My text this morning is taken from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to John beginning at the 17th verse.
“Make them holy by the truth; for your word is the truth. I have sent them into the world, just as you sent me into the world. And I have consecrated myself for their sakes that they may be made holy by the truth.” John 17: 17–19 JB Phillips translation
This portion of scripture is taken from John’s account of Jesus’ final hours with his disciples. It is our Lord’s prayer to God, meant to prepare his followers for the time ahead. The time, in the not too distant future, when they will be on their own. He was speaking with them as they sat together in the Upper Room and partook of the community meal on the night in which he was betrayed.
Today we have come to the seventh Sunday of Easter. But it is also the Sunday after this past Thursday’s Celebration of the Ascension of our Lord.
In other parts of the world Ascension is looked upon as a major feast day and is commemorated as such. In the American church it’s just another Thursday, which is strange since the Ascension of our Lord is an important transition between Easter and Pentecost.
It is the point in the disciples walk with Jesus that they were sent into the world, on their own, without their Lord and Savior to guide them. To be sure, Jesus was ever present, but as they watched him ascend they were probably left with the thought, “What do we do now? He is gone and we are on our own!!”
In all honesty it had to be an empty feeling. A feeling of aloneness, not loneliness, but aloneness, that is, separation for the secure and the comfortable in the very presence of Jesus in their midst.
His words in the Upper Room, “Holy Father, I have sent them into the world, just as you sent me into the world,” held an entirely new meaning as the reality of the task set before them took hold. It was time for them to grow up and accept the full responsibility of what Discipleship meant.
But that was a couple of centuries ago. What does any of that have to do with those of us sitting in this place this morning? For each of us who calls on the name of the Lord and accepts the mantle of discipleship it is also time for us to grow up and live the gospel that we hear weekly.
Fr. Marcus Halley puts it this way; “The Ascension challenges us because in leaving us, Jesus is showing us that God truly believes in us and our ability to change the world, to participate in the in-breaking of the Reign of God.” (From Looking to Living: How Ascension calls us Higher, sermon, Fr. Marcus Halley, May 31, 2014–St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, MO)
But what do we really think about the Ascension of our Lord? If we were to be totally honest with ourselves and with each other, we would have to admit that most of our energy is put into focusing on the forty days of Lent and all that those solemn days represent. We would also have to admit that we don’t usually tax ourselves when it comes to remembering the details of the happenings after the resurrection.
The forty days after Easter that led up to the Ascension, are for us, business as usual.
But for the followers of Jesus, those who put their trust and hope in this man from Galilee, the days following his death and then word of his resurrection, were days of fear, confusion, and hopelessness.
In the days following his death, our Lord’s words of Faith, Hope, and Assurance passed on in the context of their last meal together, were meant to a constant reminder of the promise of God as his friends faced the words of fear, confusion and hopelessness that were to be the legacy of a people who’s faith had grown cold and whose commitment to a new way now seemed a distant memory.
Today’s gospel ends at verse 19 of the 17th chapter but if we read on we hear more of Jesus’s Prayer for his friends and followers.
JB Phillips translates these words of verses 20 and 21 this way:
“I am not praying only for these men (the disciples) but for all those who will believe in me through their message, that they may all be one.” (John 17:20–21a)
This gift of inclusion in the prayer of Jesus was meant to stay with the disciples as well as those who believed what they had heard about Jesus through the rough days of doubt and questioning that were to be the all too expected result of the betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion of their leader. For the throngs who followed Jesus to the foot of Calvary, the resurrection was not the all-encompassing means of salvation that it is for us who look upon it two centuries later.
In the simple words of Jesus, “That they all may be one,” we hear of the promise that the turbulence and turmoil of their present time will be reconciled with the sanity of God’s presence among them.
God’s spirit will overcome the powers of darkness. God’s spirit will guide and direct all those who keep faith to the fulfillment of Christ’s Easter promise.
It is always easy for us to return to the familiar when life gets hard. The tangible always seems much more comforting than the intangible, particularly when we have lost control.
The trust and faith in God that it is so easy for us all to voice when times are good is often pushed aside and forgotten when things do not go the way we would want. This is true even those of us who think that we have a solid faith, secure and intact.
Last week I sat at a meeting with a number of concerned clergy and laypeople. We were discussing the events of the last weeks and months and the effects of a systemic racism and general public insensitivity to others on the life not only of this city and region country, but more specifically, on the country as a whole. We also talked about the effect on our respective congregations. We were seeking ways to positively respond to this growing concern.
At one point in the meeting the testimony turned to stories of personal encounters involving issues of racism and insensitivity. As these testimonials came to a close, one of those present, in a moment of personal honesty said that he was tired of all this talk of insensitivity and racism. He had heard it all before, but was at a loss as to what to do about it.
He was waiting for guidance, waiting for direction, waiting for a vision of ministry, waiting for a concrete example so that he could get on with his ministry and his life. He did not feel capable of dealing with these sorry issues of humanity without proper leadership or guidance. Unfortunately he left the meeting before his concerns could be properly addressed.
On some level the frustration of my colleagues must have been akin to the frustration that the disciples must have been feeling as they saw their Lord and Savior leave their presence. They were on their on own, waiting, wondering. What were they to do now!! They seem to have reconciled themselves to the fact that Jesus was gone. But where was the leadership? They had not received the Holy Spirit to comfort and guide them. Pentecost had not yet occurred. It must have felt like they were making it up as they went along.
Bishop Tom Wright has said, “The real message of the Ascension is that the church in the power of the Spirit, will be called to bear witness to Jesus Christ precisely at the pressure points, the places where society and governments [and people] are drifting away from the good order which God wills for his world and for all God’s humanity.” (On Earth as in Heaven, sermon, The Rt. Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright, York Minister, 20 May 2007)
We must always remember that “in leaving us, Jesus is showing us that God truly believes in us and our ability to change the world, to participate in the in-breaking of the Reign of God.” (Fr. Marcus Halley)
So in reality the disciples did not have to do anything. The only thing they had to do was accept the prayer of Jesus as the gift support and self confidence in the constant presence God that had been given them. But the acceptance of the gifts of God was the hardest thing for them to do. It is the hardest thing for us to do. It meant that they had to rely not only on the unseen reality of God, but also on themselves.
It means that we have to rely on the unseen reality of God, but also on ourselves.
The disciples were called on to recognize Christ among them when every fiber of their human sensibility said that their vision just was not reality.
To recognize the risen Christ in their midst as they saw him ascend was to open themselves up to the power of the Holy Spirit. It was to start over and admit to themselves and to the world that the risen Christ was alive and active in their lives and that his message of salvation was still meant to be proclaimed to a needy world.
The recognition that Christ is always with us if we would but open our hearts, minds and eyes to the reality of His presence among us, is something that every Christian must come to terms with. It is this central reality of our Easter faith, which allows us to accept the gift of courage, and commitment that was given to the disciples that solemn night in the upper room. Given to them that solemn night, yet sealed on the cross of Calvary, and presented anew to us with Christ’s glorious resurrection.
The closing words of Albert Schweitzer’s, The Quest for the Historical Jesus sum it up for all of us.
‘He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words: Follow me! And sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time.
He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the suffering which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who Christ is.” (Schweitzer, Quest for the Historical Jesus, pg. 401)
God has given each of us, in our own experience of the Holy, the guidance and the leadership in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to be the instruments of God’s peace to this broken world.
Jesus still comes to us and says to each of us:
“I have sent you into the world, just as God sent me into the world. And I have consecrated myself for your sakes that you may be made holy by the truth.”
In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.