a sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year B]
Our two-year-old is starting to grasp the ritual of prayer, and it is exciting to watch. Around our supper table we typically hold hands for the mealtime prayer, but he also knows that putting his hands together is a way to pray. The other night before anyone had picked up a fork he put his hands together for the prayer and then bowed his head. We followed his lead and prayed one of our quick rhyming prayers—“God is great, God is good, let us thank him by our food…”—and then, for some reason, after we said “Amen,” our 9-year-old daughter looked across the table at him and said, in an all-knowing tone of voice: “Jasper, as you get older, the prayers get longer.” It was almost like a warning or something. And I immediately thought to myself as I looked at her, about to hit her 10th birthday, “Girl, you have no idea how long they get.”
Isn’t it the truth, though? As we move through life, there seems to be more to pray for. In my Facebook feed this week appeared a photo of two 16-year old twin boys—the photo taken by their mother—who were sitting in the front of a car, one of them behind the wheel, as they drove off together without an adult for the first time. That mother probably prayed from the moment she snapped that photo until the moment she saw the headlights appear back in the driveway. Long prayer.
This week and this weekend I saw all kinds of posts and photos about college and graduate school graduations. There is a lot of joy and pride in these celebrations, but likely some anxiety, too, as these young people prepare to be thrust out into a sketchy job market, carrying some debt, wondering what they’ll find. Yes, the prayers get longer.
And as we look at the state of world events with alliances between world powers shifting and talk of the nuclear threat again, all our prayers should be getting longer for the world to value peace and prosperity for all.
The same goes for Jesus. The farther along in ministry he gets, the longer his own prayers become, especially in John’s gospel. In fact, the portion of the gospel lesson we have today is from one long prayer he says the night before he is tried and then crucified. It’s a prayer that lasts for one whole chapter. He certainly has a lot to pray about. He has just spent his last evening with his disciples. He has shared a Passover meal with them, he has washed their feet as a sign of the new commandment he has given them to love one another, and he has promised they will receive from God the Father a special Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will lead them into the truth. These have been precious final moments with them when he almost seems to be pouring as much information into them as he can before he leaves to be “glorified.”
It is likely that the disciples haven’t got a clue what Jesus means by that, but they will eventually come to see that love is the glory of God. When he goes to the cross to offer his life for them, and when on the third day God raises him up, and when after that he is taken up into heaven at his ascension they will come to understand how God’s glory is made known in Jesus. And so he prays like crazy as all this begins to happen.
The day of Jesus’ ascension was just this past Thursday. We celebrated it a week earlier because it worked better in our schedule, but at the end of the day’s events we gathered in the columbarium for a worship service and read the story of Jesus’ ascension. At Jesus’ ascension, when Jesus goes up, his love goes out. He is able to fill all in all, as the writer of Ephesians says at one point. And the disciples, as his followers, as his body, were the ones who would take this on, the ones who would embody this love of Jesus spreading out in the world. It seems to me that when the disciples would look back on their time with Jesus, then, when they would stand on the other side of all of this they would look back on this prayer—this long, deep prayer—where he prays for them.
I remember spending time with one of our members several years ago who was in the final months of his life. He knew it. His family knew it. They were all trying to come to terms with what it meant. One day when I was out at his house he spoke about how he had been carefully lining things up for his family after he left them. He was disappointed he was going to miss watching his two children come into adulthood, but it was moving to hear about how proud he was of them and how confident he was that they would both excel in their endeavors. It was very humbling to speak with someone who was at the end of life who wasn’t in reflection-mode or replaying the past but who only wanted to talk about the future, a future he wasn’t really going to be a part of. That day happened to be Ascension day, of all days, and I had brought along by Bible to read that passage as a type of devotion, but I realized I didn’t need to. This gentleman had already covered anything I could hope to say.
