Preached at St John the Divine, Victoria
Readings: Acts 1:6-14 & John 17:1-11
Audio available here.
There is something very human about the opening words in our reading from the Book of Acts today.
Jesus is gathered together again with his friends and disciples. They have come together at the Mount of Olives – that hill overlooking Jerusalem: the place where Jesus shed tears over the city, that place that holds the garden in which Jesus prayed on the night when he was betrayed, that place from which he was arrested.
But all of those things are passed now: the men and women gathered here have seen the crucifixion of Jesus and even in their doubt and confusion about whether or if it could happen, they have all been witnesses to his rising.
They’ve spent the last 40 days with Jesus but I am sure that they still had thousands of questions to ask of him – and here, on the Mount of Olives, at the very beginning of our reading from Acts we hear one of them:
Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?
It is a question that gives voice to a very human confusion, and maybe even disappointment, that continues to plague them even when looking into the face of the risen Christ. After all that they have been through, they are still seeking to have a political revolution when Jesus has patiently time and time again talked about a different sort of kingdom.
It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set…. begins Jesus – probably with a sigh, and probably leaving those gathered feeling a little bit chastened….
It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set… BUT … and here it shifts… but YOU will receive power. YOU will be my witnesses!
This is not a dismissal but an expansive empowering. They are the ones who will be bringing about this kingdom!
And then, suddenly, before they have had a chance to process the words and formulate a second question, Jesus is lifted up and disappears.
In one of the only recorded instance of his followers actually doing what Jesus says, his followers return to Jerusalem to wait. The way the writer of Acts phrases it, it sounds like they have returned to that same upper room where they are accustomed to waiting: except this time instead of cowering behind locked doors, they have gathered together – disciples, Jesus’ family, many of the women who have been following Jesus – all gathered together to pray.
Acts says they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.
I wonder if they had any inclination as to what was coming 10 days later on the day we now know as Pentecost?
I wonder if knowing would have changed how they prayed?
We, like those followers who were constantly devoting themselves to prayer while waiting in Jerusalem between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire, are living in-between.
On Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day. Next Sunday will be Pentecost.
This Sunday, we are in-between.
Between Ascension and Pentecost.
Between Jesus leaving and the birth of the church.
Between now and not yet.
Between belief and understanding.
In-between is an uncomfortable place to be; it is full of uncertainty and sometimes apprehension.
If we are honest, I suspect we’d agree that the disciple’s decision to hide away in a locked room between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection sometimes seems more appealing than their coming together to pray between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost.
But prayer is what Jesus has modelled for them to do.
In John, we don’t get an account of the disciples asking to be taught to pray and then having Jesus give them what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Instead, the gospel of John is full of examples of Jesus praying in public, in front of his disciples and in front of anyone who would listen.
Think about today’s gospel from John 17.
This prayer, part of what we call the “Farewell Discourse”, comes immediately after Jesus tells his disciples that he will return to his Father and that the grief they have will eventually turn to joy. Then, while still sitting at the Last Supper table with his friends, he launches into this intimate prayer we that read this morning.
I don’t know what that would have been like, I imagine it feeling like a super awkward eavesdropping session on Jesus. But, maybe the disciples were used to it by now and took it as a glimpse into Jesus’ relationship with God and the importance of relationship in our faith journey.
Still, it is too easy to pass by this prayer thinking it just another conversation with God and not worthy of any theological consideration.
It is too easy to convince ourselves that prayer is much to personal for it to contain anything to shape what we know about God.
Prayer is incredibly intimate, and yes it is a conversation, a dialogue. But it is more than that. Think of the global Anglican church – there is no statement of faith or set of doctrines that unites us. Rather it is our prayers – the words we say and pray together in our liturgy week in and week out. That is why the words of our liturgy matter so much! It is our theology! It reveals a lot about what we think about God and what our expectations might be.
This prayer in the gospel of John is a moment for us to see what we can learn from how Jesus’ prayed for us.
Reading it that way, we might find some things that surprise us.
“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.
It isn’t often that we get a straightforward definition of eternal life, especially one that doesn’t involve clouds or heaven or things like that. But here we have one: and THIS IS ETERNAL LIFE, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ who you have sent… (v3)
Is eternal life really that simple: to know God and know Jesus?
I wonder how that could change what we imagine in this life?
I wonder how it would affect our picture of God?
I wonder how that changes living in-between?
Suddenly living in-between isn’t very between, it simply is!
It is relationship with God: John’s gospel assumes that people were created by God for relationship with God, and all of our lives – the now and the not yet, the waiting and the uncertainty, the belief and understanding – flows out of that.
And we see that in the way that the gospel writer describes Jesus’ earthly ministry:
- The Word becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us, as a human subject to human relationships and hurts but also as one bringing the glory of God into humanity
- His care for human relationship that has Jesus turn water into wine at the wedding feast of his friends
- That intimacy of conversation between Jesus and an isolated Samaritan woman at a well who describes Jesus as one who truly knows her, down to the details of her personal life with her succession of husbands, and then who discovers what it means to have living water through Jesus
- Jesus bringing wholeness and restoration of relationship with others in their community to those who are separated by blindness or lameness
- Vulnerably weeping at the death of his good friend Lazarus
- Calling himself the shepherd that knows each one of his sheep so well that he can call us all by name.
It is no wonder that the disciples returned to prayer. Jesus had just been taken away from them and this was the way they had learned from him to continue to be in relationship while apart.
It is the way that we come together as a communion of people around the world and declare our belief and trust in God.
It is the way we are in relationship with each other and with God.
It is the way we are in eternal life, here and now, in the in-between and in the here.
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.