Sermon Seeds: Spirit of Witness/Continuing the Christ Life

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year A

Lectionary citations
Acts 1:6-14
Ps 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
John 17:1-11
Additional reflection on Acts 1:6-14

Weekly Theme:
Spirit of Witness/Continuing the Christ Life

by Kathryn Matthews Huey

There are subtle shifts here at the beginning of the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel: Jesus’ farewell speech, now more than four chapters long, becomes a closing prayer, a move that would have been familiar to the first-century Christian hearers of the story. That’s what farewell speeches did in those days: it was as familiar to them as, for example, the prayer before the sermon is to many in the church today. It would have sounded “right” to John’s audience, and they listened in on the prayer just as the disciples did that night, and just as we listen in today. It’s true that the gospel is something we “overhear.”

Another change is the very different picture Jesus’ words paint of his disciples, not as their usual clueless selves, as they had seemed, earlier in the evening. Charles Cousar writes that Jesus describes them instead “as God’s possession,” the ones who “understood that Jesus has come from God.” This hushed little group gathered at table are precious in Jesus’ eyes, and he entrusts them to God, Cousar says, asking God to take care of them, but not out of “condescension or pity. He describes them as they are seen by God” (Texts for Preaching Year A).

There is much to be said for seeing Christ in each other, but there is also something to be said for seeing ourselves as God sees us, with steadfast love and compassion, and with hope, too, for the future and what is yet to be. The disciples that night are a band with great promise, and Jesus sees that promise within them, but he also knows that they will carry the gospel, and embody its message, in a hostile and curiously unwelcoming world, a world that doesn’t seem to know what it needs most, then or now. In such a world full of challenges to people of faith, Gail O’Day wonders how the church’s “self-definition would be changed if it took as its beginning point, ‘We are a community for whom Jesus prays'” (John, New Interpreter’s Bible). How would such an understanding affect the way your church sees itself, its strength, its possibilities, and its mission in the world?

The prayer itself is beautiful, “with an elegance surpassed in John only by its prologue,” Lois Malcolm writes in The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels. Like the Lord’s Prayer, this text provides the occasion to reflect on prayer itself. John J. Pilch suggests that prayer is the way we ask someone more powerful than we are (or, as my parents used to say, someone who’s “in control of the situation”) for what we need. As we overhear Jesus’ prayer, we understand several things a little better, because our prayers, Pilch says, say a lot about who we think God is, and who think we are as well (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). If you listen carefully to our prayers on Sunday morning (well, really, on any morning, but our shared prayers are sometimes different from our private ones), what sort of things do we reveal about our beliefs about God? About our sense of the relationship we have with God?

Interestingly, Pilch observes that Jesus is praying, in a sense, publicly, not “in secret” as he instructed them in the Gospel of Matthew (6:5-6). But Pilch places the prayer in the context of Mediterranean culture, which held honor as a core value, “a claim to worth and a public acknowledgement of that claim.” We might compare and contrast this prayer of Jesus with the way we pray today: Pilch wonders if our prayers today are written for God or for the other humans who listening to us saying them. (I would add, I hope, praying along with us.) Can we imagine a God who is, as Pilch says, “stirred to action” by our prayers? Would that enliven our worship together and our quiet times of personal prayer? Pilch also suggests that our Western sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency is very different from the faith of our “Middle Eastern ancestors in faith” who “believed that they had no control over their lives. Only God did, and public prayer stirred God to act because it put God’s honor on the line” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). Do we think that God’s honor is at stake when we pray?

Henry Wansbrough draws a parallel between this prayer and the first three petitions in the Prayer of Our Savior: both call God “Father,” each one an intimate and “affectionate prayer of Son to Father.” While John doesn’t use “kingdom of God” language found in the other Gospels, he does speak of “the eternal life which Jesus came to bring,” eternal life not limited to heaven after death but identified with the knowledge of God here and now, which “transforms both the disciples and the world.” Presumably, this world matters more in this case. Finally, the theme of “Thy will be done” runs through this prayer, because the hour has come for Jesus to fulfill God’s will, and he does so, obediently (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels).

On the other hand, this prayer is very different from that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Mark tells the story of this same night in his Gospel. Lois Malcolm contrasts the “grieved” Jesus, who wouldn’t mind “passing” on the cup he was about to drink, with the Jesus who sits at table speaking of glory that he shared with God the Father from the beginning of time (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). But that’s because John is putting this prayer in the context not just of impending death but of the bigger picture of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, with plenty of glory for the little faith community to tap into. Gail R. O’Day says this prayer comes out of a very special and specific moment in the story of Jesus and what he is about, God’s plan, and that includes “willingly laying down his life…” (John, New Interpreter’s Bible). This prayer, then, is for all of us, but it was a one-time experience for Jesus to face this hour and place everything, the events in the coming days and his disciples two thousand years later, in the hands of God.

