Sermon: We have not been left alone

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 21st of May 2023

John 17:1-11
Acts 1:6-14

It is late in the evening. The meal is long over. Earlier, as the meal ended, Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet. He then began to prepare them for life without him. He gave them the new commandment, that they love one another. He prepared them for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth. He shared with them the oneness of the Father and the Son. And he spoke of his betrayal and death.

Now, he turns from the disciples to his Father. The disciples become involuntary eavesdroppers on a prayer of communion, on an intimate meeting between the Father and the Son. But because they are listening, this prayer of communion is also a prayer of revelation. In this prayer, the theological heart of the Gospel of John is revealed.

Today, we are also eavesdroppers. We are in the same position as Jesus’ first disciples, overhearing a private conversation, and learning from our eavesdropping who God is and who we are.

Like those first disciples, like Jesus himself, as we listen to this prayer we are looking both backwards and forwards. In the liturgical year, this is the last Sunday of Easter. For fifty days we celebrate the resurrection, Jesus’ first return, on Easter Sunday, to his disciples after three days of being ‘no longer in the world’. Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost, the birth of the church, its surge into mission as the Spirit gives the disciples the courage and the gifts they need to glorify Jesus. As he prays, Jesus also looks backwards, to everything he has done from the time of his Incarnation, and forwards, to the completion of the hour that will come on the cross. The Johannine community, for whom this prayer was first written, are also looking forwards and backwards: forwards, to the life they now lead as the church, in the world, without Jesus’ living presence among them, and backwards, to the night before his betrayal and death, when he intercedes with the Father for them. Jesus is praying that the Father will care for the disciples in his absence. In the most immediate terms, Jesus is going to leave the disciples through death and return in the resurrection. At a broader level, Jesus will go away in the Ascension, which the church celebrates on the fortieth day after Easter, and his return will be both through the Spirit at Pentecost and, ultimately, at the Parousia, ‘in the same way as [the disciples] saw him go into heaven’.

It is no wonder that the Farewell Discourse is complicated, containing as it does all these different layers and times and double meanings. What can we learn from today’s portion of it?

The prayer that we overhear today reveals the unity of the Father and the Son. This prayer is a moment of unique intimacy, in which Jesus is praying as the divine Son. Jesus’ knowledge of the Father gives him an immediate experience of God; Jesus is face to face with the God to whom he prays. The will of the Father and the will of the Son are one, so Jesus’ prayer is more of relationship than request. Jesus can make petitions in complete confidence that they will be granted because what the Son asks, the Father wants to give. Father and Son are One. This is an unusual position for a petitioner to be in. Most of us, those of us who are neither saints nor mystics, see God in a mirror, dimly. We do not yet see God face to face. When we pray there is always an unspoken caveat: ‘Not my will, but yours, be done’. We do not know the mind of God. But Jesus does. Who is Jesus in the Gospel of John? He is the only Son of the Father; he is in the Father and the Father is in him; on earth he did the work that the Father gave him to do. The core of that strange Christian concept, the Trinity, is here, in the union revealed in this overheard prayer.

Jesus is also the one who has glorified the Father and will be glorified by him. Jesus has glorified God on earth by revealing Him to the disciples. His completion of the task is shown by the small group that surrounds him as he prays, the disciples to whom he has made God’s name known. In the reading from Acts we see that same group again, with Jesus’ family and the women, the nucleus of the church that will glorify Jesus by sharing their knowledge of God to the ends of the earth. And yet there is further glorification ahead. The Father will glorify the Son and the Son will glorify the Father in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is the mystery, the incongruity: Jesus’ crucifixion is also the revelation of the glory of God.

