Easter people

a sermon, based on John 17.1-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017

Jesus looked up to heaven and said…[1]

On the night before Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, trial and condemnation, crucifixion and death, he gathers with his disciples for a last supper. Following John the evangelist’s narrative of that night, Jesus washes their feet, giving them an example of self-sacrificial, slavish service that he bids they imitate.[2] He tells them again and again who he is in relation to them: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”[3] and “I am the true vine, you are the branches.”[4] In preparing to depart, in preparing them for his departure from them, he gives them his final instructions, chiefly his one and only commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you,”[5] his promise of his abiding presence with them, within them in the Advocate, the Holy Spirit,[6] and his warning of their coming sufferings for his sake.[7]

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said…

Here, Jesus prays to God not in some faraway place, not on a mountaintop, not in a garden not apart and away from his disciples, but right there, at table with them, in their presence, in their hearing. And there, in prayer, Jesus defines for them and for us the heart, the point, the greatest gift of Easter: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.

And what, Who is the God Jesus makes known? Following the revelations unfolded in the Gospel of John…

God is divine logos, Word; the animating power of the universe. The Word that became our flesh and dwelled among us in Jesus, no longer to be far off, but ever near.[8]

Jesus who went to a wedding feast and changed limpid, life-giving water into vibrant, soul-stirring wine, revealing that God wills to be at the center of our times of joy as well as our moments of sorrow.[9]

Jesus who met with Nicodemus[10] and the Samaritan woman,[11] speaking to both of spiritual things, revealing that God reaches out to all people, the high and the low, the greatest and the least.

Jesus who healed those with broken bodies,[12] fed those with hunger-bloated bellies,[13] forgave the woman caught in adultery, saying, “sin no more”,[14] raised Lazarus from the dead,[15] revealing that God wills all be restored to wholeness and righteousness.

Jesus who promised another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to abide with us, within us,[16] revealing God’s presence and power to continue Jesus’ ministry of love and justice.

Jesus who prays, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

There is an ancient legend of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. All the heavenly hosts, angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, greet his arrival, welcoming him home. The angel Gabriel asks, “O Son of God, what have you done to continue your work on earth?” Jesus answers, “I have disciples whom I called to learn from me. Now, as apostles, I have sent them into the world to teach.” Gabriel, alert to a potentially serious, perhaps fatal flaw in the plan, frowns, asking, “O Son of God, what if they, frail and fearful, forget and fail? What then?” Jesus answers, “I have no other plan.”

We are Easter people. We know God and Jesus. We have eternal life. Therefore, we, in this world, in this day, in this time, in our generation, with God at the center of our lives at all times, are to reach out to all people with hands and hearts that heal and feed and forgive and give life to the dead.

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 17.1

[2] John 13.1-15

[3] John 14.6

[4] John 15.5

[5] John 13.34, 15.12, 17

[6] John 14.16-17, 26

[7] John 15.18-21, 16.2

[8] John 1.1-4, 14

[9] John 2.1-11

[10] John 3.1-17

[11] John 4.7-42

[12] John 5.1-9, 9.1-7

[13] John 6.1-13

[14] John 8.1-11

[15] John 11.1-44

[16] John 14.16, 26

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in the mean (“in-between”) time

preaching a sermon, based on John 17.20-26 and Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day, May 8, 2016

Gail Sheehy, in her award-winning book, Passages in Caregiving,[1] shares her learnings from life with her husband, Clay Felker, founder and editor of New York magazine, after he was stricken with cancer. Nearing the closing stage of his life, she writes of their preparations for his death. One poignant moment among many. A physician, a palliative-care specialist, asked Clay whether he was afraid of dying. He nodded. The doctor then asked about his biggest fear. Clay answered, “Being alone.”

In nearly forty years of pastoral ministry, many times I have listened to the terminally ill acknowledge their fear of being alone at that last conscious moment on the inexorable journey toward death. I’ve heard caregivers speak of their fear of being left alone, left behind. I felt this fear when my brother died, then my father. I felt this fear in caring for my mother as Alzheimer’s disease voraciously consumed her personality. When she died, I felt this fear…I still feel it today, this second Mother’s Day since her death, for I live with a daily, ever-growing awareness that I am an orphan.

