Jesus is Praying for Us – June 2, 2019

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday of Easter: the Sunday after Ascension Day

In the name of the God who loves us totally, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  AMEN.

I don’t know if Fr. Lang checked the liturgical calendar when he decided on his retirement date.  Or maybe God had a plan in his decision, because he certainly couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate time!  In our liturgical life we’re between the time of Jesus’ Ascension, when he left his disciples for good, and Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.  This was an in-between time, for the first disciples and for us.

When Jesus ascended to heaven, as our tradition teaches, his disciples were saddened and confused at his departure.  Not unlike us, as we are both sad at Nicholas’ leaving and a little anxious about the future.  We too are in an in-between time. Please know, however, that God is always with us and that Fr. Lang trusts us, as Jesus trusted his first disciples, to live into all we have been taught: radical welcome, hospitality, inclusion, diversity, social justice, the lessons Jesus himself embodied.

So here we are in this in-between time, together.  All of us.  And we hear Jesus praying for us in today’s Gospel. It comforts me, actually, as much as I struggled with this text, that Jesus is praying for me, and for you, for us together.

We’re at the tail-end of the Easter season, and we no longer have Resurrection appearances in our reading.  Today we get a picture of Jesus at the Last Supper, his last time with his friends and disciples. It has to be poignant and painful for Jesus, if not for the disciples.  At this point of the text, the supper is over. The wine has been drunk and the bread eaten. Feet have been washed.  After a long, rambling discourse (three whole chapters’ worth in John’s Gospel), Jesus finally ends with a prayer: sometimes called the High Priestly Prayer—we’ve just heard the end of it. Then they’re out of the house and across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane.

These are Jesus’s last words before his arrest and the Passion: “I made your name known to them… so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” These are the last words at the Last Supper, when Jesus asks that his followers be united in truth and love so that their lives will be witness to the world that Jesus is indeed Lord.  This prayer includes us.  The requirement for unity doesn’t mean unanimity, but a connection in our common life in Christ which commends the faith to others and reaches out beyond itself to a hurting world.

He was praying for them, that they would believe in what he had taught them and would live into it.  And Jesus is counting on us to share the message of love and wholeness and inclusion wherever we are in life, with whomever we encounter, by embracing and living it.    The Prayer is answered when we live in patience and love with one another.

I try and pray for a lot of people.  I have a long prayer list, persons from our national and world life, for our bishops and other leaders, a lot of individual persons.  Last week Nicholas asked us to pray for him.  So, to know that Jesus is praying for me, for all disciples whether in the 1st century or the 21st is both encouraging and energizing! No matter what we are facing in our lives, no matter how tough things may be, Jesus is praying for us.

And what I think Jesus is saying to us in this long prayer/sermon is that we need to hang on to one another, to take care of one another, to love one another.  The “one another” that Jesus is talking about extends beyond our own community.

The world has its own way of creating disunity through division, where identity is formed over and against and at the expense of others. “We know we are us because we are not them,” is what we hear from many leaders both here and abroad.  It is into this world Jesus is praying for unity.

The world’s “unity” has been forged at the expense of the marginalized, the outcast, the designated “enemy.” It is the violence of racism, homophobia, and religious bigotry, the formation of communities and cultures and nations with borders that not only shape those inside, but keep others outside. And this is antithetical to what Jesus wants: real unity that reaches across boundaries and draws everyone in.

Our life as Christians is to see the face of Christ in one another, in every person, to treat all as we would treat Jesus.  To be icons of Christ every day of our lives.  To let the light of Christ shine through us.  To love one another as we love ourselves, as we are loved by God.  And Jesus prays that we will be able to do this in the first words of the prayer, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” He’s praying that others will come to believe in him by our example and witness.  It is a huge responsibility!

Living a life aligned with Jesus is extremely difficult. We practice and practice, trying to get even a few basics right, and the basics are not about what we believe but about how we live. It’s mostly unglamorous work, as unglamorous as brushing teeth at the bookends of the day, or playing scales and arpeggios endlessly while learning the piano. I don’t think that there is anything resembling expertise that exists in the Christian life. How can we become experts at receiving the totally undeserved mercy of God on a daily basis? How can we learn better to allow our hearts to break more often for people who suffer? Exactly what kind of mastery would be necessary to live consistently in unself-serving ways? There’s a reason we speak meaningfully of practicing the faith. It’s all practice.[1]

“I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business,” Maya Angelou once remarked. “It’s not something where you think, ‘Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day—hot diggity.’ The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it. And then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, ‘Hmmm. I only blew it 86 times. Not bad.’ I’m trying to be a Christian.”[2]

Jesus spent his ministry showing people, beginning with his disciples, how wide and expansive God’s love is.  And that God wanted to be in relationship with every person.  That God didn’t erect boundaries excluding some and including others.  Jesus taught that all persons were God’s children, that everyone he encountered was beloved of God, and that the only way we put ourselves outside God’s embrace was by self-exclusion.  This is the message the disciples in every generation were to learn and live into and share.  And this is what he was telling them again that last night before he died. That all persons were loved unconditionally.  No exceptions.

Knowing that Jesus is praying for us, that Jesus is rooting for us to live into the example he has given us consoles me greatly.  And encourages me to keep trying to be a Christian, as Maya Angelou said.

[1] Peter Marty, The Christian Century, October 24, 2018 issue.

[2] Ibid.

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