Sermon for Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after Ascension) High Mass Sunday 17 May 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
7 Easter, 2015 High Mass
In these days between Ascension and Pentecost, the Church’s liturgy and hymnody has two themes which overlap:
1. The ascended and glorified Christ: as Prophet – the one who speaks for God, as Priest – the one who mediates between the world and God, and King – the one who is Lord of all creation; the one who is present in all the world and in whom the world will find its fulfillment. It is represented in our mass today by the Gospel passage from John 17 – part of what has been called the “High Priestly Prayer” or Jesus’ “Prayer of Consecration.”
2. The other, looks forward to Pentecost and the gift of the Spirit. St. Luke tells us that in the nine days between Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples, obedient to Jesus’ command as he was taken from them, wait together in prayer in Jerusalem: the apostles and Mary and the women and Jesus’ brothers.
During that time, they also, as we heard took time to fill the vacancy in the apostolic body left by the defection of Judas. Matthias is elected by a method which might seem odd to us but certainly seems a bit speedier than the Church’s appointment of bishops today.
Last week I spent two whole days as one of a group advising the Bishop of London on the choice of new bishops for Edmonton and Kensington. When we were beginning to get a bit weary, I pointed out the irony of us doing this in the week when we celebrated the choice of Matthias’s to replace Judas in the company of the apostles Might it not be quicker and just as effective to pray and draw lots? In the world of human resources procedures this suggestion fell on deaf ears.
The prayer of Jesus we read in St. John, like the discourses, the teaching to the disciples which precede it, is the product of profound reflection by the evangelist on the words and deeds of Jesus and their meaning. It is hard to distinguish one from the other.
Such words, however little understood at the time, would be treasured up, and grow luminous by the divine teaching of later experience. The prayer is at one a prayer, a profession and a revelation. Its scope is the consummation of the glory of God through Christ, the Word incarnate, from stage to stage, issuing in perfect unity.
Our passage today is the second section of the prayer. The first is about Jesus relationship with the Father, sustained always by his life of prayer. The second is prayer for his disciples and the Church they represent.
It begins with him speaking of them: “Father, I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.”
Jesus has made God’s name known to them by his teaching: “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 have sent me.”
But there is more here for John than imparting information, words about God.
In the Old Testament, the “Name” of God represented not just a means of identification but of character. In John’s Gospel, Jesus repeatedly speaks of himself as “I Am,” using the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush.
For John, Jesus is “the Word made flesh,” God in human form, divinity clothed in humanity. His whole life, deeds as well as words, is the word of God. He is the revelation to us of what God is like. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey said; “In God there is no un-Christlike thing.”
When we think of the disciples of whom Jesus speaks in this prayer and at the time he offers it, this seems a rather idealized picture. Judas has already left on his errand of betrayal, Peter will deny him and all but the Beloved Disciple will abandon him.
The Church listens to this prayer in Eastertide and we must understand it in the light of the resurrection. The group of disciples is reconstituted and reanimated by the presence of the risen Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit which had been promised in the teaching of the chapters which precede this great prayer for them. The disciples who had come to realize that their Master was much more than another rabbi, another religious teacher, had that knowledge confirmed by the resurrection.
The prayer is spoken aloud. It is both a communing of the Son with Father and at the same time a solemn lesson by the Master for the disciples. At the supreme crisis of the Lord’s work, they are allowed to listen to the interpretation of its course and issue, and to learn the nature of the office which they had themselves to fulfill. The words are a revelation of what he did and willed for us, and a type of that fellowship with the Father in which all is accomplished. Teaching is crowned by prayer.
Jesus speaks in the prayer of the disciples as God’s gift to him. When we say of someone that they think that they are “God’s gift,” we usually mean that the opposite is true. But what might it mean for us, for our lives, our words and deeds, if we were to take seriously the idea that we are God’s gift to Jesus, consecrated, set apart, for the work which he is to do in saving the world: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world?” They and we are sent into a world which the passion of Jesus and much since demonstrates is often profoundly hostile to the truth of God?
Like many disciples before us, our response to the idea that we are sent on such a mission might well be one of fear and trepidation. Religion as a source of spiritual comfort is one thing, but if it starts getting us into trouble; then that’s quite a different matter. That’s all right for bishops or vicars or missionaries, but not for us. In the light of such an all-too-human reaction, it is vital that we have a sense not only of calling but of divine protection. Just as Jesus has guarded those whom the Father had given him, so now he prays,
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as you are one.”
Jesus prays not simply that we be kept from harm in a world which may hate us, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one,” but that our sharing in his communion, his oneness with the Father, be kept alive, come what may. The world to which neither he nor they belong is the world which is set against the truth of God.
And so, when Jesus prays for those he is sending into the world, he says: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
It is in that situation that they and we must be sanctified in the truth: the truth which is God’s word.
How and where does this sanctification in the truth happen?
Remember that Jesus utters this prayer at the Last Supper with his disciples before his death. In his profound meditation on Christ, John does not give us the narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, as the other evangelists do, but those words “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth,” are the equivalent of “This is my body which is given for you….This is my blood which will be shed for you.”
The Son offers himself as a perfect offering, that so his disciples may be offered afterwards and through them the world, at the last, may be won.
What Jesus does with and for his disciples at the Last Supper, teaching them about God, making God’s name, the nature of his being, and his purposes for us known, praying for them, consecrating them, setting them apart for mission, drawing us into his consecration and offering of himself to Father, keeping them in communion with him and the Father, he continues to do Sunday by Sunday and day by day.
As we gather with him in this upper room, he washes our feet as he washed the disciples’ feet so that what separates us from God is done away. He speaks to us in scripture so that we might hear the words God has given for us. He takes us into his prayer for the Church and for the world. In Holy Communion he makes us one in that relationship of perfect love and mutual giving he shares with Father in the Spirit. In the sacrament he draws us ever deeper into his offering of himself to the Father for the salvation of the world. And then he sends us out into that world, having not only experienced his peace and joy but to share them with the world.