All who live know or will know the experience of the absence of presence and the presence of absence.

Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter. This past Thursday was Ascension Day when the church celebrated the creedal affirmation that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

The Ascension (L'Ascensione), 1305, Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

Next Sunday is the Day of Pentecost when the church celebrates the coming of God’s Spirit to empower Jesus’ disciples to continue his ministry.

Pentecost, Giotto, 1290-1299

Today, therefore, is “in-between” the absence of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit. An absence about which Jesus, on the night before he died, prayed to God that his disciples would be one in their ministry of sharing and receiving the gospel: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

I wonder what the disciples felt in the absence of Jesus. I wonder what I might have felt had I been there: responding to his call, “Follow me,” dropping everything for him, trailing after him all over Galilee, listening to his teaching, beholding his miracles, being fed from his hand and having him wash my feet at a supper I may or may not have known was the last, deserting him at his arrest and trial, grieving his crucifixion and death and the end of my dream of being with him, rejoicing when he again appeared (through walls and locked doors, no less!), being confused when he again departed, being told to go to Jerusalem to await the fulfillment of a promise of the coming of the Spirit.

If I had been there, especially traumatized by Jesus’ death, thrilled when he reappeared, troubled when he disappeared again, I might have felt a bit yo-yoed around, pulled here, pushed there. I think I wouldn’t have liked feeling yanked, jerked around. (Or, to borrow a word from this morning’s epistle reading,[2] for it speaks for me, although for different reasons than the Apostle Paul, I would have been “annoyed”![3])

Eventually, I believe (or I would like to believe) I would have figured out there was something for me to do. I couldn’t fill the absence of Jesus, but I could continue to follow him, being actively present, laboring through my life to bring to light in this world his gospel of love and justice.

This, I believe, is as fitting and faithful a course as any. For when I think about Revelation’s promise of the coming of Jesus, the last time I checked, it hasn’t happened. Jesus has not returned to claim those whom God has given him that they might be where he is.[4] Jesus has not returned with “reward…to repay according to everyone’s work.” Jesus has not returned to right all wrong, to bring an end to the long night of the world’s weeping over violence and evil, and to usher in a new morn of song.[5] Jesus has not returned. Yet. Until he does, we continue to live in the meantime, the in-between time of his absence.

Absence, according to an ancient poet, may make the heart grow fonder, hungering to be present with the absent one.[6] So the Book of Revelation comes to a resounding close with a profound cry of longing, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” In this meantime, this in-between time, it is our daily work to fulfill that petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So, what will I, you, we do today to bring into the present, to make present the love and justice of Jesus where they are absent?

 

Illustrations:

The Ascension (L’Ascensione), 1305, Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. The painting depicts the scene described in Acts 1.9-11. In the top half of the painting, Jesus ascending is the central figure; on either side, bands of heavenly hosts welcoming his return to heaven. In the lower half, there are eleven disciples; five on the left behind Mary, the mother of Jesus (who is mentioned in Acts 1.14) dressed in blue, the color of purity and tranquility, and six on the right. There are eleven, for Matthias, the successor to Judas Iscariot, was not yet chosen (until Acts 1.15-26). In the center, the two angels are shown speaking to the disciples and Mary, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1.11).

Pentecost, Giotto, 1290-1299. The painting depicts the scene described in Acts 2.1-4; though here, the Holy Spirit is shown not as fire, but rather a dove, which is consonant with the gospel accounts portrayal of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism (Matthew 3.16, Mark 1.10, Luke 3.22, and John 1.32).

Footnotes:

[1] Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence (Harper, 2010); Books for a Better Life “Lifetime Achievement Award” (2012)

[2] Acts 16.16-34

[3] Acts 16.18

[4] An allusion to John 17.24

[5] A reflection on the text of the hymn, The Church’s one foundation: “…and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song” (verse 4).

[6] The Roman poet, Sextus Propertius, in Elegies, wrote: “Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows.”