The theme of the Farewell Discourse, like Jesus’ life and ministry, is love. Love is the new commandment; it is to love one another that he calls his disciples. In the crucifixion Jesus makes that love, God’s love, manifest. Jesus has glorified his Father by making his Father’s name known on earth. We now know God intimately; we know God by name. We know the Father because Jesus has shown us in himself what the Father is like. Father and Son are One. What is true of one is true of the other and what we see in both is love. The unity of Father and Son is a unity of love, revealed by the Son’s willingness to die a criminal’s death out of love for us; a humiliating death that is also an act of glory.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard Phillip interrupt an earlier portion of the Farewell Discourse by asking, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ I said then that he was asking on behalf of us all; that we want to see God in revelation, a spiritual encounter, a light on the mountain, a voice from the burning bush. But God has chosen to reveal Godself in Jesus: the way, the truth and life. I want to repeat what I said then because I think it bears repeating: because we see God in Jesus, we know God is loving; we know God welcomes outsiders; we know God is willing to die for us; we know that God is absolutely and utterly opposed to violence; we know that God seeks to win us through vulnerability, rather than strength. In today’s reading from the Book of Acts we can see that some of the disciples still have not understood this, even after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Still they ask, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ No! In Jesus God did not come to create a single ‘godly’ nation, founded on the rejection of other nations and those considered ungodly. The witness for which the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples, that they and we are to bear to the ends of the earth, the way in which Jesus’ disciples are to glorify him after his departure, is a witness not of successful conquest but of self-sacrificial love.

Jesus asks his Father to protect his disciples in the Father’s name. Jesus is leaving the world, and he is leaving his disciples in the world. They will need God’s protection. The word ‘world’ here is not a good thing. ‘World’ does not mean the earth, this beautiful and fragile planet. And ‘world’ does not mean creation, which God called good. The ‘world’ is the realm that does not acknowledge God. It is the ‘empire’, the greater realm within which the church is an agent of resistance. When the disciples ask if now is the time for Jesus to overthrow the Roman Empire and restore the kingdom to Israel, they are not wrong about the conflict between empire and kingdom, even if they are wrong about the way to live within that difference. Living in the ‘world’ means alienation from God, while those who live in God’s kingdom have eternal life.

Very quickly, I want to repeat what I said a couple of weeks ago when we heard Jesus describe himself as the way, and the truth, and the life. In the Farewell Discourse Jesus is not speaking to non-Christians. He is speaking reassuringly to his closest followers. When he said that ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’ he was reassuring the disciples that everything they had learned and experienced while following him had already led them to their Father in heaven. Now he is reassuring them that God is still with them even when the world is hostile, when it rejects and persecutes them. When Jesus prays, ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world,’ he is not dividing humanity into insiders and outsiders; those he has been given and those who remain ‘in the world’. He is offering comfort to the disciples immediately around him who will see him no longer, but who are not being left alone. Throughout the Farewell Discourse Jesus has talked about the Holy Spirit, who will come when he leaves, and next week we will celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. In this prayer, the disciples hear themselves commended to the Father by the Son. The incarnate Jesus may be leaving the world, but they are being reassured that the Triune God will never leave them alone.

The prayer of Jesus is as much for us as it was for the disciples who first overheard it. Later in his prayer, he says that ‘I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they might be one’. That is us. Two thousand years later we are as much the subjects of Jesus’ prayer as the people who reclined with him at supper. We, like them, have been commended to God by Jesus. Jesus has asked that we, like them, be protected by God. We, like them, belong to the Father and the Son. We, like them, have a role to play in the glorification of Jesus, by following his commandment of love. We, like them, have been given the gift of the Spirit so that we may not lose our way. Jesus is about to leave his disciples, but by overhearing this prayer they know that they will never be alone. The same is true for us. We, like them, belong to the God who loves us, and so we, like them, are never left alone.

Here we stand, between Easter and Pentecost, between Jesus’ Ascension and his return. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we must wait for God’s kingdom to come, not knowing the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority, but living as citizens of that kingdom anyway. Human beings are not good at waiting, and we certainly want to have authority over our own lives rather than accept that our lives are in God’s hands. We may, like the disciples at the time of Jesus’ Ascension, want God to restore the kingdom and Jesus to return right now. Certainly, Christians throughout history have sometimes tried to make God’s kingdom come by force and it has never ended well. The disciples show us how to wait, how to live in the time in-between; in community, with one another, constantly devoting ourselves to prayer. Called to glorify Jesus through our own lives we are to love one another as Jesus loved us, so that everyone will know that we are his disciples. We are to be one, as the Father and Son are one. Our calling, to live out God’s unity and love, is not an easy one, but we have all received power from the Holy Spirit to enable us to fulfil it. Next week, when we celebrate Pentecost, we will be reminded that the gifts of the Spirit are already ours, and so Jesus can be glorified in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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