Sermon for High Mass Easter 7 Sunday 2 June 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Acts 16.16-34; Revelation 22.12-14,16-17, 20-21; John 17.20-26
In today’s Gospel John takes us to the upper room with Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus has just completed his final teaching to the disciples. Now he turns to God in prayer: the prayer which is often called his “High Priestly Prayer” or his “Prayer of Consecration,” before his passion.
The prayer, which takes up the whole of Chapter 17, falls into three sections. One of these is read in each of the three years of the Lectionary cycle on this Sunday after Ascension. This is a time when the Church focuses its attention on what is called the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. These offices were not confined to the life of Jesus on earth but are part of his ongoing risen life and the life of the Church. We find them reflected in today’s readings.
In the first section of his prayer, Jesus prays for himself; in the second for the disciples; and in the third – which we have heard today- “not only for these whom you gave me, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. ” The prayer progresses from Christ’s relationship with the Father, through the disciples’ sharing in that by their relationship with Jesus, to its extension to others both then and in future generations. The unity for which Jesus prays is to reflect the unity in the Spirit between Father and Son, in order that the world might believe; that a torn and divided humanity might be healed and made one in Christ.
All of the Gospel-writers speak of the prayer life of Jesus. Prayer is the means and the expression of his union with the Father. And from early days the Church understood this as not just part of his earthly human life but of his heavenly, risen and glorified life. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, Christ who is our priest continues to pray: From early days the Church understood Christ as continuing to pray as the Letter to the Hebrews says: “he ever lives to intercede for us.” The prayer which we hear in John reflects that same belief.
The life of prayer is something to which all of us who are Jesus’ disciples are called by our baptism. We are a priestly people who share in the priestly prayer of Christ, not just praying for ourselves but for the world which God loves. As it was the means of Jesus’ relationship with the Father, so it must be for us who are called to be Christ’s disciples.
This is about more than a means of coping effectively with life and its stresses and strains; being able to rise above them through mediation or “mindfulness.” Don’t misunderstand me, prayer often does work to bring calm and a perspective to lives and relationships. It helps us to see and hear more clearly amidst the cascade of images and cacophony of noise in our world. The peace found in times of meditation spills over into the rest of life. Apart from anything else, it teaches us to listen; not just to God but to other people. That is why we keep silence before services; why our day here at All Saints begins with half an hour of silent prayer before the first service of the day.
There have always been people in the Church’s life whose special calling has been to the life of intercessory prayer. Monastic communities devote themselves to the constant life of prayer, with as many as seven or eight services punctuating day and night as well as long periods of silent prayer. Parish priests are called, among other things, to pray constantly for their people.
In both that is given public expression in the Daily Office, the Prayer of the Church, the Work of God as St. Benedict calls it in his Rule: in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer said here daily; or prayed by others at home or at work. In these the recitation of psalms and the reading of scripture flows into prayer of intercession and praise. What we do here day by day reflects the pattern we see in Christ’s prayer in John. He makes known the name of God in scripture and preaching. When we have listened, we turn with him in prayer to God for his church, for the world he loves, for those whose lives are bound up with ours in family or community or workplace; for the sick and suffering; for the dead.
To some of you this will be very familiar. To others it may be completely new. On Saturday morning we are having an introduction to the Daily Prayer of the Church. It is an opportunity both for complete novices to learn about it and for those who have been praying it for decades to share their experience.
In a sermon at the cathedral recently, I spoke about retired priests who have told me over the years how they feel rather lost when they no longer have a parish and the public role that goes with it. I have tried to encourage them to see that one element of their priesthood which does not disappear with retirement is prayer; that freed from the burdens of the administration and meetings, which are the lot of today’s parish clergy, they have more time to pray for those of us who still carry that load.
Of course, I said to that congregation in the cathedral, the time is fast approaching when I will have to start taking my own advice; something easier said than done.
Thinking of these things, my mind often goes back to the priest who was our chaplain at theological college in Edinburgh. Chaplains were often only a few years older than most of the students. In contrast, Fr. Kenneth Strachan had retired early from the parish in Aberdeen where he had spent most of his long ministry because of ill health. By word and example, he taught us to pray.
In his last few years he came under my pastoral care and when he was unable to get to church, I would take him the sacrament in his care home. He said to me that though he could no longer preside at the Eucharist or preach sermons, he could still pray. So that was how he exercised his priesthood – praying, amongst countless others, for all those he had guided on their way to ordination; praying for me.
If you have been around All Saints for a while, you will know that we have been blessed over the years by the presence of people like Bishop Ambrose and Fr. Gaskell, and now Fr. Pip and Canon Gudgeon, who have carried on praying; and we have been blessed by faithful laypeople who have done the same. We cannot be late opening the gates on weekday mornings, because Yvonne will be waiting. Many of these folk have gone to glory, so there is an opportunity for a post-retiral ministry for you here.
Jesus says in his prayer, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them.” That name is the being and nature of God; a loving and life-giving God who calls us into communion with himself. A prophet is one who speaks for God, Christ is the “Prophet” because he not only speaks the word of God but is the Word of God – God’s communication of himself, not only in words but in deed; in life and death. Christ continues to make it known through the Gospel and through the mission and life of his Church.
We see this in action as Luke takes us with Paul to Philippi. Last Sunday we heard of Paul and his little group of companions arriving there to begin the mission in Europe. Their first encounter, with Lydia and the other women, at a place of prayer, had been positive and Paul’s preaching had borne fruit in baptism. Today, things are different: one their way to the same place of prayer, they encounter the slave girl whose gift of divination is exploited by her owners to make money out of telling fortunes.
Her gift also allows her to recognize Paul and his group as “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” After this has gone on for a while, Paul has clearly had enough and casts out the spirit. But the way of salvation is not good news for everyone. For the girl’s owners it’s bad news. They see their easy means of making a living disappear and are not happy. They haul Paul and Silas before the magistrates and accuse them of subverting Roman order and customs. A mob is soon whipped up and, like Pontius Pilate, the magistrates capitulate to its pressure. Proper legal procedure is cast aside and they have them flogged and thrown into jail. There they pray and sing into the night until the earthquake which sets the prisoners free. A despairing jailer is about to kill himself but is saved from harm by Paul. The Gospel of Jesus Christ which Paul preaches to the man and his family brings not death but life; freedom not captivity. Just as Lydia had extended hospitality to the apostles, taking them into her home, so does the jailer, who tends their wounds and then, with his family, is baptised.
Jesus prays: “Father. I desire that these also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you have loved me before the foundation of the world.”
The Book of Revelation transports us from upper room and prison cell to the heavenly Jerusalem and the vision and voice of Christ in glory: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” He is the source and the goal of all creation and its’ King. If you look up, you will see those first and last letters of the Greek alphabet on the chancel arch; and beyond them at the summit of the east wall, Christ in majesty, Christ the King who is surrounded by the saints who have washed their robes.
This church was built as testimony to that truth. The Church’s worship – from Paul and Silas praying and singing in prison to us praying and singing here this morning – is testimony to that truth.
In the time between Christ’s ascension to glory and the final consummation of all things in him, he calls us to share in his prophecy, priesthood and kingship; by word and prayer and concern for his world. We can only do that in that communion with him which is formed and sustained by the working of the Holy Spirit in word and prayer and sacrament; the gift for which we pray especially in these days between Ascension and Pentecost.