Seventh Sunday of Easter May 24th 2020
(Sermon begins at the 17:30 minute.)
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” John 17.11b
First day of NT class in seminary, our professor asked us to raise our hands, and answer this question: which gospel is your favorite? He went in order of the bible, Matthew: a couple of hands went up; Mark: a few more; Luke: most of the rest of the hands, including mine; then, John: one hand, well probably there was at least one or two more, but I remember seeing this one young man in front of the class, raising his hand proudly—and I said quietly to myself, oh yeah, right—you like this gospel the best, with its long discourses, convoluted syntax, (John is wordy, and in need of a few commas). John has no parables; it has six chapters in a row on “I am the bread of life”….
If I’m honest I can still have this reaction to John’s gospel, when I read it chapter by chapter, but I will readily admit, that best of John is the best….
No gospel can compete with John’s introduction: “In beginning was the word…” Nor in my opinion, do the other gospels finish as beautifully as John. In the end is Christ’s message for the church, as the risen Christ tells Peter, the rock, the head of the church, three times, “feed my sheep.” I have to admit that I often use John like an album with its greatest hits, like the ‘70’s album, The best of Bread—just the good songs, though I’m of the opinion they should have left out, “Baby I’m-a want you.”
John is only gospel with the story of Maundy Thursday, the foot washing.This is where John’s gospel story today lands, just after Jesus’ rather long teaching after the foot washing. He is telling his disciples about what is to come. Jesus and the disciples are still in the upper room and Jesus says, Father, the hour has come to glorify your son… that all may know you.
With John’s gospel we hear long intricate verses. We may even wonder at times, ‘what are you saying, Jesus?’
I do best when I just step back a moment from the words; then I can see Jesus’ loving action.
In this story, we see that Jesus’ last act with his disciples is to pray for them.
Before he takes his disciples into the garden, where he will be betrayed and taken up by the authorities, the last thing Jesus does in that room where they shared their last meal together, is so affectionate: he prays for his followers. “Holy Father, protect them so that they may be one, as we are one.” John 17.11b
Jesus’ prayer moves me, it stirs my heart to overhear such a prayer, to see this intimate scene.
Jesus is committing his entire ministry, his life’s work, his dear friends, into the hands of God before he leaves them. In Jesus’ prayer we hear his heartfelt desire: that this community will be strong going forward, stay together as one, and continue the work they’d begun together.
It’s Luke’s gospel that tells us of Jesus’ rich and continual prayer life, but John’s gospel gives us the words of Jesus’ prayers. Jesus prayed before decisions, at meals, for healing. Jesus prays with thanksgiving bursting out of his mouth and reconciliation deep in his heart: “I speak these things in the world, he says, so that [my followers] may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
Still, that this prayer is efficacious, that it is effective, we may wonder… Peter was crucified, Stephen was stoned, Christians suffered persecution, and the fledging church argued and split over differences from the very beginning—so we ask, just what was it that Jesus was praying for when he said—Father, “protect them, so that they may be one” ….”make my joy complete in them”? or we ask, Did God even hear him?
If God answered this prayer, it seems it was not in the way we would have imagined.
It is when we look at the lives of the followers – how they were transformed through their faith, that we see the living giving effect of this prayer. As they began this ministry with Jesus, the disciples were at times suspicious, wary of Jesus going too far in his forgiveness or teaching —at other times we see they were filled with self-importance, driving children and other unimportant people away from Jesus; they were proud, rivaling one another– vying for the seat of honor at Christ’s right hand, and they were fearful—going into hiding after Jesus’ crucifixion. It was Jesus who changed all this. Through their experience with Jesus, the disciples grew into apostles able to preach, teach, and even be brave into their own martyrdom because of the love they had received in Christ. The men and women who followed Jesus were made one with God’s purpose and given strength by the Holy Spirit—just as Jesus prayed they would.
Peter, maybe gives us the best example. He was impulsive—wash all of me then Jesus, he says at the last supper, Peter bumbled many of his responses, yet in the risen Christ, Peter becomes a leader, a teacher, a man who continues to learn and grow in his new found faith. He moves the church forward even through problems—and there are troubles. We hear of them in the first letter of Peter that Tim read today: the letter addresses the followers of Jesus, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you—like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around you.”
As the head of the church, Peter, Jesus’ sweet, honest-to-a-fault, loving disciple, teaches these new Christians how to remain faithful in the midst of suffering:
Be humble in this life, he says.
Give your anxieties to God,
Be alert, resist evil… and he reminds them “you are called to eternal glory with Christ.”
Prayer works on us in surprising ways. I had a friend who for years resisted going to AA. He said he didn’t need their help, had tried it briefly, didn’t like it—he could work out his drinking problem on his own. His life was up and down for years. After a particularly bad time of it, he finally relented and committed to a group. He was thirty four by this time. I didn’t have much hope but only a month in, he remarked that he wasn’t sure what had happened but the prayers and the unity of the group made him feel different. He could see a way forward now without alcohol, when he didn’t believe there was any good life to be had without it.
Prayer has a way of penetrating even those parts of us we don’t think needs any growth.
Churches, each of us, no matter what denomination, are the best at this. It is as if they have long thought if not said this prayer out loud, “We’re fine just now, God, work on those people…over there.”
Jesus prayer is for unity—he prays that his followers may stay together working to strengthen one another, and remain thinking as one. It may seem as if this train has left the building…the church hardly thinks as one…but no matter how or where we worship, the church is together if we work to realize the prayer of Jesus—that is, if we stand together in our belief that all people matter equally to God and if we act to accomplish this in our world.
Maybe, in this time of COVID-19, living into Jesus prayer of unity means humbling ourselves to wear a face mask to show we do believe all people are part of the one Jesus’ prays for—black or brown or white, poor or wealthy, old and young, sick or healthy. Maybe, just maybe, a faithful response to this prayer for us is to not ask, when we will get back to normal? To the old ways of doing things…
But to ask ourselves, how is the Holy Spirit working in us, through this time of suffering, to change us, to transform the way we’ve always done things—to actually realize Jesus prayer?” The late Rachel Held Evans wrote, “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. [The church could] help us to hold one another to the truth.”
The truth is, Unity doesn’t come without sacrifice. The Good News is that Jesus took the first step for us—and it changed everything.
Thanks be to God.