Preached on May 8, 2016 (Easter 7C), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.
A couple of weeks ago, Andrew and I took a train from the village of Hogsmeade to King’s Cross station in London, disembarking close to the entrance to Diagon Alley, which is a little shopping area that’s not so easy for most people to find. The train is called the Hogwarts Express, named for a boarding school it serves twice a year.
If none of this means anything to you, then you are not a fan (or perhaps not yet a fan) of the Harry Potter universe—and it’s a universe now, not just a series of books and movies. When you enter this universe at either end of the complex in Universal Studios Florida, you step into a world all its own, an immersive universe of shops, cobbled walkways, roller-coaster adventures, costumed actors, and everything else that makes up a fully realized world. The books and films themselves are absent, presumably because they would break the spell by pointing to the fictional literary source of all this magic.
It’s here where I feel tempted to step out of this universe and critique it, if only to reassure everyone that I am more intelligent and ironic and, I don’t know, hip than someone who would uncritically love a theme park. But … I uncritically loved it. I even had what amounted to a religious experience, right there on that fantastical train.
We were ushered into our train compartment on the Hogwarts Express, built almost exactly to the specifications of the films, and took our seats next to a young family. As the LED screen train window showed us views of the Forbidden Forest, the Hogwarts Lake, and other wonders from that world, a little boy held his wand and gazed at the spectacle, eyes alight with wonder. He was dressed in a little Hogwarts school robe, and this little boy was simply transported into a world that seemed built for him. His mother and grandmother chatted while dad tried to snap a good photo of his son blissing out.
I was moved by this scene, nourished by it, filled with hope and happiness to see a child being held so completely. It seemed like we adults were all guests in his universe, a universe where ten and eleven-year-olds are sovereign. Try to imagine a universe that puts children first: it was a kindly, colorful, wonderful world. It was simplistic, yes, with good guys and happy endings. But it took care to include everyone, to draw everyone in, because the whole park seemed to have soaked up the tender love the Harry Potter author has for children who are left out, orphans and poor kids and non-athletic kids who don’t make the best teams. She filled her books with that, and the park designers took heed. I wondered if this little boy had ever felt so special.
I felt sorrow, too, for children who cannot be there, because it is an expensive park, of course. And I felt sorrow for children who rarely or never know such joy.
As we were heading home later that week, I got into a conversation with a friend who occasionally asks me questions about faith and religion. He wondered why a religion has formed around the story of Jesus of Nazareth, while other compelling stories remain just stories. Some heroes are fictional, like Harry Potter, but there are true-life heroes too, figures from our history who accomplished great things, saved many lives, gave of themselves completely for a noble cause. Why did Jesus inspire not just a museum or a presidential library or a theme park, but a religion?
In the days after Jesus departed from his friends—which is the time we celebrate this week—it’s hard to tell whether his followers really knew who he was, or what his life was all about. In the earliest accounts—for us, the earliest we have on hand is the Gospel of Mark—Jesus was not necessarily understood to be divine. He was God’s beloved Son, yes, but was he God? At first, his humanity was much more accessible to them. But by the end of the first century of our era, when John’s Gospel was likely written down, they finally portrayed him as divine. He was not just an inspiring historical figure, like a president who ends a terrible war. He was one with the Father, one with God.
How did this happen? How did this understanding of Jesus evolve?
Today’s Gospel offers a clue. Today we heard the final portion of the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, his fervent and complicated prayer that concludes his life and ministry and prepares us for his glorious death and resurrection. Immediately after this prayer, he goes out to the garden to be arrested. And the prayer is all about union: Jesus’ union with God the Father, his union with the followers who knew him, and their union with all the followers who came after Jesus had returned to the Father, including us, you and me, here in this room. Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these [followers who are here with me], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” Jesus’ most fervent prayer is that we all may be one.
In this prayer, but more powerfully in his death and resurrection, Jesus creates a kind of immersive universe, and one infinitely more profound and important than an amusement park. This universe crosses the ages to incorporate all those who follow Jesus into one body.
Here’s how it begins to happen. We heard a story of a prison break this morning, but it’s not the first one in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter was imprisoned a few chapters earlier, and after he is freed by the power of God, Herod has the prison guards killed. In today’s story, Paul and Silas manage to save the jailer from killing himself: he panicked because he knew he’d be killed when the others found Paul and Silas missing. But instead of falling victim to suicide, this jailer is drawn into the immersive universe, the growing community that lives and flourishes in Jesus’ name, sharing the good news of food and blankets and equality and justice with people of every background, every trade and economic class, bluebloods and blue-collar workers alike.
So it goes: Jesus is one with God the Father, and intercedes in prayer for his followers, joining them in union with God; and then we all are caught up in this, drawn into this immersive universe.
In this universe, there is respect and deep friendship for those who do not follow Jesus, and for those who pray to God by another name, or to other gods, or to none. In this universe, there is no distinction between those who worship and pledge in this parish and those who camp out on our doorstep because they have no shelter. There is no pride of place enjoyed by those who support one particular presidential candidate. Here you may feel the Bern, or be With Hillary, or support Donald Trump for all Jesus seems to care: he prays for union for us all. He prays not that all of his followers will be alike and in lockstep agreement, or that they will follow their liturgical rubrics with precision, but that all of his followers will become one: that’s the starting point for justice and peace.
And his prayer shapes ours. Our highest prayer is said and enacted at this table, where one loaf is divided among many, making us one. That person sitting next to you thinks and does upsetting things, or votes for someone you find repellent. That person in our garden looks sad and dangerous, and makes you feel frustrated and guilty. That person you work with doesn’t really like you very much.
But if you allow yourself to get caught up in Jesus’ prayer, in his immersive universe of unity and love, you may begin to see your neighbors differently. And they may begin to see in you a sign that slowly—in fits and starts—but surely, this world is evolving into one that will gladden the hearts of all children.
Biblical Texts: Acts 16:16-34 Psalm 97 Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 John 17:20-26