Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday (Year B)

TEXTS: Acts 1:1-11 and John 17:6-19

“All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:10-11)

Today’s gospel lesson is part of what Bible scholars refer to as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus, because it was offered on behalf of his people. That includes not only his first disciples, but also all of us—all of his followers, in every place and time.

Can you imagine what it would be like to hear Jesus praying for you? I’m sure it would be a wonderful thing, to hear the Lord himself speaking to his Father about you—speaking about how much he loves you, speaking about his concern for you, asking God to protect you.

I’m sure it was no less wonderful for those original disciples, even though they had certainly heard Jesus praying on many occasions. After all, he was the one who had taught them how to pray.

But this time, things were different. This was the evening of Jesus’ betrayal, the last night of his earthly life. He had washed their feet, shocking all of them by taking on the role of a humble servant. He had celebrated Passover with them, telling them that this would be their last Seder meal together. He declared that his body would soon be broken, that his blood would soon be poured out “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). By now, they must have been wondering what was up.

Obviously, Jesus knows that his time is running out. As his friends listen, he prays, saying: “I am no longer in the world, but they are.”

What a powerful—and ominous—statement. Cryptic, too—just like the words that follow today’s reading, where Jesus continues his prayer by saying:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).

Like I said, cryptic words—yet Jesus’ meaning will become crystal clear in the hours that follow, as he leads his disciples across the Kidron valley to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will be arrested. From there, he will be taken to the high priest’s house, and eventually to Pilate’s headquarters, and finally to a tortured death upon a cross.

Of course, we know how the story plays out. Easter morning arrives, and we rejoice. Jesus has come back! But he is not here to stay. Forty days after Easter—as we heard in today’s first reading from the Book of Acts—Jesus departs once again, being lifted up into the clouds, where he disappears. Someday he will come back, we are told … but we’re still waiting.

Now what? Those first disciples must have asked themselves that question. Maybe we ask it, also. Jesus is no longer in the world—but we are. Here we are, down here, on our own, with Jesus no longer in this world as a flesh-and-blood presence.

Or is he? Jesus’ prayer for us was that we might become one not only with one another, but also with his Father and him. That’s another cryptic statement, I guess, but I think we come close to understanding it if we listen to Paul’s familiar words in First Corinthians, chapter 12: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (v. 27).

We are the body of Christ. That has been the Church’s understanding of itself for 2,000 years. In the 16th century, Teresa of Avila wrote: “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on a hurting world, yours are the feet with which he goes about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”

Ours are the hands with which Jesus wants to bless the world. And that task of blessing, to be effective, requires a kind of unity. The kind of unity of purpose you find on a ship with a well-disciplined crew. We are the hands of Jesus, and it’s “all hands on deck” as we maneuver the gospel ship through the turbulent waters of this world.

Unfortunately, we Christians have not always been a well-disciplined crew. Too often, we’ve looked more like a “ship of fools” who can’t get along with one another.

One of the ways we see this demonstrated is, of course, through the proliferation of Christian denominations whose defining characteristic seems to be that each one thinks it is somehow better than all the others. And yet, the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be one church—one body. So these artificial units called denominations are problematic.

Several years ago, there was a big clergy convention in the United states, held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Some 50,000 preachers were in attendance, one of whom was a Methodist pastor named James Howell. On a website called “Day One,” Howell describes that conference, and he says this:

