A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
June 1, 2014
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “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. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 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. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 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. 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. 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” (NRSV).
Has anyone ever prayed for you?
I mean, out loud? In your presence? Where you could hear every word they were saying? It happened to me once. I was in the hospital, having the only surgery I’ve ever had in my life. I was in that area they call pre-op, waiting behind a curtain for the orderlies to come and take me away. I was trying to be brave, but I really didn’t know what I was in for. And then Pam Cobb showed up. Pam was the Director of Missions for the Baptist association in Henry County, Kentucky, one of only a handful of women who had been appointed to such a position at that time. I had been one of the pastors who had lobbied for her appointment. She was a member of my church, and a good one. I thought she could do a fine job as DOM. Some people complained that she wasn’t all that personable, that she did well with the administrative side of things, but when it came to the other side—the personal, pastoral side—her skills were lacking. I don’t know if that’s why she came to see me, I don’t know if she was trying to prove somebody wrong, but it didn’t matter: she came. She visited with me for just a few minutes and then offered to pray for me and I have to tell you, I felt myself lifted up by her prayer, lifted right up into God’s presence, and suddenly I knew that whatever happened in the operating room, I was going to be all right.
And I was.
That was twenty five years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. It’s one of the reasons I try to make sure that if someone in this congregation is having surgery, someone goes by and says a prayer with them beforehand. It doesn’t have to be me: it could be a deacon, a member of their Sunday school class, or one of our other pastors, but I want to make sure that somebody prays with them, mostly because of how much it meant to me when I was getting ready to have surgery. Now, before I start getting phone calls I probably need to confess that we are not always successful. Sometimes, during knee replacement season there are more surgeries than we can staff. But when we can, we try to get somebody there. It means so much to have someone pray for you, and to pray out loud, so you can hear what they are saying.
That’s what we have here in John 17: Jesus’ prayer for his disciples. And unlike the other Gospels Jesus doesn’t go off a stone’s throw away to pray: he does it right there at the supper table, where all the disciples are gathered around, where they can hear every word he says. Think how much it would mean to hear Jesus pray for us, his modern-day disciples, and say: “They have kept your word, Holy Father; they are yours; protect them in your name.” But if you had asked those disciples afterward what Jesus had said I’m not sure they would have been able to repeat it. It’s like that sometimes, in those holy moments: we feel everything that’s going on around us but we may not remember a word that was said. I sometimes present the bride and groom at a wedding with a full manuscript of the service because I’m pretty sure they won’t remember what was said. Sometimes you can tell just by the way they look into each other’s eyes. And those disciples: they may have been so overwhelmed by the idea that Jesus was praying for them that they didn’t remember a thing he said.
But somebody did.
Whoever wrote the Gospel of John was paying attention, scribbling notes like mad as Jesus prayed. Maybe that’s why some people assume he was the disciple Jesus loved. He wrote down every word of that prayer so that we can read what Jesus prayed for his disciples then and imagine what he would pray for his disciples now. There is so much I’d like to say about this prayer, but one of the things that has caught and held my attention is the phrase, “finishing the work.” “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do,” Jesus says, and it made me wonder: what work was that? The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is a line from the very beginning of John’s Gospel, where the author says that Jesus came to his own people and his own people didn’t accept him, “but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” This was his work, according to John: to give people the power to become children of God.
How did he do it? He came to live among us, to love us, to reveal the heart of the Father. But then, when his hour had come, the real work began, and as far as we can tell in this Gospel his work was to die for us, and then rise from the dead, and then ascend into heaven. It wasn’t just dying (that might have only kept us from perishing), and it wasn’t just rising (that might have only given us eternal life), it was also ascending: entering into the eternal presence of the Father, and making a place for us there. I’m not sure I’ve ever understood it in quite that way before but my friend Karoline Lewis has changed my thinking on this subject. She has persuaded me that these three things—dying, rising, and ascending—make up the final work of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel: that this is what he does when his “hour” finally comes.
