Some of you might remember a television program called ‘Yes, Minister!’, which took a satirical look at how government really worked. In one episode, a new hospital was awarded an efficiency prize. It was later discovered to have 500 administrators—and no patients! I was thinking about churches and Christian communities when I remembered this episode, for it is impossible to be seriously involved in a church or Christian community without coming up against the hassle of sick and wounded people.
And so in every church, in every community, you’ll hear things like this: If only those who aren’t really serious about their faith, or who don’t pull their weight, or who misunderstand God, or who are bitter and poisonous and cannot forgive, or who do not control their children, or who cripple every process, or—well, whatever their problem, if only they weren’t here, then the gathering would truly form the body of Christ, and not this pale and broken imitation.
We say and think these things because church communities are, quite frankly, often awful, and they are often filled with awful people. They all fail—because we are all human. We all get scared, and angry, and anxious. When we gather in groups, we can intensify this, and a group of scared angry anxious people is a terrible thing, a harsh judgement or a hateful explosion just waiting to happen. But harsh judgements and hateful explosions are only made by people who are defensive, people who are hurt, people who believe they have been abandoned. And this should not be us. For although we heard tonight that Jesus has ascended into heaven, unlike the first disciples we know that this is not the end of the story. We have not been orphaned. We live after Pentecost, and so Jesus’ Spirit has been poured out upon us, and abides with us. For Jesus ascended into heaven to be everywhere present.
It’s just as we say every week: We are the body of Christ: His Spirit is with us. Right here, right now. We don’t need to keep peering into the heavens, seeking a perfect body of Christ. We don’t need to keep looking for an ideal people or church community. The body of Jesus Christ was wounded and scarred; and so the body of the church, such as it is, will always be wounded and scarred too. It will always be full of damaged and damaging people, who share a desperate need for the One encountered in Scripture, sacrament, and stranger; and who also share an extraordinary commission to go out into the world as witnesses to Jesus Christ, freely loving and forgiving friend and enemy alike.
Because we are all wounded, because we all lack faith, we often fail at this commission. Yet this is the one thing we need to do: to witness, by living in love and peace from this day forth. We are not called to form a perfect organisation or to run perfect programs. Instead, we are to be the living proof that God is love, and that God loves the world: the material world, the real world: the earth and other people. And as people filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ, we are to show that love. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you, and forgive, forgive, forgive: these are not nice theories but our difficult practice, both inside and outside the church.
We are heading towards Pentecost, when we celebrate the Spirit being poured out onto all disciples, however damaged and broken. So as we make this journey, these are things to ponder. And like the first disciples, while we ponder we must not wait with our eyes to the heavens. We must turn our gaze earthwards. We must leave the hilltop and return to our place of healing: the place we call church. John Calvin described the church as a hospital—but unlike the hospital in ‘Yes, Minister!’, this hospital is neither efficient nor empty. Instead, it is bursting at the seams with patients, and even the Healer is wounded.
Wounded and scarred, then, the body of Christ gathers each week to sing and to pray, to listen for the Living Word, and to love one another. Here, we can turn our eyes away from the empty skies and see, really see, other people. Here, we can learn to love real people, difficult people, and realise that we are loved ourselves. And here, we can glimpse the One we long for. For when we worship and work and pray together, and let the Spirit do its work, we will notice more and more moments which look or feel or sound a bit like Jesus, the One whose Spirit has been poured into the world and abides in us now.
Of course, there will be times, many times, when it will be hard to sense the presence of God made known in Jesus Christ. There will be times, many times, when our courage will fail and we will wonder again if God is absent. There will be times, many times, when we will hurt each other, and forgiveness will feel impossible. And yet we know that God is love, and so we know that, as long as love is here—real love, forgiving love, love across human boundaries, love through conflict—then we are not alone. The Spirit of love and life is moving among us, and forces of hatred and destruction and fear and doubt will never be the end of the story.
We all bear wounds; and so we all belong here in this creaky and inefficient hospital. Together, we are called to open ourselves to the healing, loving, forgiving Spirit of Jesus Christ, letting it work on us and among us. For through the Spirit’s power, we are called to heal and be healed; we are called to love and be loved; we are called to be the real presence of Christ in the world. For Christ is risen! And here! His Spirit is with us! And now! So if you’re seeking Jesus, don’t just stand there, looking up to heaven. Just look around you, brothers and sisters! Just look around. Ω
A reflection on Acts 1:1-11 by Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 28 May 2017 (A38). Image shows a ward of the hospital at Scutari, where Florence Nightingale worked, found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_hospitals.