"The Church in a Liminal Age" - Easter 7B
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
May 13, 2018 at 10:45 PM
Central Passage
John 17:6-19
Easter 7B

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: Easter 7B – May 13, 2018

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19


The Church in a Liminal Age


              Like most people my generation and younger, I was born in the desert.


              Let me explain. I have no memory of a church building packed full of people, except on special Sundays. I have no memory of a 200-plus kid Sunday School. I have no memory of an unquestioned American “Christendom”, where churches were entrusted with raising good citizens of the state, and where the school day began with prayer or a Scripture reading. I was born after those so-called “good old days”. What I do have are an abundance of stories of what things used to be like.   


              For years, it seems, the church has been wandering, cast out of its former comfortable residence. Whether that former residence was more like Eden or Egypt depends on who you talk to. But in either case, the church is in a liminal age.


              Liminal space is “in-between” space. It is the space we occupy as we transition from what we were to what we will be. It is the disorienting ambiguity of the desert, when we as a church struggle with our purpose for existence. It is the threshold between eras, as we travel into a new age of the church. Liminal space isn’t just experienced by the church as a whole, either. It is also experienced by us as individuals. When a couple is engaged, they are no longer just significant others, but neither are they spouses. When a couple expects a baby, they aren’t the parents of a fully-born child, but neither are they what they were before. Our lifetimes are full of experiences, both individually and as a group, of this liminal, in-between space.


              And it can be a disorienting, frightening space to occupy. The old rules that governed one’s existence no longer seem to apply. We have to figure out new ways of being as we transition. Which is exactly what happens in today’s reading from Acts.


              The soon-to-be apostles are down a man after Judas’ betrayal and death. They need someone to become the twelfth man among them. Twelve, of course, is an important number. It symbolizes the tribes of Israel, and along with them, the full number of God’s people. It isn’t just because they had “always done it that way”. There were a lot of good reasons to have twelve apostles.


              Except that they don’t have Jesus in-the-flesh with them to hold their hand anymore. Previously in Acts chapter 1, Jesus ascended into heaven, back to God the Father. Jesus chose the original twelve, but he wasn’t there to choose Judas’ replacement. So, the disciples figure the way forward the best they can in this liminal space, in this place between Jesus’ ascension and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Peter lays out a main criterion: this person must have been with the rest of the twelve from the beginning, from John’s baptism to Jesus’ ascension. Essentially, Peter is the head of the nominating committee! The rest of the group agrees with this, and nominate two people. And then they do something that sounds outrageous to us, who settle everything by taking a vote. They “cast lots” to determine who God has chosen. In other words, they flip a coin. Or they draw straws. Or they roll dice. They take the human element out of this part, and leave the choice completely up to a game of chance, which they believe will be influenced by God to fall the right way. The lot falls on Matthias, he is added to the group, and is never heard from again.


              Now, even though we don’t know about Matthias or his ministry, that doesn’t mean he didn’t play an influential part in the early church. He certainly may have. Just because someone isn’t making headlines doesn’t mean they are doing good things. The point is that this liminal space that the church is in now is not the only liminal space it has been in. Liminality and ambiguity are key experiences in the church. The early church had to ask the question, “What now?” after Jesus ascended to heaven. They, too, had to struggle with what it meant to be church in an in-between time, just as we struggle with it now.


              It takes courage to be the church in an uncertain time. Jesus knows that. He knows that his disciples will face great uncertainty ahead, as he leaves them in the world. That is why he prays for them. He prays that his Father would watch over the disciples as they remain in the world. That God would protect them from the evil one. That God would make them holy – set them apart – in his word of truth despite dwelling in a world of lies. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will come as Jesus has promised. But Jesus knows that he must leave. And the disciples will need the protection and guidance of the Father if they are to bring his word to a hostile and oft-indifferent world.


              And God does so. The Father answers his Son’s prayer, not only in that age, but in every age of the church. When we are frightened, God gives us courage. When we are lonely, God gives us the gift of his presence in the Holy Spirit. And when our faith is failing and needs to be strengthened, God gives us the gift of himself in Word and Sacrament. The first letter of John speaks about the inner testimony of God about his Son. That testimony is in each one of us who believe. It is strengthened when we take the time to listen to it, by hearing the Word – in Scripture, preaching, or meditation –  or by receiving Communion. God is faithful, and continues to answer his Son’s prayer – a prayer that continues through all ages, up to this day.


              When we have faith that God has given us all good things, that God has sustained our faith, that God guides us through all liminal, in-between spaces, then the desert does not have to be as frightening anymore. The desert doesn’t have to be frightening because we know through our faith that God is there with us in it. That God has come down to us, and continues to come down to us. And as Luther writes in his explanation to the First Article of the Creed, God does this “out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!”[1]


              In times like this, we as the church are called to have courage and listen to God’s guidance. And then act, as well as we can. We will make mistakes. Sometimes we will feel like we are wandering. But we will not feel lost. Because God is with us, and those whom God is with are never lost, no matter where they are.


              Let us pray.


              Lord God, heavenly Father, guide us through all liminal spaces by your Spirit. Give us courage in times of ambiguity, and strengthen our sense of purpose as your church in this place. We pray in the name of Jesus who prays for us. Amen.


© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.



[1] Luther’s Small Catechism app, Augsburg Fortress, 2016.