Several commentators have written eloquently on this passage, translated so beautifully by Eugene Peterson: “Display the bright splendor of your Son so the Son in turn may show your bright splendor…” and then, Jesus speaks of his disciples in turn reflecting him and his teachings: “my life is on display in them,” he says (The Message). This tells us something about our call, our mission today: the life of Jesus is “on display” in us.

Charles Cousar describes this moment reassuringly: “The disciples are not to be left with the best of human possibilities, but with the very reality of God.” Now, even without Jesus being with them, physically, they can “[confront] the riddles of human existence” with the help of this gift of the reality of God. Just as Pilch wonders about our praying, Cousar prompts reflection on our sense of dependence (or not) on God, in a world confident of its progress and power. Is it indeed up to us, or might we “stir God to act” if we more humbly realize our limitations? But Cousar also paints a dramatic picture of this “earth-shaking, life-changing” moment of “the giving of life – not just breathing, eating, moving, but the life of the age to come…a change in the aeons, a movement in the world’s clock, the dawning of a new day, so that the life of eternity can be experienced now” (Texts for Preaching Year A). I can’t remember the last time I used the word “aeons” in a sermon, if ever, but this text certainly provides that opportunity.

The day that has dawned, however, is not here in its fullness. Dianne Bergant calls the days since that hushed night “a liminal time, a time ‘in-between'” and she calls this “God’s time,” a time of living that familiar “already, but not yet” reality of God’s reign. However, our hope lies in this sure knowledge: “‘Already, but not yet’ is the way we live out our lives in God, not the way God lives in us. The tension is ours, not God’s. This tension is at the core of much of our frustration and suffering” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year A). It sounds to me that perhaps God is the already, and we are the not-yet.

I think many more folks than we acknowledge would really like to hear the church, including preachers, wrestle with the meaning of what Bergant is saying here. Suffering and the role of prayer, our responsibilities to act and what we should leave up to God…these are the questions that nag at the hearts and minds of those who worry about things beyond their control but also wonder if they’re doing all they should, and doing it right (am I alone here?). And then there’s the matter of whether we’re praying “right,” too: is that why God seems silent, or says no, we wonder, because we didn’t “pray right”? Isn’t prayer one more way to keep or get some kind of control or at least influence in any situation, including our lives? We are a strange mix of over-confidence (arrogance?) and anxiety; yet this quiet but powerful prayer of Jesus offers an antidote that both comforts and challenges.

Bergant reminds us that we need one another in this liminal time, and her case for the church is persuasive; we need a community of faith that will pray with us, support, encourage and challenge us as well,  “companions…who experience the same struggle to be faithful in a world that does not share our values or our insights. We need a community of believers through whom shines the glory of the exalted Lord” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year A). Does this describe your church? Does it describe the way you think of church itself?

The world is still – and often – a hostile place, and the cross makes no sense to many optimists, any more than the resurrection does, but our reassurance rests in the knowledge that Jesus has left us in God’s care. We are not alone. As Fred Craddock so eloquently puts it: “The Evangelist leaves no one in doubt: the church is not an orphan in the world, an accident of history, a thing dislodged, the frightened child of huddled rumors and superstitions. The pedigree of truth is established and unbroken: from God, to Christ, to the apostles, to the church” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

Finally, O. Wesley Allen, Jr. clarifies again what Jesus means by “eternal life”: “In a day when outside the church people try to attain eternal life with success, possessions, or power and inside the church we focus on achieving a reward in heaven after we die, it is important to hear what John really means by eternal life….It is not that knowledge of God and Christ leads to eternal life; knowledge of God and Christ is eternal life itself” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). In your heart and mind and soul, what is the “eternal life” you long for?

Additional reflection on Acts 1:6-14

The Ascension account may be familiar but not always accessible to many of us in the church. The occurrences of the past weeks have been nothing less than astounding to the disciples (and to us, we hope), yet the question posed by them betrays an equally astounding lack of vision on their part. They are still hemmed in by the littleness of their aspirations and expectations, longing for the restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the glory of ancient Israel, the throwing off of Roman oppression and the raising up of their own nationalistic glory. And yet, we know that they stand on Mount Olivet, where Jesus was arrested and taken to his death. They seem to be trying to make sense of all that has happened, beginning that dreadful night, by thinking in terms that seemed possible, even though they had witnessed the impossible right before their eyes. Their categories have been messed up, and they aren’t yet able to think in fresh new ways.

Jesus responds by re-directing their expectations and expanding their horizons: he promises the Holy Spirit, and a ministry to the whole world. Today, we hear many evangelists focus their preaching on end-times (and sometimes those end-times are even predicted to the day, accurately or not), rather than on the work that the Spirit empowers us to do, here on earth. But “the ends of the earth, not the end of the world, is the theme of this book,” Michael E. Williams writes (The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, Volume 12). It’s not enough to think in terms of our own interests and hopes, the interests and hopes of our own people, no, now Jesus opens up their hearts and minds to the Spirit that will come upon them and give them power they have never known before so that they can carry this good news to every corner of the earth, to every one of God’s precious children.