In many way, that is Jesus as he prepares to leave his disciples. Wanting to focus more on the future than on the past. Preparing his disciples to go out with his love into the world. Of course, Jesus will not be totally gone from his disciples’ forever, and there will be ways in which his real presence will be with them as they wait for him to return—in the reading of his Word and in the holy meal of forgiveness they will share whenever they gather. And they will have the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit with them as they go, teaching them the truth, giving them a voice.
This is Jesus’ prayer for them. He wants them to know we are protected, that not one of us will be lost. Jesus received the responsibility to care for us from his Father, God the Creator, and he has worked like a shepherd to seek us out and keep us. All Jesus’ ministry is centered on this task of searching for the lost, the lonely, and the little, and even now that is his what he is doing.
Many leaders take this part of their role seriously. I think today especially of mothers and other mothering figures in our lives who sacrifice so much to keep little ones in their care, constantly counting their children in public places to make sure they’re near, who never want to lose that connection with their children. To say that he has protected and guarded us and that none will be lost means even more coming from Jesus once has entered even death to make sure we remain the Father’s. He protects and guards us even after we die.
Jesus also prays that his followers will remain one. It will do no good for his mission if his followers begin fighting with each other or working against each other or dividing and separating after he ascends. Just as God’s love is made known in him and he and God are one, so is the unity of his followers important on earth.
One young man who worships with us very often and volunteers along with his wife to lead our 5th and 6th grade youth group has taken Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers very seriously, and the Holy Spirit has moved him to try to foster some new relationships specifically between Christians of different races in Richmond. He has worked with several African-American congregations and the predominantly white congregations he worships with to organize a cookout together, a chance break bread together and hear about one another’s witness in the community. They’re calling it a “family reunion,” (a wonderful title) and as it happens, it is next Saturday at 4pm at Charlotte Acres in Mechanicsville. Who knows what kind of shared endeavors may come of that, but even a meal in this city between people of different races but of the same faith is a meaningful expression of unity.
It is impossible to overstress the importance of Christian unity. Following Jesus and worshiping Jesus are not Lone Ranger enterprises. It is easier nowadays than it used to be—or, I should say we think it’s easier—to live individual lives in the West, to forge our own ways forward. But in terms of our faith in Christ, that’s just not the case. Our togetherness is the crux of who we are in Jesus. It is not incidental to our faith. The hard part of being together and working as one is fundamental to our identity, Jesus prays.
Lastly, Jesus prays we understand that we are sent out just as he was sent out into the world. We do not retreat from it. Ours is not a faith that withdraws from the realities of the world, as much as they worry us or make us angry. Ours is a discipleship that listens to the needs of the world and, like Jesus, puts itself at the service to our neighbor. It is one thing to grasp this on an individual level, to understand that I go into the world as a follower of Christ, loved and set free, ready to serve. But Jesus is not talking about individual service at this point. He is talking about our collective witness, the things we will be able to do together through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is where things can get really interesting, because Jesus can lead us into places and give us tasks and abilities that no one else can. He fills all in all, after all. It is one thing when one of us feels empowered to go out and make a difference, and that is a great thing to lift up. But how we are sent like Jesus together enables us to do amazing things.
For example, I learned this week that Lutheran World Relief, one of our ministry partners that this congregation regularly supports, is on the ground in Syria even as war rages on there. Support in finances and in prayer and personnel from Lutheran congregations like ours has enabled Lutheran World Relief to rebuild two bakeries in the most heavily-bombed region of that country. These bakeries have fed over 80,000 people at a time when access to basic foods is hard to come by. The bakery is employing people at a time when many people have no jobs, giving them hope they can rebuild their own country. That is just one example of how the church as a whole, as a body, is going into the world as Jesus did. It is just one example of thinking of the future, as Jesus did, and not dwelling on the past, or being content with how things are.
As we get older, do our prayers get longer, more involved? I suppose it’s true, but more important than the length or the depth or the complexity of any of our prayers is the fact that our risen and ascended Lord is still praying for us. From his place at the right hand of God, he leans into the ear of his Father and says, “Let’s protect them. Let’s keep them together. And let’s use them to spread our love. That’s their glory…the glory of this love.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.