s111g97 11/5/97 Somerton Park Sunday after the Ascension
"I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves." (John 17:13).
When I was brought up I was taught that there were two birthdays for the Church. So the First Sunday in Advent, with the focus on the proclamation of St John the Baptist, which marked the beginning of the liturgical year, was considered in some ways the birthday of the Church. But alongside this, the Feast of Pentecost was also considered the birthday of the Church. Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday, was the time when the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples into apostles to proclaim the good news, and so was the birth of the Church. Others may have thought of Christmass and Easter in similar terms.
However in recent years, with the "new" lectionary, today, the readings for the Sunday after the Ascension have focused our attention on the Church as an institution.
I guess there is some logic to this. We celebrated the Ascension last Thursday, so Jesus is not with us in precisely the same terms as he was immediately after the resurrection. Yet we wait, anticipating the outpouring of the Holy Spirit about which we celebrate next week. So the disciples too waited, and having nothing better to do, we read of them electing a successor to Judas. In the hiatus between Jesus going and before the Spirit comes, we are left to our own devises, and the Church.
However it is the passages that we read from the 17th chapter of St John's gospel which really focus our attention, where Jesus had his attention focussed just before he died - on the Church.
Traditionally the prayer is broken up into three:
verses 1-5 where Jesus prays: "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you". (John 17:1).
verses 6-19 where Jesus prays for his disciples - "that they may have my joy made complete in themselves". (John 17:13).
and then in verses 20-26 Jesus prays "on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one ... so that the world may believe." (John 17:20-21).
The Revised Common Lectionary, using an ingenious slight of hand maintains the emphasis on Jesus' prayer for the disciples by reading verses 6-11 in both years A and B.
As I began to realise this emphasis on the Church this day, I started to use the post communion prayer which has the phrase "Remember your church which you have purchased by his blood" (p 174) in An Australian Prayer Book - sadly this is the one post communion prayer that seems to have disappeared in the new book.
We remember the Church on this Sunday after the Ascension, the Church for whom Jesus prayed and for whom he died.
I repeat my words of a couple of weeks ago about what constitutes the Church. It is not we here in this building - but all those with eyes to see the good in those around them.
When Jesus doesn't pray for the world, he does not do so in a fit of pique, that they haven't followed him or were about to crucify him. It is simply because it is a waste of breath to pray for those who cannot see the good around them. When people are so intent on their own agendas and intentions, they will see nothing beyond them.
We too could remember the Church in our prayers. Each service of Holy Communion I say something like: "In the Anglican Cycle of Prayers we are bidden to pray today for ..." The Anglican Cycle of Prayer is a list of the Provinces, Dioceses and Bishops throughout the world. To this are added a National Cycle, mentioning each part of the Australian Church in turn. Then here in this place we have someone who lists out each part of the Church in South Australia, so that all can be included, on a regular (if not frequent) basis.
I am reminded of a sign in an old Anglo-catholic Church, about behaviour in Church. It commended things like: not chatting to people before the service and being careful about what we speak about afterwards. It was all very reverent and solemn. But it ended with the sentiment - to pray for those who minister in the particular church. And surely this is in the spirit of Jesus' own prayers for the Church.
I have been much encouraged by the most kind expressions of support that many of you here have given me, and I guess that is a sign that you are also remembering me in your prayers. I am most grateful for this. Everyone in the public eye needs this prayer, if only because of the competing calls on ones time and attention.
Remember the Church, because Christianity always takes us beyond ourselves, our own needs and fantasies, to others. The same holds true for the Church, she takes us beyond herself to those around us. It is always and ever an outward looking faith. Indeed a very wise priest once said to me the first duty of the sick is to pray for someone else. Often the greatest healing we can receive is to learn that we have a ministry to others.
Jesus prays that "they may be one as we are one" (17.11). One of the great doctrines of the Church is the doctrine of "atonement". While this has become muddied by expressions like making atonement for one's sins - it actually simply means "at - one - ment". However it has happened and whatever has been swept away to enable it, we are simply "at one" with God. It means that there is nothing that separates us from God, and that we are living our lives according to God's will. We surely cannot be "at one" with God, but facing the opposite direction that he would have us go.
Jesus, while he was "at one" with God, he was at that time separated from God in his fullness. That separation was to become greater, even to the extent that Jesus would cry from the cross: "Why have you forsaken me?" So being "at one" with God does not necessarily mean living in God's pocket as it were. We can be "at one" with God yet separated from God - we can indeed feel quite deserted by the divine. In that moment when Jesus achieved so much for others he felt completely abandoned by the Almighty.
Looked at in this light, being "at one" with God is much more likely to imply having identical purpose rather than some sort of mystical communication. It is linked, I would suggest, to following Jesus, and looking at the good in all sorts of different people.
The example of Jesus on the Cross shows us that the particular emotions we feel at any particular time in our lives are not gauge as to the extent of how close or otherwise we are to God, or how effectively God is or is not working through us. Jesus own pain meant he was in no better position than ourselves to judge this. I am reminded of the writing "Footprints" when the two sets of prints become one when the going got tough. It was then that God carried the writer, not disappeared, as the writer has assumed.
So to being "at one" with one another as Jesus prays for us to be, does not mean living in one another's pockets. It does not mean that the only true Christian existence is when we are so close a community that everyone knows everyone else's business around us. Being "at one" can involve separation. We can simply let others be the person they choose to be - even to those who seem to be most at odds to what we perceive God's will is.
So, in the midst of these words we find Jesus talking about the one destined to be lost. (17.12) Never do we find Jesus remonstrating with Judas, trying to persuade him to see sense or running after him to try to change his mind. Never would a threat of eternal damnation seem more appropriate, yet we do not hear Jesus utter this compelling argument. How often do we resort to threats of eternal damnation at the drop of a hat, just when someone does something which confronts or opposes us?
I return to my text for this sermon: "I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves." (John 17:13). Jesus bequeaths us joy, the ultimate gift. The most precious joy is not when we are "at one" with God, or "at one" with others. In the end, the most precious gift of joy comes when we are "at one" with ourselves - when we can live with ourselves, without fear or recrimination. When we can accept ourselves, just as Jesus has accepted us, just as we are, without facades or false modesty.
I have lived enough of my life to know the misery of self recrimination and of living to please others. I would hasten to add that would not want to say that I now have conquered all these negative things in my life. But when Jesus prays for us to be one, it is firstly a prayer for me and for you, that we may be one that path where self recrimination and living to please others are no more, and that we find the joy of being "at one" with ourselves.
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