One of the speakers at the three-day event was the well-known devotional author Max Lucado. Max described the church as God’s boat, a vessel with one purpose—to carry us safely to the other shore. This is no cruise ship, it is a battleship. We are not called to leisure, but to service. Each of us has a different task. Some are concerned with those who are in danger of drowning, snatching people from the water. Others are concerned with the care and feeding of the crew.
Though different, we are all the same, for each of us can tell of a personal encounter with the captain who bid us come aboard and follow him. We crossed the gangplank of his grace and found ourselves here. Here we are on one boat, with one captain, and one destination. And though our battle is fierce, the boat is safe for our captain is strong and the gates of hell will not prevail against this grand vessel. Of that there is no concern. This boat will not sink.
Max says there is concern, however, not with the strength of the boat, but with the harmony of the crew. You see, when we first came on board we assumed that everyone here was just like us. But as we have wandered these decks we have found a few curious converts. Some wear uniforms we have never seen. Some sport styles we have never witnessed and we stop them and say, “Why do you look the way you do?” To which they respond, “We were about to ask you the same question!”
The variety of dress is not nearly as disturbing as the diversity of opinions. There is one group, for example, that clusters every morning for intense study. They promote rigid discipline and wear somber expressions. “Serving the captain is serious business,” they say. It is no coincidence that they tend to congregate toward the back of the boat, the stern.
There is another regiment deeply devoted to prayer. Not only do they believe in prayer, they believe in a certain posture for prayer. They believe you can only talk with God on your knees with head forward—that is why they can always be found on this vessel near the bow.
Still another group has positioned itself near the engine. They occupy themselves with studying the nuts and bolts of this ship—they are only comfortable if they can grasp the details. They are occasionally criticized by those who linger on the top deck, inspired by the wind in their hair and the sun in their face who insist, “It is not what you know, it is what you feel.”
Some think once you are on the boat you can never get off. Others say, you would be foolish to go overboard, but the choice is yours. Some believe you were recruited and subsequently volunteered yourself for service on this boat. Others believe you were destined for service before the boat was ever built.
There are those who address the captain in a private and personal language, while others think such conversation is gibberish. There are those who think the officers should wear special robes and others who think there should be no officers at all.

Then there is the issue of the weekly meeting at which the captain is honored and his instructions read. All agree on its importance, but some want it loud while others want it quiet.
Some want ritual, others want spontaneity. Some want to celebrate so they can meditate, others want to meditate so they can celebrate.
The consequence is a rocky boat. There is trouble on deck. Fights have broken out between sailors. There have been times, incredible as it may seem, when one group even refused to acknowledge the presence of any other group on the ship.
Most tragically, some adrift at sea have chosen not to board this boat. “Life is rough out here on the choppy seas,” they say, “but, I would rather face the wind and waves than get caught in a fight between those sailors.” 
Can there ever be harmony on the ship? That was the dream of the captain. Three different times in Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17 is the plea, “that they may be one” (vv. 11, 21-22).
As Max Lucado wrapped up his message to the ministers, he invited his audience to think of some denomination or Christian group they had previously insulted or denigrated or put down, and then go find a member of that group and apologize. It was upset-the-applecart as folks climbed over one another to respond. There were hugs and handshakes, a marvelous moment of forgiveness and grace.
At the conclusion of the convention, the plan was to have Communion together. Sounds good … until you remember that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper has been and sadly remains a major bone of contention in Christ’s church. Some preachers left early, unable to overcome theological barriers. That was sad, but the word from those who stayed, as they responded to the movement of the Holy Spirit, was that the walls of resistance began to crumble. Differences in the way one group or another understood the ceremony became less significant. They began to realize that what united them was far more important than what divided them.*

James Howell concludes his piece by saying that, as crew members on God’s ship, we are all invited to the captain’s table. And I love that image. I hope that, in the future, more and more of us can embrace it—because that really will make for smoother sailing on the gospel ship.

Years ago, in my denomination, there was a catch-phrase—or a slogan—I used to hear a lot. We used to say we were “a united and uniting church”—by which we meant that we were not only open to the idea of working with other denominations, but that we were eagerly seeking opportunities to do that.

But I haven’t heard that slogan lately. And today, it seems—to me, at least—that perhaps we are not quite as eager to work with other Christians. That’s not to say we won’t do it—but I just don’t feel that we’re as enthusiastic as we used to be, especially at the local level. In many places in our church, it seems like folks don’t want to touch any project that doesn’t have our denominational crest stamped on it. And that’s a shame. Because, on those occasions when we do play well with others, we broadcast a message all the world needs to hear. We are proclaiming that we value—and love—all the members of Christ’s body. And we are demonstrating, through our actions, that we are happy to work with any and all of our brothers and sisters for a common cause.

And, you know what? Every time we do that, we become the answer to Jesus’ prayer that all his followers might become one.




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