No Longer in the World (5/28/17)
(mural of Christ ascending to Heaven, from a graffiti wall in Bristol, England)
On Sunday, May 28, we considered the distinction between being and doing. We considered this in light of Jesus' prayer in John 17:1-11, in which Jesus asks God to remain in relationship with the disciples, to abide with the disciples.
Good morning. I’m glad to see so many of you hear on this Memorial Day weekend. By a show of hands, how many of you have been out to decorate the graves of your loved ones? I feel a little guilty because I haven’t yet been to the cemetery to plant flowers. My grandmother and my great aunt Eva always insisted that the graves had to be decorated before Memorial Day. I remember taking them to Belle Vernon Cemetery many times to plant flowers—and other times just to visit the graves. It was their way of showing love and respect for their husbands and other relatives. Even after Grandma died, my dad and I would usually go together to plant flowers on the graves.
Grandma’s love of family was only surpassed by her love of God; and really, those were kind of the same thing for her. God had blessed her with a wonderful family and she returned that love to her family in every way she could. She could see and count her blessings every day, and that made her a very happy person, for the most part.
Grandma lived to be 97 years old. She lived in a little apartment off of my dad’s house—the house that she and my grandfather built in the 1930s. Sometime after she turned 90, my parents put a baby monitor in Grandma’s bedroom, so that she could call out to us if she fell or was in pain. The unexpected result of this was that we could hear her prayers every night. She had a lot of questions for God. Grandma truly didn’t understand why she lived so long, or why God had let her outlive so many people that she had loved so much. This morning’s Gospel lesson reminded me of this chapter of my grandmother’s life.
We think of prayer as a private act, other than the prayers we offer in worship. My grandmother’s evening prayers were certainly meant to be private. Jesus’ prayer for the disciples is very much a public act. He wants and needs the disciples to know that He will be with them, and that God will be with them, even when Jesus is no longer in the world.
This prayer takes place right after the Last Supper and it forms the end of the Farewell Discourse, that is, Jesus’ final conversation with the disciples. In the Gospel of John, this is a long conversation—it begins in Chapter 13 and it concludes with this prayer in Chapter 17. In this conversation, Jesus restates the reasons for the Incarnation, for God entering the world in the person of Jesus. And then Jesus commissions the disciples to continue His work in the world. This prayer summarizes that conversation.
This prayer tells the disciples—and us—that Jesus came to make God known in the world. Jesus reminds us that He was with God before the world was created and he will return to God after His earthly mission has been completed. Jesus then asks that God protect the disciples in the world as they continue Jesus’ work of reconciliation. So, on that level, it’s not a difficult story to understand. What may be more difficult is trying to figure out where this passage stakes a claim on our lives.
When we think of the Scriptures that have shaped our lives, that explain what it is to live as a Christian, I’m going to guess that very few of you would name this morning’s text from the Gospel of John. I’m sure many of you think of the Ten Commandments, or maybe the Beatitudes. I always think of the story in the Gospel of Mark, when a scribe asks Jesus which commandment is greatest. Do you remember Jesus’ answer? You can find it in Mark 12:28-31:
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
I also think of Jesus’ instructions in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit the prisoners—basically, to care for the lost, the last, and the least among us. Perhaps some of you think of the story of the Good Samaritan, that ends with Jesus’ call to, “go and do likewise.”
We tend to focus on the Scriptures that call on us to do very specific things. We like action. We take comfort in the idea that there’s a set of instructions for us to follow. Scriptures that tell us what to do seem to offer us a measuring stick for our own behaviors. We can judge our own actions against Scripture. Or that’s the temptation, anyhow. Of course, we say that God alone may judge us. And we say that we are saved only by God’s grace, not by our own actions. But we all live with a degree of uncertainty, and that can be uncomfortable. Scriptures that offer certainty give us comfort.
But this understanding of Scripture as a set of divine instructions is incomplete; it doesn’t help us to work through the Gospel of John or this prayer that Jesus offers on behalf of the disciples. This Gospel is all about the incarnation; it’s about God entering the world the created world in the person of Jesus. The Gospel of John is about the Word made flesh. The Gospel of John is about being, more than it’s about doing.
It’s no accident that we find this prayer in the Gospel of John. Prayer is more than just a conversation with God. Prayer is how we live and practice our theology. Prayer is also about relationship. Prayer is about being as much as it is about doing. And in this prayer in the Gospel of John, Jesus is asking God the Father to remain in a relationship with the disciples after Jesus has left the created world.
Remember, beloved, that the disciples are always stand-ins for us; the disciples are the point where we enter the story. So that means that Jesus is also praying for us. Jesus is praying for all the generations of believers who will come after the end of the incarnation. Jesus is praying that God will remain in a relationship with us, abide with us, so that we may continue to share God’s name in the world. Yes, Jesus has things for us to do in the world, but first we must be in relationship with God. That is the grace that is offered to us in this prayer.
So how does this piece of Scripture call upon us to act? How are we changed and what are we supposed to do in light of what we’ve learned? Those are the questions that I usually try to answer in this last portion of a sermon. But this time, I think our response to this text has to focus on being, more than on doing. And that’s complicated.
If we think of prayer as simply a bunch of requests for God—a bunch of things that we want God to do for us—then we are missing the relational aspect of our prayers. First and foremost, prayer is an admission and an acknowledgement that we believe in God and that we rely upon God for all things. If we didn’t believe we wouldn’t pray. And of course, we give thanks for our many blessings.
Prayer also gives us the opportunity to love one another. This happens when we name our joys and concerns for members of this congregation, such as JoAnn Breckenridge, Tom Smith, or Marianne Turcheck, just to name a few. We believe that God hears all our prayers, but we don’t get to know God’s plan. We don’t know why one cancer patient gets to come home from the hospital and resume her life, while another patient is given only a month to live. Yet we pray for each one.
I believe that we are changed by the prayers that we speak. I don’t presume that any single person has been healed and discharged from the hospital because of a prayer that I offered. But I do believe that I am changed by offering that prayer. The prayer brings me into a better relationship with the person for whom I pray. It helps me to see where I might offer the light of God’s love, through human relationship. By praying, I remain in a right relationship with God and with humanity, and through that right relationship, I am called to action.
If we reduce prayer to an action, followed by God fulfilling or ignoring our pleas, then we miss the opportunity to more fully live into our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. May we all live more fully into those relationships through our lives of prayer. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world, the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!