost world, a world marked by God as Spirit. We walk by faith, and not by sight, and depend on the gifts of an unseen Holy Spirit to perform our ministry in the world. In this Pentecost world, we are called to see Christ in the least of us, and to be the hands of Christ to one another. This understanding of God is no less real, but more spiritualized — the ordinary people, things, and institutions of the world are imbued with the Spirit of God to take on divine significance. In this Pentecost world, the Body of Christ less resembles a particular literal human body and becomes more elastic, more conceptual. The Body of Christ can be the Church, a consecrated loaf of bread, the poor, a particular person in need, a particular person doing God’s will — all at once, and in many places simultaneously. That’s a different reality than seeing a person called Jesus standing on a particular hillside outside Jerusalem.
How do we get from one to the other? How do we go from the fleshy God of Christmas and Easter to the spectral God of Pentecost? What connects these two disparate understandings of God?
The point in the church year that we've reached now is so vitally important. Last Thursday was the feast of Ascension. We celebrated Jesus being taken up bodily into heaven. Today we hear about choosing a successor apostle to replace Judas. Today, we are still celebrating Easter, but things have changed. In the 1928 prayer book, we would have put out the Pascal candle on Thursday. We keep it burning now, to remind us of the continuity of the Easter season, but it's not the same sort of Easter we celebrate today that we celebrated last week.
This season we have arrived at is the bridge between the Pentecost reality we live and the Christmas and Easter faith we profess. At its core, Ascension is an acknowledgement of this juxtaposition: Jesus used to be a person who walked around on the earth like other human beings, and continues to really be present with us, but our experience of Jesus’ presence today isn’t the same as the apostles’ experience. Encountering Jesus after the Ascension is not the same experience as encountering him before the Ascension. He was with us then, he is with us now, but something is different.
The move to replace Judas that our first lesson today describes is another sort of bridge. Shortly after the ascension, Peter told the other apostles that they needed to select someone to replace Judas. Another follower of Jesus needed to join the ranks of the apostles, to "become a witness with us to [Jesus'] resurrection."
Now witness doesn't just mean that this new apostle would have seen the resurrected Jesus. Both of the candidates for the position had seen the resurrected Jesus, as had many others. But to become a witness is more that to become one who has seen. A witness testifies to what he or she has seen. Peter needed someone to become a witness because he needed someone to join the ranks of those giving testimony.
Why now? Judas had been dead for weeks. Why the sudden need to appoint someone else to take his place? The apostles were not yet empowered and emboldened as happened on the day of Pentecost. Today's account falls right between the story of the Ascension and the story of Pentecost. Today's account falls after the physical body of Jesus went away, and before the coming of the Holy Spirit was made known. Between these two earth shattering events, we have this administrative reshuffling in the church.
This Ascension makes it all the more essential to bear witness to Jesus' resurrection. The apostles can no longer point to Jesus and say, look there he is. Proclaiming the resurrection is less obvious, and requires more work. And what's the first thing the apostles do after Jesus is ascended into heaven and is no longer among them in the same way that he was? They hold an organizational meeting. They elect a vestry. They select wardens. They set up a structure for the church. Those apostles were good Episcopalians.
Now the work of the church is to bear witness to the Gospel.  The work of the church is to proclaim in word and deed the good news. The work of the church is to make the love of God known in this broken world. The work of the church is not to perpetuate the structure of the church. And yet…
And yet the apostles bothered to take the time to restructure the church at this critical point in its history. The author of the Acts of the Apostles bothered to include this inside baseball story between the dramatic accounts of the Ascension and the Pentecost.
How we structure the church isn't important as an end of itself. Proclaiming the good news is the end. Mission is the end. But the structure of the church matters if it helps us to do mission. It matters to find someone to do Judas's job because Judas did important work for the church, and in his absence, the administrative work he did (one Gospel said he was the treasurer for the disciples) helps the movement the Church exists to advance move forward.
When people can't see fleshy Jesus walking around with wounds from the crucifixion, testifying to the truth of he resurrection becomes so much more important. It doesn't take any great persuasive effort for me to point to our rector over there and say look Laurel is alive. You all can see that. Believing in the incarnation takes no great leap of faith in a Christmas and Easter world. But in this Pentecost world in which we live, it is harder to see the body of Christ. The persistent witness of those who believe can help the world to see that God in fact has taken flesh and dwellsamong us. The body of Christ is among us now as much as ever. And the world so desperately crave that body of Christ. But they cannot see it unless we testify to it. Unless we, like Mathias, become witnesses.
The church is there to strengthen and support us in this ministry, and to call and to challenge us to go forth and do it. It is for this reason that as each of our liturgies end, our service in the world continues with a charge to go forth into the world being the face of Christ all those we meet. We are called to be that bridge between the incarnate Christ we encounter at the altar and the world so desperately in need of his presence.
And so let us continue the liturgy. Let us be fed at the altar in our encounter with the incarnate Christ, and then let us go forth into the world, testifying, witnessing, bringing, being that incarnate Christ to all those we meet. Alleluia! Alleluia!