Sunday, May 24, 2020
Seventh Sunday of Easter Year A
In It Together
O God of glory, your son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other, in suffering and in joy, that all your children may be drawn into your bountiful dwelling. Amen.
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."
All readings for the week:
Ps 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Pet 4:12-14; 5:6-11
1. Would it change the way you see yourself, and others, if you thought of us as belonging to God?
2. What do your prayers reveal about your beliefs?
3. How would you describe "the already but not-yet" of your own life?
4. How does Jesus' prayer illustrate the need for a community of faith?
5. How would you describe "eternal life"?
by Kate Matthews
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 often "overhear."
These disciples are precious
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."
Seen as God sees us
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.'" How would such an understanding affect the way your church sees itself, its strength, its possibilities, and its mission in the world?
What our prayers reveal
The prayer itself is beautiful, "with an elegance surpassed in John only by its prologue," Lois Malcolm notes. 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.
If we listen carefully to our prayers on Sunday morning (well, really, on any morning, but our shared prayers are sometimes different from our private ones), we might note the sort of things we reveal about our beliefs about God, and about our sense of the relationship we have with God.
Stirring God to act
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.) If we think of a God who is, as Pilch says, "stirred to action" by our prayers, that might enliven our worship together and our quiet times of personal prayer as well.
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." Do we think that God's honor is at stake when we pray?
Parallels with the Lord's Prayer
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, then, this world would matter deeply.
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.
A very different prayer on the same night
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 "last" 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.
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."
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.
Showing the life of Jesus in our own
Several commentators have written eloquently on this passage, rendered so beautifully by Eugene Peterson in The Message: "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.
Perhaps this tells us something about our call, our mission today: we can think of the life of Jesus as "on display" in us.
The reality of God
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." When was the last time we thought in terms of "aeons"? That is certainly a "big picture" approach!
The already but not yet
That 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." 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, in preaching, in Bible study, in spiritual direction, 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? I suspect not).
Are we praying "right"?
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.
Living in liminal time
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."
Does this sound like your church? Does it describe the way you think of church itself?
Whom do we love on our way?
And how about the wider community, comprised of our "neighbors"--the ones Jesus and the Bible have commanded us to love as we love ourselves? My neighborhood held a socially distanced sidewalk chalk event this week and many of our (literal) neighbors chose to write messages like "In This Together" on their block of artwork. It was moving to walk around and see these words from people we cannot see face to face right now, and not even knowing who wrote them.
What particular learnings have come from this time of striving to be united, and loving, and generous, even while spaced physically apart? Who needs protection the most in these challenging days? How are we responding to that need?
Being church in a sometimes hostile world
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."
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."
In your heart and mind and soul, what is the "eternal life" you long for?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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."
Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, 21st century
"Spiritual life is a way of dwelling with perplexity--taking it seriously, searching for its purpose as well as its perils, its beauty as well as its ravages."
John Henry Newman, 19th century
"God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next...I shall do good. I shall do His work if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling. Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am. I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain."
N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 21st century
"...left to ourselves we lapse into a kind of collusion with entrophy, acquiescing in the general belief that things may be getting worse but that there's nothing much we can do about them. And we are wrong. Our task in the present...is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second."
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In It Together
Sunday, May 24, 2020