A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter preached at the 10:30am service
There are two important things that I’d to accomplish today with my sermon. The first, is to set the stage for where we are in our story, to set the stage for where we are in our seasonal calendar. The second is to view the prayer that Jesus offers in the Gospel of John today, through the lens of that setting.
Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, which is also the Sunday after the Ascension. The occasion of the Ascension is celebrated 10 days before the day of Pentecost each year. The ascension of Christ comes to us from the Gospel of Luke, where at the completion of his post-resurrection appearances and teachings, Jesus, with the disciples, heads out and ascends in body and spirit to Heaven to take his place at the right hand of the Father. This experience of ascension reflects similar instances in tradition, specifically the chariots of fire that came out of the sky to take Elijah to Heaven. This marking of Ascension in our church year is important because it is the marked end to the ministry of Christ. It puts a conclusion to Jesus’ time amongst us in a physically tangible way. It puts a conclusion to the presence of God in creation in a physically tangible way.
And yet, we are still in our season of Easter, we are still in this space where we are celebrating the resurrection of Christ, the defeat of death, and the resurrection appearances of Christ that form our understanding of the purpose of his death, that validate our following of this particular prophet and teacher. But, next week we celebrate a much different occasion. We celebrate an occasion that does not explicitly rely on Christ, but rather on the followers of Christ to mark our transition from followers to evangelists making disciples of all the nations. To mark our transition from sitting at the feet and learning to going out into the world to spread the Good News. So, how do we get from here to there, how do we get from these lessons of Easter, this final moment with Christ in a post-resurrection state, to celebrating the birth of the church?
You might notice that during Easter season we don’t hear from the stories of our historical tradition in the Old Testament. Instead, we are exposed to the narrative storytelling of the Acts of the Apostles. These are the stories of our new tradition. These are the stories of how the church came to be, how these Apostles took the experience of Christ, life, death, resurrection, and created a movement, accepting a new covenant with God. These stories are juxtaposed with what we traditionally read in the New Testament each week, letters to bolster the faithful. In Acts we have the history of this New Testament. In Acts we have the example of a passionate, on-fire group of believers who are ready to share the gospel no matter the barrier.
And, I think this is why we hear Jesus praying today. Jesus is praying for the disciples in the moment, but also for their future work, and by proxy, offering prayers for us, within this context of Jesus’ ascension, Jesus’ presence at the right hand of God, holding council, speaking on our behalf.
There is a lot to unpack in this prayer of Christ today, but I want to focus specifically on a couple of key verses.
Jesus prays “And 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.”
What does it mean to us to be in the world even as Jesus is no longer in the world?
What does Jesus mean when he says “that they may be one as we are one”?
It is clear that we need to accept the fact that we are in this world, that we are of this world. If we try to ignore this fact, it is easy to assume we are safe, it is easy to assume we are untouched by the forces of this world, that we are unswayed by the machinations of man, that we are somehow outside of the society and culture that surrounds us.
“I’m not like THAT person.”
“I would NEVER do that.”
“It’s ok, I didn’t mean it like THAT.”
There is a reason that Jesus offers in his prayer today, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” It is so easy to give into the evil one, to think ourselves above the fray, to think ourselves incapable of being impacted by this world all around us. We are in and of this world because that is the only way that we can do the work of Christ, that we can spread the Good News, that we can make disciples, and, if we insist on trying to separate ourselves from this world, then we are only opening ourselves to the evil one.
Because, let’s be honest, it is very enticing to want to remove ourselves from a world, a society, a culture, that encourages the sin of systemic racism, that rejoices in the sin of earning wealth off the backs of others, that wallows in the sin of self-focused individuality, where we work so hard on loving ourselves that we forget we also have to love our neighbor.
But, in attempting to remove ourselves from this world, we lose our capacity for empathy, we lose our capacity for sharing Good News, because we can’t have Good News if there isn’t sin to overcome. And, when we attempt to remove ourselves, it opens the door to the evil one to encourage us to stay disengaged, to feel like our spiritual but not religious practice of self-indulgence is enough, to forget that we have neighbors, and that it is in community, in communion with them that we experience the holy.
This is why Jesus prays for us, offering that “they may be one as we are one.” Imagine if we lived into this understanding of the world. Imagine if we looked at our neighbor and understood our connection in the depth of love, depth of oneness, that is experienced between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And if you can imagine that, you see a world that we exist within that is built on peace, love, justice, a world that is free and connected and one. And if you cannot imagine looking at your neighbor (and this, again, time-and-time again, is ALL neighbors, even the ones you don’t like), what would we need to do, what work would we need to put in, what changes would we need to see to fruition, to see this vision of Christ, this prayer of Christ, realized for us, here and now?
I think the first thing we would have to ask is, do we even want this? I mean this world is pretty good as it is, right? I mean it’s not perfect, but at least most of us here have roofs over our heads, have food on our tables, have steady-enough employment or the means to find it without too much difficulty. Most of us had the opportunity if we wanted it to go to college, to buy a home, to not be forced into debt due to forces outside of our control. Why put in work to change a world that has largely benefited us?
Because most of those benefits are not afforded at the same level to ALL of our neighbors. Because if we are to truly be one with one another, that means ending systems that say as a woman, as a person of color, you need to do more, to be more, in order to be on a level playing field with a white man who does not have the experience you have, that does not have the education you have. And, if you think that doesn’t happen, I have many friends I can introduce you to.
So, say we do recognize that we are not one as Christ is one with the Father, what steps might we take to see this prayer realized? How do we end systemic racism, seeking forgiveness for hundreds of years of sin in slavery, in Jim Crow, in minimum sentencing laws, in the modern day debtors prison, in the fear of being black anytime a police officer looks your way? How do we end the silence of women, those who have been sexually assaulted and abused, those who stand up and shout out #MeToo, only to be told to sit down, that it wasn’t that bad, that they clearly wanted it? How do we see our neighbor as one with us and treat them as if they are us, offering everything that we have, every perk of privilege, every perk of being me?
We have the tools to see it done, we have the ability to live into this prayer, but we have to want it. We have to want to be of this world in order to change this world. This is the prayer of Christ for us. And in this prayer, Christ recognizes that if we do this work, if we spread this Good News, if we follow the example of the Apostles before us, then we too will be not of this world as he is not of this world, but rather we will be fighting against the world that is constantly giving into the evil one, set apart and yet still embedded within, fighting the fight of victory in love, victory in peace, victory in oneness with each other. This is the celebration that we approach next week in Pentecost. This is the celebration that must carry us into this world, to change this world.