Easter 7 (Year B)    Acts 1. 15-17, 21-26 & John 17. 6-19    24 May 2009

My heart sinks when a passage like today’s gospel comes up. It’s theologically complex, and the language is tortuous – I can barely read it, let alone understand it – and the themes go round and round in circles and make my head spin! But I’ll give it a go.

I read these words, the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading, and I hear them on two levels.

One the one hand, I can hear the wonderful intimacy of a teacher with his closest and most trusted disciples, and his prayer for their protection and their unity once he has left them – and sometimes I can hear them spoken to me, just as intimately, and I know that he is speaking to me, and that I am also a trusted friend and disciple. But there are other times when I don’t feel like I’m there at all. Times when I read those words as an outsider, and all the stuff about ‘all mine are yours’ and not one of them being lost serve to make discipleship seem like a mysterious inner circle, a holy huddle, of which I am not a member. That is the danger of this passage: that its intimacy can include or exclude – depending on who is reading it, or even how they are feeling at that time about their faith.

On the other hand, we can choose to hear Jesus’ words as prayers for all his friends, not just those first few, and we can hear that his prayer for their unity and protection is also, stretching through time and space, a prayer for the unity and protection of all his people even now. When I read it that way, suddenly there is no inner circle, there is no holy huddle, and I find myself made uncomfortable all over again, but for different reasons.

For if there is no holy huddle and inner circle, and if Jesus is including all of us in his prayers, then that means that each one of us is being entrusted with exactly the same thing that the first disciples were given: nothing less than the priceless and eternal and loving word of God, and the command to go out into a sometimes hostile world to share it. I’ve talked about that enough times not to want to do so again today.

In the mean time, it hasn’t been a good week for some people who might consider themselves to be in the inner circle in the secular world – in this case, the world of politics. And increasingly, people seem to be concluding that actually it isn’t good enough to entrust and relegate the things that matter to an inner circle – even one chosen by democratic vote. There is a strong sense that the inner circle - the ones entrusted with the stewardship of this country – have failed the people, and the people have had enough.

Whether or not there is a the sort of revolution that some are predicting in our political system, one positive effect of this particular crisis may be that a lot more people are now clearer that the responsibility for undertaking the stewardship of this country’s resources can’t be left to an inner circle, albeit an elected one, but rather is something for which we all have a corporate responsibility. In the long term, this can only be a good thing.

Among the more rhetorical calls for ‘power to the people’ what is also just starting to be said, is that each of us helps to create the moral climate for this country. Every one of us, by the way we live and the choices we make, has the power to subtly alter the fundamental moral assumptions that people make. Many of you may have read Rowan Williams’ powerful article in the Times a couple of days ago, in which he argued that what we’ve lost, as a society, is the reality of virtue – that is, doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not just because there’s a rule saying you have to do it, or that you’ll be found out if you don’t do it. Scandals as extensive as the current one over MPs’ expenses can only happen in a culture where the ultimate question is not ‘what is right?’ but ‘what can I get away with?’. My own fear about any reforms to the way that MPs are paid is that it will simply create a more water tight way of ensuring good practice while distancing MPs even further from having to make any actual moral decisions.

Closing loopholes in the rulebook may mean that there is less opportunity for corruption, but does it actually make people any morally better?

Looked at in that light, Jesus’ prayer in today’s gospel that his disciples might be protected from the evil one looks more sinister: does the Devil – if we believe in a personal devil, that is – rub his hands together in glee at a system that allows large scale fraud to go unchecked, or does he run his hands together at the thought of a system that is so watertight that people in authority no longer have to make moral judgements about this sort of thing at all, and therefore get out of the habit of doing so? It’s a question that’s well worth pondering, I would have thought.

Meanwhile, back to today’s readings. I never know with some of the odder stuff in the Acts of the Apostles, whether the writer, Luke, is holding up these events as models of good practice, or merely reporting that that’s what happened. Today’s reading from Acts is a case in point. Is Luke really saying that the right way to choose apostles is to draw lots? Doing things that way now would certainly simplify the appointments process for clergy – and it would be one unusual direction to take in the quest for parliamentary reform!

Choosing an apostle by lot might seem a bit arbitrary, but in a perverse bit of logic, it makes sense:

Both men were good candidates, and rather than base their final selection on personal attributes which could lead to the winner believing that they are there by right, Matthias was chosen by lot – the purpose is not his own, it is God’s. The early church trusted God enough not to let their own priorities be the final arbiter, in the hope that the selected candidate will be first and foremost the person that God wants them to be.

Today’s gospel reading could be one of those passages to convince us that there is an inner circle of discipleship, privy to all Jesus’ secrets, were it not for the fact that it is paired with the reading of the selection and commissioning of Matthias. This pairing of the two readings shows that there is no magic or mystique to the inner circle – there is no place where the real work happens, withdrawn from the rest of us, full of people who are so ‘special’ that we can’t aspire to join them. The work is everyone’s. It is ours, and it is God’s, just as Jesus describes it in the gospel reading: As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.’

The current crises over MPs expenses serves to highlight something much more fundamental: how are we living, really? When we’re sent out into the world to proclaim the good news of Christ, it’s not just words, and religious stuff, it’s the whole way that we live, the way that we engage with the moral challenges of being in the world but not of the world, as John puts it.

Because it’s by the way that we live that we reveal something of the God we trust and proclaim. And that’s a scary thought. The ascension of Jesus, that we celebrated in church on Thursday last week, is the moment when we recollect that just as people could look on Christ and see something of God the Father, so when they look at us as individuals and as a church, they should also be able to see something of God. I ask myself all the time, what people can see of God when they look at me, and it’s a very uncomfortable question, I can tell you. If I take any consolation, it’s from something that Archbishop Rowan said when he came to the diocese in January. He said that if we witness to God we do it in two ways: firstly by demonstrating that peace between earth and heaven in possible, and by modelling that in the unity of the church – being one as Jesus and the Father are one; and secondly by our witness as redeemed sinners – both as individuals and as an institution, testifying to the love and mercy of God by our very brokenness and inadequacy, even as we strive to be the people he created us to be, and to live well in the world that he has entrusted to us.

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