I’ve pictured it like this: Jesus coming into the world through the Incarnation; spending those years among us to show us the heart of the Father, to prove to us his love; and then—through his death, resurrection, and ascension—making a way from earth and heaven so that all who receive him, who believe in his name, can follow him through that opening to be with him forever. That was his work, and his disciples got to see more of it than they wanted. Just after Jesus said that prayer for them he was arrested, tried, and crucified. Some of them were standing close enough to hear his final words from the cross—“It is finished”—but maybe he only meant that that part of his work was finished. There was still the rising to do, and three days after his death he did that. But when Mary saw him in the garden and tried to hold onto him he told her to let go because he still had work to do. “Go and tell my brothers I am ascending,” he said, “To my father and your father; to my God and your God.”
It may have been only after his ascension that they had time to reflect on his work and to remember the words of that prayer. The way Luke tells the story, they spent ten days in that upper room, waiting and praying for the promised power from on high. They would have had plenty of time to think about his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his ascension. They would have had time recall the words of his prayer. Maybe that disciple was there who had written it down, and maybe at some point they asked him to read it aloud. Let me do that now, and let me ask you to listen as if Jesus were praying just for you:
[read the Gospel lesson]
Did you hear Jesus praying that you might have eternal life, and that you might have it by knowing the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he sent? Did you hear him asking the Father to protect you? Did you hear him pray that we might all be one? Those are wonderful words, but that’s not all of the prayer. It goes on from there. In fact, the entirety of John 17 is this “high priestly prayer,” in which Jesus intercedes on our behalf. He prays that the Father would sanctify us. He prays that we might have joy, and that our joy might be full. He prays that the love with which the Father has loved him might be in us. It’s a beautiful prayer, a powerful prayer. It can move you almost to tears. It can even move you to action. In John 17:18 Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Which suggests that we have some work to finish as well.
A Lutheran minister named Bradley Schmeling (rhymes with “mailing”) tells a story about a worship service he planned for Ascension Day. He said his church didn’t usually observe Ascension Day. It always falls on a Thursday and people don’t usually come to church on that day. But he was presiding at a ministers’ conference and the first day of meetings was scheduled for a Thursday which just happened to be Ascension Day. He thought he should do something, but wasn’t sure what to do. He talked to some other ministers and one of them remembered an ancient tradition where the Paschal candle, the one that is kept burning all through the Easter season, is snuffed out on Ascension Day. He writes: “This seemed too literal to most of the group—a ritual extinguishing of the presence of Christ among us, nothing left of the light except an unfortunate wisp of smoke curling its way to the ceiling. I imagined everyone at the worship service standing there staring up as the smoke disappeared into the hotel ballroom HVAC system.”[i]
But it’s tempting to think of it that way, isn’t it? That Jesus came and went. And for all the beauty and power of his prayer it is a little too easy to believe that it’s all we have left: words, mere words, that curl toward the ceiling and disappear like a wisp of smoke. But listen to what those crazy Lutherans did: as that minister had suggested they snuffed out the Paschal candle, but before that a liturgical dancer moved through the room with a basket full of smaller candles. She lit them, one by one, and gave one to each person in the room. As she did someone dimmed the lights, lower and lower, until the room was almost dark. And then, with a flourish, she bowed to the candle, and snuffed out its light, and the smoke curled up, and the lights went off, but as those Lutherans looked around they saw that it was lit up by all those little candles, and the faces of all who held them were glowing with a holy glow.
That may be as clear a picture as we get in this life of what Christ has done for us. He came to us, loved us, and set us on fire with the light that he was. He died for us, rose again, and made a way between earth and heaven, so that someday we can follow him into the Father’s eternal presence. For now, here we are, sent as he was sent, to light up the world he loves.[ii] “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” Jesus prays. “Holy Father, love them, protect them, make them one, so that the world will know that you sent me.” And the world may be looking at us even now, to see if anything they have heard about Jesus is true. I wonder…
What will they see?
[i] Bradley E. Schmeling, “Living by the Word” (Christian Century, May 28, 2014), p. 20.
[ii] Karoline Lewis says, “It is, perhaps, one of the most relevant and truthful definitions of what Pentecost is supposed to be as disciples of Christ. Jesus is no longer in the world. The incarnation is over. Jesus has been resurrected. He ascended to the Father from whence he came (1:1). But we are still in the world, Jesus’ works are now in our hands (14:12), and Jesus is counting on us to be his presence in the wake of his absence” (21:15-17). From the Working Preacher website.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.