Today is the 7thSunday of Easter, the season of Eastertide is drawing to a close. It will end next Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost. Today is also known as the Sunday after the Ascension because this past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. Although it’s a major feast day in the Church, we didn’t have a service here at Grace—if we had, almost no one would have attended. I know, because we tried it a couple of times.
That’s pretty typical. The low visibility of Ascension in the life of the church is partly due to its occurrence on a weekday—it’s the 40thday after Easter, so it always on a Thursday. But that’s not the only reason. I think it’s also because it makes 21stcentury Christians just a bit uncomfortable. Take a look at the image on the front cover of the service bulletin.
(Mantegna, The Ascension, 1461)
There are the disciples looking up as Jesus disappears into the clouds; a fairly faithful depiction of what’s described in the gospels. But it’s dependent on a worldview most of us no longer share. That up above the sky that we see is a heaven where God resides. We may believe in heaven, but we know that up above the sky we see is a vast universe that apparently extends into infinity.
I think it’s helpful to understand the ascension in terms of presence and absence. Jesus was among his disciples, even the Risen Christ was present with his disciples, though the gospels don’t tell us much about what he did in the 40 days he was with them; Luke says he taught them about the Kingdom of God. But with the ascension, Jesus is no longer present in the same way with them and now, in the time after the Ascension, is a waiting period.
We see that in today’s reading from the Book of Acts. It’s quite interesting that the lectionary editors chose to include this little episode in our reading from Acts this year, and that they placed it here, after we’ve heard the wonderful stories of the spirit’s movement—the Ethiopian Eunuch, and the story of Cornelius the Centurion, and before Pentecost, when again we hear a story of the movement of the Spirit.
But in today’s reading while we hear of the movement of the Spirit, it is to do something quite different, namely to provide for order, succession, and structure. It’s interesting to see that even at this early point, the disciples, Jesus’ closest companions, even as they waited for whatever might happen next, were making plans, preparing, setting some guidelines for how they would move forward. It would happen again, throughout Acts as new situations developed—when the community needed more people to help with all the tasks at hand, a group of deacons were commissioned to help distribute food and money to the needy among them. And later, when conflict arose over the relationship among Jews and Gentiles, a council of the leadership was called. Meeting in Jerusalem, they made decisions how to move forward in this new situation.
These disciples, the 11, even as they were waiting and making plans were also open to the movement of the Spirit. They were concerned about structure and organization but they opened up space for the movement of the Spirit, even if, at that point, they weren’t quite sure what it was that they were making space for. They opened up that space for the spirit’s movement by praying.
The gospel reading comes from John 17. We are finally drawing near to the end of Jesus’ farewell discourse, from which we’ve been reading the past several Sundays. As you recall, we are at the Last Supper. John’s account of this event includes a large section of material in which Jesus speaks to his disciples, preparing them for his departure from them. Now the tone shifts as Jesus turns from talking to his disciples to praying for them.
While we hear again themes we’ve been hearing these last Sundays as we’ve encountered Jesus in John’s gospel, there are also some new notes being sounded. There is an emphasis on unity—unity of the Father and the Son, but unity of Jesus and the disciples: that they may be one as we are one. There is unity of mission: I have sent them as You, God, have sent me. There is unity of message: I have given the words you have given me.
But there is also something else. Jesus prays that God protect them as he departs from them. The contrast we have seen between the community of Jesus’ followers and the world is re-emphasized here and the threat the world poses to the community is especially strong, perhaps made stronger because of the fact that with Jesus’ departure from them, they will be on their own in this dangerous world.
But lest we succumb to the temptation to withdraw from the world, to close ourselves off from its dangers, Jesus’ words suggest that’s not an option. In fact the world is where we are, where we are called to be. The world is where Jesus is now, where Jesus speaks with them so that they may have my joy made complete among themselves. And of course, there is the insistence, the command to go out into the world. Jesus sends the disciples out into the world, just as God sent him into the world.
But, and, this is the important thing to point out, Jesus sends them out, at least here, in the context of praying for them. Think about the significance of that scene. Jesus, the Word, who has been saying throughout the Gospel of John, if you have seen me, you have seen the Father, I and the Father are one. Jesus, who, if we take all that seriously, is in constant communication with the Father, suddenly allows his disciples to eavesdrop on that intimate communication. It is prayer intended for the disciples to hear, to reassure them.
And for that reason, it is also a conversation meant for us. In the Gospel of John, there is always one level where the gospel, where Jesus is speaking not just with the disciples who are surrounding him at the moment, or even speaking with the little community of followers at the end of the century, the intended readers or listeners of the gospel, but the intended audience is always, also, us, the reader in later centuries today.
And so, Jesus is praying here for us, that we be one with him and that we be protected from the world, even as we are sent out into the world. It is both message and model for us. Hearing Jesus’ prayer for his disciples is a reminder not just that he prays for us, but a reminder that we are to pray for each other as well.
We don’t often talk about prayer around here. It’s easy for us to experience prayer as perfunctory. Though we use the Book of Common Prayer, our prayers can easily become rote. It’s a joke around here that part of my job is to be the official “prayer” to open and close meetings, to offering blessings when we are gathered for meals. But prayer isn’t something just for me, it’s for all of us. And there are those who have a gift for prayer—the healing prayer team that offers prayers in the chapel during communion, for example. I’m also aware of others who in their daily routines pray for me, for us—for that I am most grateful.
And there’s something else—think of the context of this prayer of Jesus. It takes place immediately before his arrest and crucifixion, at the end of this last meal, as he knows what’s going to happen, he stops, and takes time to pray—not for himself, but for his disciples. His love and concern for his disciples overwhelmed him even at this last moment he was with them, and he stopped, and prayed.
I said earlier that Jesus’ prayer is message and model for us. Praying is also loving. Jesus loved his disciples. He loved them to the end. He taught his disciples to love each other; that people would know that they were his disciples because they loved one another. As his disciples, we are called to love one another and the world. Part of, perhaps the most important part of loving one another is praying for one another. Let us love one another; let us pray for one another for when we pray, we love.