Our light shines in the darkness

Sermon Preached at St. Brendan the Navigator Roman Catholic Parish Stone Harbor, NJ
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Isaiah 58:6-10; Psalm 96:1-13; Acts 2:42-47

When I hear the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, I take great comfort in imagining this ideal church in Jerusalem – a picture of peace and harmony, excitement, awe and wonder. Hearing about the devotion of these early followers of Jesus – these early converts to the Way – makes me wish I could have been a part of that church, of that community of faith, of that place and time when their life centered on the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. But if I stay with that image too long, I become disheartened, as I look at the mess we’ve made of things in the centuries that have followed. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

These verses in the Acts of the Apostles appear immediately following the description of Pentecost in which the earliest disciples – about 120 of them, we are told – are gathered together “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The noise was so great that a large crowd “gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” In response to their astonishment, confusion and bewilderment, Peter addresses the crowd. Inspired by Peter’s message – “cut to the heart” is how the phrase is expressed in the NRSV - they asked Peter and the other apostles, “what should we do?” And Peter replied, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promises is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And that day about 3000 persons were added to the community of faith through baptism.

So now, where our passage begins - “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” – we understand that the “they” refers not to the 12 disciples who had known Jesus and not even to the 120 disciples who had gathered together, but indeed to the now 3120 earliest followers of Jesus. And they were united.

Now I don’t know about you, but I often find it challenging to reach agreement and unity in a room of half a dozen people and find it beyond my imagination to picture the kind of unity and agreement described here in a community numbering over 3000. And so a danger in reading tonight’s passage out of context is that we place Pentecost expectations on ourselves and our churches that simply aren’t realistic. Because, if we read on in the Acts of the Apostles, or in just about any of the epistles or even the gospels for that matter, we soon realize that this “perfect church” simply didn’t exist. In fact, from the earliest of times, the Church – and here I am talking about the capital ‘C’ universal church, not a specific congregation and not even a specific denomination – but the Church Universal from the earliest times was wrought with conflict and division: do you remember the stoning of Stephen? how about the heated debates over whether or not Gentile converts must adhere to the Laws of Moses – circumcision, in particular? what should we make of the parting of the ways between Paul and Barnabas?[1]  And this is to say nothing of the conflicts to which Paul responds in his epistles to the early communities in Corinth, Philippi, Galatia and Rome. So, let’s not idealize the early church as one of unity, peace and harmony. Let’s not romanticize some early form of Christian witness that simply didn’t exist.

Tonight we come together to celebrate what is called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – that week which commences on the Feast day of The Confession of St. Peter (January 18th) and concludes with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (January 25th). Yes, we are aware today is January 26th – even clergy sometimes make mistakes! A week for Christian Unity first celebrated at Graymoor in Garrison, New York in 1908 and still celebrated today in the hope that . . . in the hope that . . .

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti just 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince. 217,366 sons and daughters of God died in the quake and another 1.5 million were displaced. Most of those who were displaced continue to live in camps today.

A cholera outbreak began in mid-October. Just as the outbreak was emerging, Hurricane Tomas, a category 1 hurricane, struck the country, causing damage along the southern coast, where a river overflowed and flooded villages, affecting about 20,000 people in the area. Flooding from the hurricane has further exacerbated the cholera epidemic. Catholic Relief Services reports that nearly 150,000 cases of cholera have been reported in Haiti and more than 3,000 people have died from the disease. No part of Haiti is free of this epidemic.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

“Ketlie is a 37 year old single mother with five children. Before the earthquake, she lived in a house made of bricks – it was her childhood home, which she inherited from her mother. After it collapsed in the quake, Ketlie pieced together wood, tin and plastic sheeting to make a 5 x 5 foot square shelter with a dirt floor, where she and her children lived. The family had neither a protected shower nor a latrine. Ketlie was one of the first five recipients of a provisional home, with a raised foundation, reinforced wooden walls, and a tin roof to keep the rain out. The three youngest of her children live there with her now. When asked about her new home, Ketlie quoted a Creole proverb that relates the difference in her life to that of the back and front doors of a house. Before she had her new home, she felt like the back door, which is old and broken and hidden from people’s eyes. Now, she feels like the front door, which is shiny and strong for the world to see.”[2]
Through our contributions to organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran World Service, and The United Methodist Committee on Relief, stories like Ketlie’s continue to be told.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

“Before the quake, 20-year-old Emma lived with her mother and brother in a rented house … on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. She and her brother were the only ones at home on January 12th when the earthquake hit. When their house fell down around them, Emma was struck and her leg was broken. She went to various clinics looking for help, but was unable to be seen due to the vast numbers of patients. A week after her injury, Emma was waiting outside a clinic set up in front of the Presidential Palace when she heard that doctors were treating people on the grounds of College St. Pierre... Having exhausted her other options, she went to see if this was true. It was. In the days following the quake … staff at College St. Pierre coordinated a team of local doctors who began providing free medical care and transfers. On her arrival at the camp, Emma received immediate care and was then transferred to Hospital Zanmi la Santé, where her leg was set and she began to heal.”[3]  
Through our contributions to organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran World Service, and The United Methodist Committee on Relief, stories like Emma’s continue to be told.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.

For at least the next five to ten years, relief efforts in Haiti will continue with projects for long-term reconstruction efforts in areas such as shelter, health and hygiene training, building water treatment facilities, teaching sustainable farming, providing small loans, education, security, community-development projects and continuing to meet the basic needs of people left homeless by the earthquake.[4] Through our contributions to organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran World Service, and The United Methodist Committee on Relief, these relief efforts will continue to transform lives.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Yes, tonight we come together to celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A week first celebrated in 1908 and still celebrated today. Though the unity of the church as it is described in the Acts of the Apostles is not a reality today – nor was it likely a reality in the early church - we have much to celebrate.

We have much to celebrate because our churches are working together for unity. Some of the more tangible signs include ongoing dialogues between denominations, attempts to find common understandings and ways forward in our beliefs and practices. Some of these conversations have already born fruit: the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church this year celebrate 10 years of our Call to Common Mission – a celebration of full communion. Likewise, Methodists and Lutherans are in full communion one with another. Other denominations too have reconciled. These are, indeed, signs of our work together for Christian unity. Other signs of our working together for unity include tonight’s worship and the services we hold together on the beach at sunrise on Easter morning and evening services on the Sunday before Thanksgiving each year.

But perhaps the most important sign of our working together are the ways in which we come together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities and in our world, the ways in which we share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our houses, the ways in which we cover the naked and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, the ways in which our light shines in the darkness to the glory of God.[5]

“For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”[6] Alleluia. Alleluia.

[1] Acts 7:54-60 and Acts 15.
[2] Episcopal Relief and Development, “The 2010 Haiti Earthquake: One Year Later,” January 2011, p. 13.
[3] Ibid., p. 9
[4] Derek Lieu, “Haiti Earthquake Relief: How Much Charities Have Raised and Spent,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy (January 10, 2011).
[5] cf. Isaiah 58:6-10.
[6] Psalm 96:4a.