The Future is Unity or Nothing

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The Seventh Sunday of Easter: Africa Day
May 28, 2017
The  Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

This past week, I was speaking with two different friends about the future of Africa in a changing global economy.

One friend was telling me about a significant road infrastructure project in which they were involved, and was speaking hopefully about how these investments would improve the lives of citizens in the country.

Along with that optimism, she also lamented current attempts by certain nations to harvest African resources without investing in the continent at all, citing particularly the overfishing of coastal waters.

I could sense my friend’s concern about an uncertain future, and a desire and hope for that future to bend toward more justice, more prosperity, and more self-determination for African citizens.

In another conversation with a different friend, I heard the opposite point of view—a pessimistic outlook on the future facing the varied nations, tribes, and cultures of the continent.

This friend spoke of failures of past investments, graft and lack of political will in the elites to make a difference, and a concern for how the diversity of Africa would not allow any sort of unified purpose to ever arise.

Citing the Rwandan genocide, and current terrorist activity from North to South Africa, this friend seemed to be preparing for the worst, and bracing himself for a future in which the discord and disintegration of the continent would eventually destabilize the entire world.

Two visions of friends— that were entirely divergent in their perspectives.

Two possible futures—but which one of them will materialize and which one will fade into memory?

Today we are celebrating Africa Day, which was officially celebrated on May 25th, and marks the 54th anniversary of the African Union.

In 1963, the Organization of African Unity was founded, morphing into the African Union in 2001, with a goal to promote cooperation and a shared future across the various countries and cultures of the continent.

This year’s particular theme is about investing in youth, and nations, bodies, and individuals are encouraged to direct their efforts toward this goal throughout the year.

It is a lofty goal, and one that is subject to the same divergence of opinion that I witnessed in my two friends’ points of view.

But also today, we who are gathered here in this church are celebrating the time between Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we call Pentecost.

We are aware, to varying degrees, of the story that is being written by Africans, for Africans, and with Africans regarding the future of the continent, but at the same time, we who proclaim faith in Jesus Christ put the fullness of our attention upon learning from the story that has been delivered to us by our ancestors and forebears in the faith.

In fact, I see a great lesson to learn today, and I hope you will join me in exploring it and applying it to the larger conversations about Africa’s future that are happening in your homes, in your workplaces, and in your social media feeds.

This past Thursday was not just Africa Day 2017, but it was also Ascension Day, the day in which the resurrected Christ departed in physical form from his disciples in order to more fully bind them as one through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Like a parent who leaves an inheritance and legacy to their children, Jesus passed on the mission and the future of the movement that he lived for, died for, and was raised for; entrusting it to his faithful, yet imperfect followers.

Just before he departs, the disciples ask him “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Of course they want to know this.

They have seen their Lord Crucified and buried, but he has been eating with them and teaching them for the last 40 days, and since the grave could not hold him, they are ready for the powers of this world to fall and for their Divine King to vanquish their earthly foes forever.

They are ready for the future to be now, and for their hopes and dreams to be realized as they wish them to be, without a second more to lose.

But instead of driving out the Roman oppressors like a war hero, Jesus instead prepares his followers for a different future.

He replies, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

As they have not been able to fully grasp Jesus’ commandments and teachings up to this point in the gospels, the disciples still have trouble accepting this nebulous future.

I don’t blame them.

I, too, have wanted God to act on my time schedule, and have desired to know if all for which we hope and pray will be established finally on this earth as we believe it to be in heaven.

And yet, I also know that if one looks back at our history, and sees the many failed human attempts to force the future into being—God’s time is not so easily discernible nor predictable.

I take great hope in knowing that I am not required to know the future.

That does not mean that I don’t care about it, but rather than spending my time paralyzed and worrying about it, I am freed to act in this present moment, the here and now, in the particular way that my Redeemer has entrusted to me and to scores of faithful brothers and sisters who have gone before and passed down the faith to me.

My job, and yours, should you choose to accept it, is to be a witness to the power of God in Jesus Christ, and to make his prayer my prayer, and to make his work my work, and to make his life my life.

And over and over again, Jesus called his disciples and the crowds to focus on loving God and loving one another, through tangible acts of grace and healing, in order to create, reveal and sustain the unity that binds us all together, beyond all the stumbling blocks that can too easily keep us from recognizing our shared humanity.

Saint Paul speaks powerfully of this truth when he speaks of there no longer being Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, and Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel today, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,” is yet another testament to it.

As we will see in the Pentecost event of next week, such unity never comes at the expense of our diversity…the unity we are called to in Christ is not an attempt to degrade or diminish our God given incarnation to specific families, specific cultural traditions, specific languages, and specific contexts and eras.

But we are asked to bear witness to the true foundation of our unity, our common ancestry in the Creator, rather than use our differences to further divide and destroy each other.

Because in such unity and in such shared purpose among those whom the world would prefer to see divided and conquered, lies our hope, our future, and our eternal destiny.

We may not know the time in which all will be accomplished, but we most certainly know what that future will be.

We will all be one, and the reign of God will never end.

That hope and conviction is what allows us to invest in the now, and to do all we can to proclaim and build up the kingdom of God with each moment that we have on this earth.

Our acts of love, in home and work, are the daily bread that sustains us in the journey, and when we grow tired, despairing, and confused, it is our unity…our brothers and sisters who remind us of the truth and serve as our companions along the way.

It may feel as if we who are gathered here today can do little to accomplish the fullness of African unity called for by the African Union, and that sense of localized impact may lead some to feel disempowered from acting, especially in the face of the enormity of the challenge.

And yet, Christ has not asked us to solve all the worlds’ problems by ourselves, but rather to serve as faithful witnesses to the power and truth of our unity, and to live for that eternal reality in the here and now of our daily lives.

Each of us are called to be builders of the kingdom, and to proclaim through our lives and actions the hope we have witnessed in Jesus Christ.

And then, regardless of how the future unfolds, regardless of whether we face abundance or lack, pleasure or suffering, grief or joy…we will do so as one people, as one communion united in purpose and blessed with a stunning variety of gifts.

As faithful stewards and heralds of the eternal future that awaits us all.

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