A Sermon for 13 May 2018 – Ascension Sunday & 7th Sunday of Easter
[Acts 1:1-11, and John 17:6-19, NRSV]
A reading from the gospel of John 17:6-19. If you’ve followed the last couple of weeks of our gospel readings, then you know that this portion of John still happens during that last supper Jesus had with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. Apparently, he had a lot to say that night! This part of John’s 17th chapter has Jesus turning his eyes heavenward to talk with God. At the close of all the words recorded on his lips that night, Jesus is praying for his followers. Our own needs are foremost in his heart. Listen for God’s word to us as Jesus addresses God.
“’I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for 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 sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 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. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Recently, a colleague told me about a scene from a movie that brought goose bumps to her skin. It’s one of those sci-fi type films set in a strange, other world. There are these creatures. As I heard of them, I pictured some sort of animated thing similar to monkeys – with really long tails. I’m not sure about the premise of the movie, but after a challenging, chase scene; the monkey-like creatures stop for a moment. They are somewhere out in a forestry-jungle – and they obviously are exhausted. Suddenly, in one accord; all the creatures stick the tip of their tail into the land under their feet. When they do, the scene captures the flow of energy all around. From the land, into their tails, into each creature’s body. And from the land below each creature’s feet, outward to the feet of the creature next to them, then up into their bodies too. In what must have been one amazing moment, movie viewers saw something like a vibrant electrical current connecting it all. Land to creature and creature to creature. Like the web of roots under the floor of a forest – connecting one tree to another. The whole scene transfixed into one!
Last week, I heard another story. Our Executive Presbyter Warner Durnell told the story in his sermon in worship at the start of the Presbytery meeting last week. (Source unknown.) It’s about a farm mouse, who lives in the farm house, and is absolutely panicked when the farmers order a mouse trap to set in the house. Frantic, the mouse goes from animal to animal shrieking: “There’s a mouse trap in the house!” From the chicken, to the pig, to the fattening cow. Each animal tells the little mouse, “I hear you. And I can see how you might have need for alarm. But what concern is a little mouse trap to me?” The other animals think the mouse’s problem has no impact on their lives. So, they encourage the little mouse to head out to the field to hide out on his own. A mousetrap in the house is of no consequence to the chicken, the pig, or the fattening cow. Until that very night, when the farmer hears rustling close to where the trap had been set. Fumbling in the dark – convinced of their success in putting an end to the nuance of the mouse that has been in their house; the farmer arrives near the trap only to see – too late – that the tail of a venomous snake is caught in the trap. Before the farmer can react, the snake snatches down on the farmer’s leg releasing the deadly poison into the farmer’s body. The story goes that the farmer was rushed to the hospital and thankfully survived the night. When the farmer and his wife finally returned home the next afternoon, the farmer’s wife decided some chicken soup might be exactly what her husband needed to regain his strength. She heads out to the barn to ring the chicken’s neck in order to make the soup. A few days later, the farmer takes a turn for the worse. All the children come home to sit bed-side, waiting to see if dad will make it. With the house full again, the farmer’s wife decides to prepare dinner for them all. Having the pig slaughtered, the family sits down to a meal of ham and mashed potatoes. Followed by fried bacon for the next morning’s breakfast. The farmer doesn’t make it. After the funeral, neighbors from far and wide come calling upon the farmer’s wife and family. People are everywhere on the farm, and obviously the farmer’s wife is the kind of woman who can’t let a soul go home hungry. She calls for the fattening cow. All the guests feast on her infamous beef stew. From the forest’s edge, the little mouse watched it all. Terribly sad that his barnyard friends couldn’t see what he saw: a threat to him was a threat to all. For as the little mouse knew: they all were one.
I could go on. After all, it’s mothers’ day and who knows better than a mother that the child that grows in her womb remains one with her forever. . . . One. We all are one. Jesus says it in his prayer for his disciples. “May they know they are one the way you and I, Holy Father, are one” (John 17:11). He’ll say it again in the verses that follow the reading we heard today. When he expands the circle beyond the first ones present that night to us all. The gospel records: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one’” (John 17:20-23a).
Today is the day in the church year when we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord. Ascension Day technically takes place ten days prior to Pentecost; so, forty days after Easter. In other words, a few days ago on Thursday. But since it’s not really a Presbyterian thing to gather for worship exactly forty days after Easter, it’s typical to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord the Sunday after instead. It’s why we’re singing hymns that remind us of the risen and ascended Christ. And why our first reading was from Acts chapter 1. Captured there is that mysterious story. In Acts, we’re told that the Risen Christ had commanded his followers to remain together in Jerusalem. Waiting for the moment when the Holy Spirit would douse them with incredible power. Enlivening them to witness right where they were, all over their homeland, and beyond – even to the ends of the earth! The story goes that as he speaks, the Risen Christ is lifted up out of their sight. Like the time the prophet Elijah was taken up before Elisha’s eyes. Those first disciples must have rubbed their eyes wondering exactly what they had witnessed. Acts records that they stood there staring for a while – likely with their chins on the ground, their eyes searching. . . . After all, did you hear what he just told them? Sure, they were going to get the Holy Spirit. But it meant that he expected them to go tell the story. To speak about what they had seen. To enact what Christ had enacted among them. To risk angering the very same ones who six weeks earlier had put Jesus to death. No matter. He expected them to see the way he did: one. One. Each connected one to another. One. . . . Maybe Jesus’ first followers stood gazing up at heaven to figure out what they had seen. But, more likely they really wanted to get away too. So that they were standing there internally pleading: “Take me! Take me too!”
How often have the people of God similarly been locked, looking to the heavens? Over the years, we’ve even concocted all sorts of elaborate – inaccurate – theologies of how someday God will come to destroy this all. But not before we’re taken up too, either before or after a 1,000-year reign of the returned Christ. Because really? Who wants to be left here one more day to endure the difficulties of this earth? The challenges of a post-modern world. The fast-pace life of a technological culture. . . . No matter how deep the human impulse to fly away into the skies with God, to incorrectly make the spiritual journey all about me and the One up there; one commentator has written: “Instead of retreat from the world, Christ offers an alternative model that can empower the community to live in the world without succumbing to its values and pressures. They (we) are to stay in the world under the protective care of God.” Loving one another because we are connected one to another and to it all. That same commentator writes that we “are to live amidst all of the knotted complexities of the world without . . . getting entangled. . . . Christ reminds the church that the pattern of his own life was not escape from the world but engagement with the world, with all of its distorted powers and pressures (Thomas H. Troeger, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2; p. 547, 549). No matter how much we might want to stare upwards – to focus on a relationship with a God that is out there beyond us as the point of it all; before his crucifixion, Christ fervently prays for us to look at the space between us. To know that we might be a zillion different individuals – all created with particular gifts and unique abilities – but we are one. Connected – whether we want to be or not. Whether we like the neighbors around us or not. Whether we have a single concern for their plight, or not. It’s how we have been made – in the image and likeness of the One that is Father and Son and Holy Spirit too. Christ in us, and he in God, and we – all – completely one.
May we have the eyes to see, the minds to envision, and the wills always ready to act.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)