Sermon Seeds: Guided in Prayer
Seventh Sunday of Easter Year B
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
Guided in Prayer
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
I wonder how the disciples were feeling that night, sitting around after supper with the customary wine and conversation. It often seems that we relax more after dinner, perhaps with a cup of coffee, and just talk, opening up more then than during the meal itself. Jesus has now been talking for several chapters in John’s Gospel, in a speech called the farewell discourse (another ancient custom, at the end of a great person’s life), ending in the high priestly prayer. Last week, we heard Jesus urging his disciples to abide in his love, to make their home in his love, and to love one another as he loved them. The lectionary, however, skips over the next part where Jesus mentions that the world would hate them, and even kill them, as it had first hated and killed him.
No wonder, then, that Jesus feels a need to bring the conversation to a close with deep, heartfelt prayer; this week’s reading comes from that prayer. John wrote his Gospel for a community that, sixty or so years later, was experiencing that hatred and rejection, so this prayer is for them, too, just as it is for the church down through the ages, and for us as well. Fred Craddock compares readers of this text to “a congregation overhearing a pastoral prayer. We are not directly addressed, but we are very much in the mind of the One who is praying” (Preaching through the Christian Year B). I wonder how they felt that night, as they listened to Jesus praying for them.
Struggling with our questions
By the time Jesus turned from them to speak directly to God, it must have been sinking into their hearts and minds that something big was about to happen, and it wasn’t going to be good. They had tried to get a handle on the situation, to understand what he was talking about, to find a way to negotiate the road ahead. Like people of faith in every age, they had questions, and Dennis E. Smith suggests that Jesus’ answers might be summed up this way: “Pay attention to the story; there you will find ‘the way’ and there you will find ‘the Father'” (The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, Volume Ten: John). The story of Jesus and his life is the “bottom line,” the path to understanding and knowledge about God.
The disciples’ world was about to be turned upside down: they were on the brink of losing Jesus to death. John’s community must have felt small and vulnerable after losing their synagogue home, and now facing strong opposition from “the world” around them. Don’t worry, Jesus tells them, before turning to God in prayer, asking that they will be protected, entrusting them, and all who would follow, into God’s care. Jesus asks that they will be one, that they will be made holy. More than that: that they will experience joy.
What does it mean to abide?
In some mysterious way, perhaps all of that is what it means to abide: to trust, to love, to be one, to be holy, to know joy. And this is also what it sounds like when Jesus prays for us. Gail R. O’Day wonders what might happen if we remembered that “We are a community for whom Jesus prays” (“John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible). We often hear about the faith of Jesus, and in this passage that faith is trust. O’Day draws on Karl Barth to describe the way Jesus prays, boldly reminding God of God’s promises (like so many people of faith before and after him): “You have given, you have sent, you have loved; now keep, sanctify, let them be one….” This is a prayer, O’Day says, that is very much in accord with God’s own will. Each time Jesus speaks of being “one,” he’s talking about the way he and the Father are one, and how we are drawn into closeness to God because we know Jesus.
This quiet, trusting prayer (unlike the other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ anguished prayer in the garden) addresses God as “father.” Dianne Bergant explains that we shouldn’t be surprised by this, in a “patriarchal” and “male-centered” society. It wouldn’t have surprised the disciples, because God had been described as “father” in their tradition; after all, “God created and protected them,” Bergant writes (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). But Jesus went farther than this, to a level of deep intimacy. And we’re drawn into that closeness to God because of our relationship with Jesus, and assured that our trust is well-placed, even thousands of years later, Fred Craddock writes, because “the church is not an orphan in the world, the creation of a religious imagination, the frightened child of huddled rumors and popular superstitions. For those who need to examine the credentials of the church’s life and message, here is truth’s pedigree: from God, to Christ, to the apostles, to the church” (Preaching through the Christian Year B).
Learning to live in “the in-between time”
Jesus had already turned the disciples’ lives upside down, and they were never going to be the same. But during that quiet after-dinner conversation, they must have felt that everything was about to change once again, and we all know what change brings: anxiety. Bergant observes that the disciples were in a “liminal time in between, a time of change and transition.” The disciples, however, were not unique in this regard. We all face change and uncertainty, and sooner or later, we too live in a liminal time, a time for decision and a time for trust. Bergant describes the disciples’ very human desire to “cling to what they have known while realizing that things are no longer what they were before,” and their need to “rethink their priorities, reorder their lives, and reconstitute their community” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). Does that sound familiar? When we’re going through change, loss and uncertainty, we can take heart that other faithful people have been here before us. We can take heart when we remember that we have one another to love, the assurance of the Word, and the comfort of knowing that “We are a community for whom Jesus prays.”
