A Sermon For The Seventh Sunday Of Easter, 20 May, 2012. Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19
Today's readings didn't really inspire me while thinking of them last week. The first reading, about the election of Matthias over Justus (two guys who are never heard of again in scripture) is one I've often heard read at ordinations, which seems a little odd as one would hope that an ordination, while a spirit led process, should not also be a random process. My friend and colleague Gene Packwood has a nice sermon on this text today, but I don't. The second reading from 1 John, on the connection between belief and eternal life, is a fine protestant sentiment but not especially helpful to me where I was this week. And the gospel from John 17, well, my heart sank before this thicket of Johannine language. Ack! I went to one of my standard guides for sticky homiletical wickets, David Lose from Working Preacher, and he started his column by saying that this passage from John 17 is "among the most difficult to preach in the New Testament". Ack! But then Lose said something which unlocked a small door and got me thinking, and more on that anon.
A few thoughts about prayer, first. When I was newly ordained to my first parish, in my second week there, the second reading was from one of the espistles which counselled believers to pray without ceasing. My sermon talked about hw the command to pray is one of the most important things that believers were being asked to do in this passage, and that this command carries on through the ages of the church to our own time. I suggested that we do a prayer audit, that we consider where prayer was in the life of our parish and in our own spiritual lives, and see what we could do to improve our practices around prayer. The sermon met a polite but quiet and non-commital response. Perhaps it was the reticence of a liturgically grounded congregation, their reluctance and uncertainty to comnsider a more charismatic, extemporaneous, or uncomfortable style of prayer in small groups or home groups or individually or whatever. I just know that the idea of the prayer audit didn't go far, and to my shame I never did much to push or to model the idea, until one night when a young and beloved member of our congregation had a horrific accident, and suddenly the church was full for an unsecheduled prayer vigil and we all prayed our hearts out. So we can pray, but we find it difficult unless well motivated.
Perhaps the difficulty we have in praying explains why the disciples asked Jesus to model it for him, and why the Lord's prayer, because it is simple, easy to commit to memory, and covers all the bases of our needs and of our relations with others, is so well known and so well used. It is the one prayer that works unfailingly in any situation I've found myself in, from the parish council meeting to the deathbed and everywhere in between. It is one of our Lord's greatest gifts, and because it comes from Jesus, who spent his life and ministry modelling the importance of prayer for his disciples, because these are the very words that Jesus gave us, it is the prayer we turn to the most.
Today's gospel, from John 17, is part of a much longer prayer that Jesus prays for his disciples while he is with them in the upper room the night of his arrest, the night we commenorate as Maundy Thursday. It is a complex and difficult prayer, one that makes us all the more grateful for the simplicity of the Lord's Prayer, but amid these complex words are familiar and reassuring themes. We hear the theme of the Good Shepherd when Jesus prays to God to continue to protect the disciples and guard them, as he has guarded them (Jn 17:11-12). He talks about the difficulty of living in the world, acknowledges the persistence of evil, and prays that God will continue to keep them in the truth and light that Jesus has shown them: "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is the truth" (Jn 17:17). Jesus is aware that when the disciples go out into the world, a world which will hate them and persecute them as it will persecute and kill the Son, then the disciples will need all the help that they can get, and this reading thus prepares us for the story of Pentecost next week.
Well, all well and good, you can say, if you think of this reading as church history, and why wouldn't you, the way the lectionary ends it at verse 19. All of Jesus' references to "them" suggest that he is just praying to God for the original disciples, for the heroes of our faith who lived so long ago. Who could blame a person for having trouble connecting to this passage?
Remember David Lose? I mentioned that said something valuable to me this week, and that was simply to go on and read the next line of John 17. Here's what Jesus says that didn't make it into the reading. Here's John 17:20
"20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one."
Who are those who "will believe in me"? Well, they are us, you and me, and every soul who as followed Christ through the centuries in between. As David Lose puts it, Jesus asks for us the same things he asks for the disciples:
The same things -- that we may find God's support and encouragement and that we may be one in fellowship with each other and God. And, of course, these two things go together -- as we gather together to hear God's Word and to remind each other of God's promises, we are not only drawn together in deeper fellowship but also find the strength and courage to face the challenges that come from living in the world and bearing witness to the alien and alternative gospel of grace, abundance, courage, and love that is ours in and through Jesus.
The world that we go out into is the same world that Christ went out into that night. It is still harsh, often hostile to the truth, often cruel. God doesn't promise us a free ride, or immunity from bad things, but he promises us his presence in the risen Christ and in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter that Jesus asked to remain with his followers after his departure, and he promises to be with us and catch us at the end. And, along the way, the Son continues to pray for us, through his unceasing love.
You know how much it means what it means when you are going through a hard time, and a friend or loved one says I'll pray for you, not a meaningless sentiment, but something you know that person really will do? Doesn't that simple promise, "I'll pray for you", mean so much to us at these hard moments? What if you could believe that Jesus was saying the same thing to you - "I'll pray for you". Today's gospel reading reminds us that he is praying for us, for "those who will believe in me". To remind you of that promise, in your service bulletin you will find a little yellow post it note. If it is helpful, I invite you to take a moment to write down whatever it is that you want Jesus to pray for on your behalf. You can share it with others if you wish. Once you've written it down, I invite you to carry that note with you on your person this week. If you hit a rough patch, take it out and remind yourself that Jesus' prayers are for you, that you have a shepherd and protector who is mightier than death itself who is there, in your corner.
Our Father, we thank you for the gift of the Lord's prayer, but also we thank you for the other prayer of your Son our Lord, that prayer he made for all of us that night in the upper room, all his disciples, which he continues to pray on our behalf. Amem.