As in the Easter account, two men in white ask them why they are just standing there, when there is so much to be done. Transformation is in store, and it is not without a purpose, for the world lies in waiting for this good news. A sermon on “end-times” and the promises of God would be timely, in an age of sophisticated communications that are especially efficient in spreading misinformation and fear. I sometimes wonder why people pay more attention to preachers who predict the end of the world than they do to scientists who speak of global warming. (In either case, we don’t seem to change our ways much.) Should we be spending our time with calculations, or should we focus on being a blessing to the world that God loves, and leave the timing up to God? A text like this raises the persistent question: What is the good news that we preach to the ends of the earth? Do we preach destruction and judgment, or do we preach (and embody) peace and healing and justice?

The earliest disciples, standing there on Mount Olivet, still trying to make sense of everything that was happening to them, share with the community of First Peter – and with us, today – the experience of questioning and of needing to trust. The First Peter community was experiencing persecution of some kind, suffering in any case, and they are exhorted to trust God and to endure and to persist, knowing themselves as blessed. Fear seizes us all at one time or another, yet the writer tells us to “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you.” Henri Nouwen, in Making All Things New, writes about the difference between our “occupations” and our “enslaving preoccupations”: “To be pre-occupied means to fill our time and place long before we are there….Much, if not most, of our suffering is connected with these preoccupations….Since we are always preparing for eventualities, we seldom fully trust the moment.”

Again, a sermon on end-times on this Sunday might contrast Nouwen’s faith stance with that of impending-doom preaching. We might ask ourselves how much energy is focused on the most current prediction of the end of the world (including amazingly long streams of comments on news posts and status updates), and what might happen if we focused instead on the transformation and healing of the world. Also, isn’t there something to be said for being ready each day for whatever comes, including being at peace in our relationships and “right with the world”? What would that require of each one of us? We might ask how much we truly trust God, and God’s plan for the world. What concerns are we pre-occupied with? What fills “our time and place long before we are there”? What do you think God wants us to be pre-occupied, or better, occupied, by? Does God want us to think about the exact day that “the end of the world” will come?

Whether you are questioning, or experiencing persecution and suffering, how do you trust the moment and trust God’s love and care? What are the hard-to-make-sense-of experiences that your church has had, that prompted questioning and even doubt? What suffering runs through the story of your congregation, or what suffering have you experienced because of your beliefs? How do you make sense of suffering? Does suffering define and identify your experience, or do joy, blessing, and good news describe you, as an individual, and as a community of faith? What are the concrete expectations of the people of your church, for today, and for the years ahead? What sense have you made of the mysterious ways that God is still speaking, and still working, in your midst? If you were standing up there on that hill with Jesus, what would your questions be?

For further reflection:

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, 20th century
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

John O’Donohue, 20th century
“The hunger to belong is not merely a desire to be attached to something. It is rather sensing that great transformation and discovery become possible when belonging is sheltered and true.”

Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 19th century
“Earth’s crammed with heaven…
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.

Fred Rogers, 20th century
“The connections we make in the course of a life – maybe that’s what heaven is.”

Jonathan Edwards, 18th century
“The way to heaven is ascending; we must be content to travel uphill, though it be hard and tiresome, and contrary to the natural bias of our flesh.”
“Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.”
“Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.”
“The happiness of the creature consists in rejoicing in God, by which also God is magnified and exalted.”

Lectionary texts

Acts 1:6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35

Let God rise up,
   let God’s enemies be scattered;
let those who hate God
   flee before God.
As smoke is driven away,
   so drive them away;
as wax melts before the fire,
   let the wicked perish before God.
But let the righteous be joyful;
   let them exult before God;
   let them be jubilant with joy.

Sing to God,
   sing praises to God’s name;
lift up a song to the one who rides
   upon the clouds —
be exultant before God
   whose name is the Sovereign.

Father-Mother of orphans
   and protector of widows
is God in God’s holy habitation.

God gives the desolate
   a home to live in;
God leads out the prisoners
   to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a parched land.

O God, when you went out
   before your people,
when you marched
   through the wilderness,
the earth quaked,
   the heavens poured down rain
at the presence of God,
   the God of Sinai,
at the presence of God,
   the God of Israel.

Rain in abundance, O God,
   you showered abroad;
you restored your heritage
   when it languished;
your flock found a dwelling in it;
   in your goodness, O God,
you provided for the needy.

Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
   sing praises to the Lord,

O rider in the heavens,
   the ancient heavens;
listen, God sends out a voice,
   a mighty voice.

Ascribe power to God,
   whose majesty is over Israel;
   and whose power is in the skies.
Awesome is God in God’s sanctuary,
   the God of Israel gives power
and strength to God’s people.

Blessed be God!

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

John 17:1-11

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

“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.”

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.