This reassurance gives us the courage to speak the truth, even in the face of danger and hatred. Carmelo Álvarez challenges us to take the risk that comes with reordering our lives and the life of the world: “A search for the truth,” he writes, “can lead to controversial topics such as naming corruption, unveiling impunity, and unmasking idolatry in personal, communal, and systemic entities.” For example, after emerging from a time of rampant human rights violations, Argentina collected “stories and testimonies of torture, disappearance of persons, and abuses of power by the militaries.” For them, national reconciliation and healing would begin by “telling the truth.” In spite of danger, hatred and risk, then, Álvarez reads in this text an either/or that tells the faithful in every age that “indifference, apathy, and complacency are not options” if we seek to live in the truth (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
Forgiveness and justice
Several years ago, after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, I heard an interview with Bishop T.D. Jakes on NPR, about a book he had written on forgiveness. The interviewer asked him how he reconciles a message of forgiveness with the call for justice in regard to Trayvon’s death. Bishop Jakes responded that forgiveness does not do away with the importance of knowing the truth, and the need for justice. Alas, right here in the city of Cleveland, we are waiting a very long time with growing tension for two controversial decisions, once again in response to the shooting deaths of people of color, both of these times by police officers. The mayor calls for calm, “makes preparations” (which sounds ominous to me) in the wake of “events in Baltimore,” and seeks the cooperation of people of faith, especially faith leaders in the city of Cleveland, in keeping the peace when the decisions are announced. This is one of those times when forgiveness does not negate the need for justice, for telling the truth, and for answers to difficult and even risky questions. People of faith, then, need to find strength together to work for justice, to speak the truth, in order to be a community of forgiveness and healing.
An either/or choice confronts us as followers of Jesus and it often sets us in opposition to the world. In his prayer, Jesus speaks of the world in a way that might surprise us, if we remember John’s earlier words, perhaps the most well-known verse in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world…” (see John 3:16). God created and continues to create this world, and God loves it all the while, but the culture we find ourselves in can lead us astray. If we’re going to reorder our lives and rethink our priorities, we’re going to have to make some choices. This week’s passage tells us that there will be times when we have to choose, and when it comes to life or death, love or hate, God is on the side of love and life.
Does love indeed win?
The world, we’re told, will not agree. In the world, power and security, victory at all costs, wealth and possessions, prestige and honor, numbing our emotions and suppressing our hope – all of these things appear to win out over love, humility, justice, peace. That’s the way this passage tells it, and that was Jesus’ concern as he prayed for us. At times, however, the church itself has stumbled, entangling with the ways and values of the world rather than being consumed by gospel values. When the church becomes one more social organization (a club, even!), one more activity, one more voice that props up the powers that be, it has lost its way.
For example, in his superb film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Franco Zeffirelli depicts the appalling compromises of the 13th-century church as it sought political power rather than the power that comes from Jesus’ own prayer for us. Zeffirelli tells the story of Francis of Assisi, whose simplicity and humility before the pope (Innocent III, at the zenith of temporal power for the church) were more powerful and transformative than all the pomp and majesty of the court around him. By his sweet spirit and earnest humility, Francis reminded the magnificently robed church leader of his own early, sincere longings for holiness. You can see in the face of the pope a realization that he had been lost to the ways of the world around him. We seem to be seeing a resurgence of such hunger for a simple, loving spiritual leader in the current appreciation of one who not coincidentally took the name of Francis when he became pope.
Heartbreak, loss and grief
There is still another feeling here, another experience we share with those early disciples: grief. Sooner or later, we all experience loss and heartbreak. As we come to the end of the Easter season and recall the ascension of Jesus into heaven, we remember that even after triumphing over death, Jesus still left his disciples. They may not have been orphaned, and they did have the gift of the Holy Spirit on its way, but there must have been some sense of loss and grief at the thought of losing the one for whom they had left everything behind. In the May 19, 2009 issue of The Christian Century, Maureen Dallison Kemeza reflects on that grief and on the nearness of God around us: she calls John a “theological poet” and reminds us that “the universe is a sacrament of the presence of God.” John is the Gospel writer who uses the term “eternal life” far more than “reign of God,” although Gail O’Day suggests that he speaks not of “a gift of immortality or a future life in heaven, but a life shaped by the knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus” (John, Westminster Bible Companion).
