First Sunday after Ascension Day
Sermon for Sunday 28th May 2017, first Sunday after Ascension Day,
May I speak in the Name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made: without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life and that life was the light of all mankind.”
No my friends, I haven’t got my readings muddled up! But to fully appreciate the reflective beauty of John’s very different Gospel, it helps to know where he was coming from and why he wrote as he did. To begin with this hymn from Genesis in praise of God’s creative power, John set the scene. He was writing about God, Jesus, the Logos or Word of God, He wanted there to be no doubt who Jesus was and why He came. We don’t get the Nativity story in John; we start with God coming in human form, announced by John the Baptist. “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
This is the Sunday following Ascension Day and the other three Gospels include an account of His Ascension, however brief. Mark ends with Jesus’ last commission to His disciples and then simply that He was taken up into heaven and sat down at God’s right hand. Matthew doesn’t mention His Ascension per se, just His last words, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” And Luke says that He ascended into the sky and went on to heaven after blessing the disciples. He adds more to this in the Acts reading which we heard this morning, which starts with the Ascension and the comforting words of the two angels. But John doesn’t give an account of the Ascension at all! He gives us the words, the last words of Jesus, His parting message commissioning Peter after sharing a meal on the beach. The account of the men fishing and recasting their nets is another story unique to John which gives a visual interpretation of Jesus commission to His disciples.
Words are so important. And last words even more so. If we knew we weren’t going to see someone we loved again, our words would be well chosen, meaningful and trying to give that person a real understanding of how we felt, our love, our sense of sorrow at leaving them, and something to hold on to when we weren’t with them anymore, something to encourage and sustain them. John’s recording of this last prayer he remembers from Jesus before His crucifixion meant so much to him. He recalled the words in great detail and wanted them to be read by others to sustain them, and to convince them of the power of Jesus’ word; the disciples said that only Jesus had the words that give eternal life; so John brought his story of Jesus’ work to its conclusion as he started, with the Word of God. For John, Jesus’ death and resurrection were the fulfilment of His purpose in taking on our Humanity. Maybe the return of Jesus from whence He came is simply understood once His work is complete. Jesus takes our humanity into glory, a Man in heaven!
John’s gospel is so different from the others; it almost wasn’t included in the New Testament as an authoritive account of Jesus life. His gospel contains some of the most beautiful and powerful stories we know of Jesus and some of the most mystical and profound teaching we find in the New Testament. He does use some of the stories which the others recall but John chose to record more of Jesus’ words, His conversations with others. His gospel is full of long discourses in which Jesus reveals Himself as the Messiah throughout His ministry, in control and focused in His purpose. We get the wonderful story of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman only in John; amazing because Jesus chose to reveal Himself not just to a Samaritan but a Samaritan woman...unheard of in every aspect of His culture.
John also places Jesus in Jerusalem far more often than the other writers and his focus is on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, revealed through His words and miracles. John records Jesus’ “I Am” sayings, identifying Himself with God who gave His name to Moses as “I AM that I AM”. There are so many references to His eternal existence and to His deity, John leaves no doubt that Jesus is the Son of God, in Greek, the Logos or Word.
I could chat forever about this wonderful gospel but let’s go on to today’s reading! The joy of preaching is that there is never a time when you think, what is God saying to us in this but the self learning is how to keep focused. We are reading a living word and the excitement of sharing is something I am learning to condense!!
This beautiful prayer of Jesus was shared before His death and it touches us all because we are included in it. We have used this as a reading to bring Easter to a close before Pentecost but it actually preceded the Passion. It follows the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet and then 4 Chapters of Jesus talking to His disciples and preparing them. The prayer sums up Jesus’ ministry, purpose and love for His people. John, as a Jew, believed that we were created to have a relationship with God, to experience His love and guidance throughout life and for our obedience to be honouring to God, leading to eternal life in His presence and this is exactly what Jesus was sharing in this prayer. In His humanity Jesus prayed as we do; as God, He was speaking about eternal plans, shared from the beginning of time.
The content of this prayer is comparable in many ways to the Lord’s Prayer and also Moses’ prayer in Deuteronomy just before His death, as he handed the children of Israel into God’s care. It is a moving, beautiful insight into not only the heart of Jesus but of His relationship with God, throughout eternity, and how we fit into that.
The intercessions are all closely knit, God, Jesus and His people become one. Jesus speaks of glory and in the Greek this can be translated as honour. And this glory shared between Father and Son culminates on the cross.
