Texts: Psalm 97; Rev. 22:12-21; John 17:20-26
Prayer: O God, speak in this place, in the calming of our minds and the longing of our hearts, by the words of my mouth and in the meditations of our hearts. Amen.
Easter ends today. Endings are never easy. Leave-taking is hard. Something deep down in us resists mightily the move from presence to absence. We struggle when we move from active life to retirement, whatever that is. And I can tell you that the life-force in a human body is incredibly strong, even when the flesh of the body has worn itself out. We don’t want life as we know it to end—whether it be our own, or the life of those we loved, or the life of our previous activities, or some rich and wonderful experience. Yes, we resist…wanting to hold on to what has gone before.
But life is not ours to possess, but to use as best we can in the days that are allotted to us and among the people with whom we, by whatever chance, find ourselves living.
Goodbyes are crucial for life’s wholeness. Goodbyes are a reminder of the transience of life, and that transience is a good thing. Nothing comes to stay. It’s appropriate that we say goodbye, and that we do that with an open and willing heart, else we cannot live either in the present nor plan to live into our futures.
All of our Gospel lessons throughout this season of Easter have come from the Gospel of John. Things move along at a pretty good clip until you get to these four chapters between chapters 13 and 17. Here things slow down to a crawl as Jesus bids his friends and disciples farewell. This gospel began with the declaration that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14), and now it ends with Jesus saying goodbye. His goodbye is crucial for his followers.
John drags Jesus’ departure out so long that it can be said to be the problem in this gospel: Jesus, the one who called us, taught us, turned water into wine, raised the dead, became our good Shepherd, is leaving us. All four chapters take place on a long, sorrowful evening in spring, in a garden, a garden where Jesus is soon to be arrested and taken away to death—the ultimate ending and departure.
Here on this last Sunday of the year, if we take a good look at the Church (capital C—meaning the whole church), the absence of Jesus all these long centuries expresses itself in all our terrible dysfunctionality and the powerful witness of love.
But Jesus, trusting those whom he leaves behind, prays that the world—that is all the future generations who may not believe—may come to faith because of the witness of the his followers. He prays for the church—that’s all of us together, as a corpus. He trusts the community, the unity of God and himself and the believers. This understanding of unity points to the fact that we are all equal to one another. Christ is in US. I can’t be in Christ without also recognizing that “you” are in Christ, too.
At the moment of leave-taking, Jesus prays for us. WE are the community for whom Jesus prays….and THAT shapes the church, our life together, and our work together. We are not a collection of individuals, but gathered together here, we are something greater than the absence we think we feel at all the losses of this life. We are connected forever with him, and with God.
He prays that we will be one, as he and his Abba, his word for God, are one.
Not long ago a friend and member of one of my former congregations sent me a little vignette, about a visitor who decided, one Sunday, to go to church. He arrived in good time, and so took a convenient parking place. Just as he was getting out of his car, a driver clearly looking for a parking spot began to yell at him that he had taken his parking spot. The visitor shrugged, and went into the church. He looked around a took a seat, near the rear, so as not to stand out. Shortly, a couple arrived, and began to berate him that he had taken their pew. He shrugged and moved over to give the couple their seat. Later in the service, as the congregation was praying for Christ to dwell among them, the visitor stood up, and his appearance began to change. Scars became visible on his hands and on his sandaled feet. Someone from the congregation noticed him and called out, ‘What happened to you?’ The visitor replied, as his hat became a crown of thorns, and a tear fell from his eye, ‘I took your place’.
Now that little story is a bit on the hoky side, but it contains a sad message to the church. Jesus prayed that we would have the love in us that he had shared with God. And lots of times we do have that love.
Yesterday, I spoke to a group of women at First Presbyterian Church, as they celebrated the birthday of their women’s organization. Each women’s circle gave a report, and I heard of how a group of 15 women raised $2200 for various local mission projects; of how another circle made birthday cakes for the girls at the Florence Crittenden home for unwed mothers, girls who had never in their lives had a birthday cake or a birthday celebration. Day in and day out, Christians do these sorts of things, but our public image has really gotten bad of late.
So here’s another experiment for you to try in the coming week, as part of your faith journey. The idea came from a blog by another pastor, Dan Clendenin, called: “Journeys with Jesus: Notes To Myself.” Pastor Dan suggested that it would be instructive to learn how non-church-goers might respond—and remember that 80% of young adults in their 20s do NOT go to church these days—if asked what they think of Christians. Pastor Dan reported about an experiment given a psychology class at a major university: students were asked to find someone whom they feared, and to try to get to know them. Here’s the kicker: a full 40% of the students said that they feared Christians. Pastor Clendenin notes in his blog that “Whether we like it or not, we have been branded in these ways by a culture that for the most part sees the church primarily outside of the mainstream of current life.” Clendenin notes how “New Testament scholar Marcus Borg of Oregon State University, in a footnote to his book The Heart of Christianity, says that when he asks his unchurched university students to write a short essay about their impressions of Christianity, “they consistently use five adjectives: they think Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted.” If we were to do a survey of all Christians, I’m afraid that the majority would reveal just those characteristics. We have a terrible branding problem!
That branding problem says we Christians have forgotten the promise of Jesus to be with us always, to the end of the age, Matthew’s Gospel tells us. The book of Revelation ends with the last best word that the Gospel really has for the whole world. Apparently, we Christians just haven’t been very good at sharing it. It ends with an invitation: “The Spirit and the bride, say, ‘Come.’ And let EVERYONE who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” And then, in a prayer, the writer prays: Come, Lord Jesus. And the Bible ends with these words: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.” That’s the goodbye gift from the testimony of Scripture. It’s the word of love that abides with us, as God’s love lived in Jesus, and so is given to us to give to the world. And that’s a “hello” message to each one of us, a message of forgiveness, of hope. And it’s a message that we have to give to the disbelieving world.
I’m pretty sure that if we held on to that last best word as our guide and vision for what it means to be Christians, we might begin to change our branding problem, and…like the people of the Way of long ago, we might turn our world upside down. Amen. Come Lord Jesus!