Perhaps we’re surprised and even uncomfortable about the way Jesus speaks of “the world.” Here we find another path for reflection. David Cunningham has written evocatively of the paradox of being human, not only “animal” but also made in the image of God. Our animal “appetites” can be overcome, he writes, when we “rise to a level of forethought, creativity, and abundant gift-giving that aligns us very closely with God.” The question we must ask is how we will order our lives and examine our priorities and shape our institutions, especially if we are really, really close to God because of our knowledge of Jesus. We take our cue from that relationship between Jesus and Abba God, a deeply intimate knowledge and love that Jesus also shared with his disciples, and a model for our own relationships today, “mutually supportive and non-hierarchical, giving space to one another and allowing others to live into full personhood within a loving community of care.” Cunningham also makes holiness sound different from the striving and righteous piety that we might think we must pursue. Instead, to be holy means to be “set apart – particularly for God’s special purpose. Israel is a holy nation, not because it behaves better…but because God has elected it to be a light to the Gentiles. Holy water is not fresher, purer, or cleaner than other water,” but it has a special role, a purpose, like the disciples Jesus is preparing for his departure (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
What is God’s special purpose for you?
So we live in the world, and God loves the world, but we are somehow set apart within it. The words I find both comforting and energizing are “for God’s special purpose.” We live in that tension between gathering as a set-apart community and being a community that is sent into the world. Aren’t we tempted to create a little world for ourselves, especially inside the church, where we can take refuge from the world? Thomas Troeger describes the temptation that the earliest Christians had in common with us, to draw together in such communities, remembering Jesus and feeling his presence with us, and not having to deal with “a hostile world” outside our walls. Troeger suggests that preachers address “our contemporary exhaustion with the world’s ceaseless violence and corruption, and the frequent feelings of despair over the inability to make a difference” and remind our listeners that this text assures us that Jesus himself will always be with us, to strengthen us and enable us in our ministry in this world, rather than withdrawing from it (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
Energized and engaged. Many of us are so engaged that we wonder where to find the energy for all our activities. Our spirits are drying up, and we long for fresh waters. N. Graham Standish has written a wonderful book, Discovering the Narrow Path: A Guide to Spiritual Balance, in which he illustrates the way “the world” has led us away from the streams that refresh our spirits. He puts it simply: that we do too much, have too much, want too much, and then blame our stress on the perception that we do or have “too little” or “not enough.” We’re driven, out of balance, consumed by the ways of the world, drowning in excess. As I understand Standish, excess doesn’t have to mean riches (although North Americans are richer than most of the rest of the world). It can mean too much activity, too much striving, even too much effort to overcome the stress that comes with doing too much. I appreciated his suggestion that the experts who tell us to meditate are giving us one more thing to do when we already have too much to do, and we feel like failures when we can’t fit one more thing in, even if it’s “good” for us.
Choosing the narrow path
Here is where Standish’s book connects with this text, because he calls us to that same priority-rethinking, life-reordering, and community-reconstituting that Dianne Bergant sees in every liminal time. Christians, Standish writes, need to ask themselves, “What are they serving: God or something else?” (that either/or that John loves so well). He continues, contrasting the “radically different…life of balance with Christ as the balancing fulcrum” with “the Western kind of life that is rooted in stimulation and activity.” God, he says, wants a life for us that is “rooted in the values of God’s world,” not this one. While we may not face the same persecution that the early Christians experienced, we are nevertheless called to a very narrow and different path. On that narrow path, Standish writes, we’ll have to “put at the center those things that should be at our center…of the kind of life that leads to a commitment to Christ, compassion for others, and communion with God” (Discovering the Narrow Path: A Guide to Spiritual Balance). The choices are hard when all around us the world tries to lure us off the narrow path, but we need not fear: we are a community that Jesus prays for, a set-apart community that nevertheless loves the world that God loves, a people sent into the world to love and serve God and everything and everyone that God loves.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For further reflection:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 19th century
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“Action expresses priorities.”
Stephen R. Covey, 21st century
“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.”
Richard P. Feynman, 20th century
“Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.”
Victoria Moran, 21st century (in Lit From Within: Tending Your Soul For Lifelong Beauty)
“A simple life is not seeing how little we can get by with-—that’s poverty—-but how efficiently we can put first things first….When you’re clear about your purpose and your priorities, you can painlessly discard whatever does not support these, whether it’s clutter in your cabinets or commitments on your calendar.”
Harry Emerson Fosdick, 20th century
“Self-denial…is not the negative, forbidding thing that often we shake our heads about. In one sense there is no such thing as self-denial, for what we call such is the necessary price we pay for things on which our hearts are set.”
Michael Novak, 21st century
“The more common vices today are likely to be spiritual: preoccupation, hyperactivity, a failure even to heed the natural rhythms of the body and the sense, distractedness, an instrumentalizing of people and time and activity.”
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
Happy are those who do not follow
the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in
the law of God,
and on God’s law
they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand
in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation
of the righteous;
for God watches over
the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
1 John 5:9-13
If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
[Jesus said:] “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and 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. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Lent and Easter
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.
There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.