The first part of the Prayer is about Jesus’ own mission of redemption and how God will glorify Him through His death and resurrection. So God honours His Son because of His obedience and Jesus honours God by the words He speaks and the miracles He has performed in direct communion with God’s will. But this glory or honour has been shared “before the world began”, and Jesus says how everything that has happened and will happen is because this has always been the plan of God. Jesus makes a clear statement about His understanding of eternal life. It is something Christians and non Christians ponder and debate with passion, but Jesus says the way to have eternal life is to know the only true God and the One He sent to earth. “Knowing” in the Biblical sense is not about head knowledge but about a relationship; a relationship with a living God and with Jesus which leads to loving two-way communication and ultimately to sharing their glory. That is an amazing inheritance.
Jesus also prays for His disciples. He says some heart warming things about these ordinary men and women. They were loved as belonging to God from the beginning of time and they are His because they have listened and obeyed Him. Abraham was considered righteous because he obeyed God, Jesus is glorified as a Man because He obeyed God. It seems we demonstrate our love and faith by obedience to God and that brings honour to Him.
Jesus says His disciples are a gift to Him and bring Him glory or honour. When you think of how they let Him down and failed to understand so much about Him, it seems a lovely acknowledgement of what they would be, rather than what they actually were, Jesus looking through eyes of love and surety of the work of the Holy Spirit. He asks God to keep them safe as He did whilst He was with them, protecting them from Satan’s temptations and deceits. His concern was the protection of their spiritual integrity so that they would not be misled. He knows their faithfulness to His message will give the foundations for many to come to Him over the generations. He sees their success.
Jesus isn’t praying for the whole of His creation, as He knows this world is in God’s hands and providence and I think He takes that as given, after all, He is the Word through whom all life exists. This prayer is, for the moment, concerned with those who seek to know God rather than for the antagonistic world beyond that. But for His disciples He makes a special prayer for unity and openness to His Holy Spirit, who will hold them once Jesus’ glorified Body returns to His Father’s side.
This prayer is beautiful and it seems that the whole of the message of scripture is here. Have you seen those books for children where the publishing company will put your child’s name in as a vital character into the story? Like “Richard tames the Night Hawk Dragon”. To me, the wonder of the Bible is that is exactly what God has done. People from each book of the Bible are named. We know about them, we can share their lives and struggles, joys and sorrow, they are real people, heroes or villains of the story, and we can identify with so many of them. And as this story unfolds and Jesus comes to fulfil all the scriptures, He puts our names there too. We are mentioned, prayed for, seen as part of God’s glory. That just blows me away, doesn’t it you? Like the Emmaus Road story where we added our name as Cleopas’ companion, so here in the prayer of Jesus, we see ourselves again. We are part of this longer prayer as He prays for those who hear the Gospel and respond in faith for all future believers. His prayer is that all who love and obey God will be one with each other and with God and Himself.
There is mystery in fully understanding the nature of the Trinity and even more mystery in understanding how we become truly part of that.
But that is the wonder of the Bible. It is living words, and we are right in there; our names may not be visible in each page unless we look for them but they are there, and clearly written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. And what is more amazing is that they were there even before the Bible was written!!
Jesus prayer for His church hasn’t been fully answered yet. There are chapters of this book still to be written. There are divisions in the unity of the church, different denominations, different interpretations, squabbles and power struggles. We can be those as yet unnamed heroes, the ones who show unity, share with love and tolerance and by our words and actions show that we are the ones Jesus spoke about, we are His glory.
I know most preachers start with a story, but I would like to end with one!
It was Ascension Day and Jesus returned to heaven. Everyone was thrilled and excited to welcome Him home. The Angel Gabriel came to speak with Him.
“Lord,” he said, “you have done a great work of salvation, restoring humanity to the Father.” Jesus smiled and quietly said “Yes”
Then Gabriel asked Him, “Lord, now you have returned to us in heaven, how do you plan to continue the work you have started and for everyone to know about your salvation?”
Jesus’ eyes sparkled with pride, “I have asked Peter, James, John, Martha and Mary and others to tell their friends, and they will tell their friends and so my Word will spread to the end of the earth.”
“Lord,” asked Gabriel, puzzled, “But what if Peter is busy mending his nets, James and John may have other business to attend to, Martha will surely be cleaning and Mary reflecting. What if they haven’t time to tell their friends, what if their friends don’t listen or are busy too. Surely you have another plan to ensure your word is carried to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus smiled His beautiful smile, “No Gabriel, I have no other plan, no plan B. I am counting on my friends.”
Margie Gall at Llanos on Sunday 28th May 2017
The views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the Church of England.