How do we build a church? We’ve pondered that question by following the words of Jesus in the Gospel and the process that Jesus’ disciples followed in readings from the Acts of the Apostles for the past several weeks. We’ve seen how Jesus gave the apostles the basics: repent, be baptized. Share the teachings. Share a simple meal in remembrance of Jesus. We’ve seen how the disciples struggled to understand what their beloved teacher was telling them, and how Jesus gently nudged them along a road to leadership, despite their confusion and false starts. We’ve seen Jesus bidding farewell before he takes his leave of his disciples, juxtaposed with Paul’s masterful work of preaching to the Athenians at the Areopagus.
But now we come to a time in the story when Jesus does something that shifts his relationship with his followers in such an astounding way that they and we are left stunned. They and we are left with only the words I prayed in the collect this morning: “Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.”
It began, as it always did with Jesus and his disciples, with a conversation, a teachable moment.
Just as they were wondering when he would right all that was wrong with the world, when he would restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus stopped them. “That’s God’s call, in God’s own time, not in yours. But you will have someone special with you to give you the power you need to do my work…the Holy Spirit will descend on you. You will do my work, not only here and in Jerusalem, not just in Israel, but in all the world.”
And as he waited for the moment when he was to return to heaven, John tells us that Jesus spoke to his heavenly father, and gave his final report of his work among them: “I’m ready, Father. I’ve finished the work I was to do here. I have gathered around me good people. Not perfect people, but good ones, righteous ones. They will carry on the work. They understand that everything I have told them is from you. You are in me, and I am in you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
And then he rose up above them, ascending on a cloud.
What must it have been like, to have finally gotten comfortable with the risen Lord coming back and being in conversation with them, and then to have him disappear again? To have him float above them, ever upward, like the lightest of eiderdown wafting upwards?
Might they have called, “Wait, wait. You didn’t tell us the rest of what we are supposed to do?” Or did they simply stand there, once again dumbfounded by it all?
No matter what their response was to Jesus’ Ascension, they got some further direction. Two men in white, presumably angels, were suddenly there among them, saying, “Why are you standing there like a bunch of idiots looking upward? Jesus will come back again, in the same way he just left.”
And then they were on their own again. We don’t know what their conversation was. We don’t know if they wondered if they should stay put and wait for Jesus to come back again, or if they intuited that it might be a while. We are simply told they walked back together to Jerusalem, to the other disciples, to the upper room where those disciples had been praying, along with some of the women who were Jesus’ family and followers.
He had told them that the Spirit was coming. The Spirit who would give them the power to do the work ahead of them. The Spirit who would be yet another sign of God’s favor on what they were to do. Another baptism, a baptism of the Spirit of strength and comfort and wisdom and righteousness.
So they waited, praying. Something more was expected of them. That they knew. Something more was coming. That they had been told. Did they know what the Holy Spirit would look like, what this baptism would feel like? No. They simply waited and prayed together.
I doubt that they would call that time of waiting the building of a church, but it was.
It was the exercising of their hearts and souls to prepare for whatever was to come.
Having witnessed what had happened to Jesus – the arrest, the torture, the excruciating death on the cross, and then God’s power made manifest by Jesus’ triumph over death – we can imagine they were worried. God’s work isn’t easy.
So they prepared themselves to build a church that bore no resemblance to anything they had known before.
They prayed and waited for this Spirit to come and give them a baptism of the Spirit. They prayed for strength for whatever would come their way. They prayed for discernment, for wisdom to make right choices. They prayed for forgiveness if they fell short.
What they didn’t pray for was for it all to go smoothly, for there to be no troubles. They didn’t pray for something magical that would enchant every listener to Jesus’ teachings. They knew that what was ahead of them would be hard.
They were right. When we hear the words of the first letter of Peter, we hear the warnings of someone who knew that the work of Christ is fraught with risk, a “fiery ordeal” that would test them, that would try them as silver is burnt to remove its impurities. It had to be frightening, this work they faced.
They did not know what building a church would look like. There was no road map, no architectural plans, no instruction manual. They did not know what turns of the road awaited them. All they knew was that someone whom they trusted, who had shown them love and wisdom beyond compare for all their time together, had given them instructions. Someone who had proven himself to truly be the son of God had prepared them.
In the days when they waited in that upper room, they prayed to prepare themselves.
And that is the thing we must take from these readings today: we are all asked by Jesus to work for him. It is hard work. We cannot do it without help. That is what those simple things we have been talking about come critically important.
Repent and be baptized. Share the teachings. Share a simple meal. And in all these things, rely on the Holy Spirit, who gives you strength and comfort and wisdom and the remembrance of all we learned from Jesus’ life and death. To build a church takes those simple things, united by a common thread – all are centered in prayer.
That’s why the disciples prayed as they waited in that upper room for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. They had repented of their former ways. They had been baptized. They had shared the teachings in their first tentative attempts to preach as Jesus had preached to them. They had eaten together in the manner that Jesus had taught them. And each step along the way they prayed, even when things became most confusing, even or perhaps especially when they were frightened. They prayed.
Because that is the heart of building a church.
How do we build a church? We start by building a church in our own hearts, a placed where we hold our love of Jesus and what he gave us. It is a tiny church, to be sure, but Jesus’ love for us and our love for him in response can make that little church into a great cathedral of faith and love. We pray, and every prayer strengthens the walls of that church. When two or more of us gather together to build a church, our prayers in community start to construct those sturdy walls of strength of belief, not to keep out intruders, but to shelter us safely together. Our continued prayers buttress those walls, sweep those floors, shine a light through the windows to beckon others to come into this place of warmth. Prayers build a church, because they remind us how our relationship with God is built on love, and love dies without dialogue between the beloveds.
But what does this mean in our daily lives? We do what we already do. We pray to God, daily, for the strength to be good and to do good. We pray for friends who are suffering. We pray for people halfway across the world who live in the midst of terrible conflict. We pray for the wisdom to make right choices, and for freedom from all the little daily sins that we commit. We pray for the church, so that it might be a place of caring and loving and praising and helping.
That is how we build a church, a brick at a time, a prayer at a time. It doesn’t happen immediately. The disciples learned that and we have learned it too. But it happens if we all pray, if we all believe, if we pray with our hearts and our voices and with our work.
Pray. Pray without ceasing. If necessary, as St Francis said, use words; otherwise, we should simply make our lives a prayer. And our lives and our prayers will build a church that transcends four walls, that will be a place that welcomes Jesus when he returns in glory, as he ascended in glory.
That’s the task ahead of us. Get praying!