A sermon, based on John 17.6-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2018
Our gospel, perhaps oddly in Eastertide, takes us back to the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. Standing at the threshold of the valley of the shadow of death, he prays to God for those he loves, his disciples then and now, us.
In this, his solitary, private moment of prayer, out of respect, we might retreat.
(I recall how my father, I know not why, would talk to himself. I picked up his habit and I, for years, have talked to myself, and, at times, I answer myself. When Pontheolla and I first were married, at those moments she walked into a room and heard me carrying on what seemed to her a private conversation, she felt the need to withdraw so not to intrude. And, now, after thirty or more years together, I guess she picked up the habit, for she talks to herself!)
However, because Jesus prays for us, we know that he is asking, urging us to stay, inviting us to listen: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world…Holy Father, protect them.”
Protect? From what? The world. Why? Because the world isn’t a safe place.
The Greek kosmos, translated “world,” doesn’t mean the earth or creation. Indeed, we speak tenderly about the former in one of our Eucharistic Prayers as “this fragile earth, our island home”(1) and gratefully for the latter in the General Thanksgiving of the Daily Office, praising God “for…creation…and all the blessings of this life.”(2)
Rather “world” refers to the reality that evil inhabits this life. Yes, there is joy and love. Yet equally, sometimes seemingly overwhelmingly, there is sorrow and hatred.
At a congregation I served previously before coming amongst you, there, we marked our practice of baptism with an ancient Celtic custom: Shutting the Devil’s door. A symbolic expression of our intention to protect our loved ones from all evil that can and will bring harm. Yes, an impossible task! Yet in the face of the impossible, there are two inherent, immediate and polar responses. One, throwing up our hands in immobilized despair, saying, “We can do nothing!” The other, with the power of perseverance, saying, “We will try harder!”
So, Jesus prays that we be protected from evil. Again, an impossible task. As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminded us nearly forty years ago, bad things do happen to good people.(3) In a word, life ain’t fair.
Yet if Jesus’ prayer is only another sobering aide-mémoire that all of our wishful thinking, euphemistically called hope, expressing our desires in the face of things beyond our control, amounts to nothing…that as the universe daily runs its course with no conscious care for us…that all of our bargaining and begging with God, the fates, the powers that be will not change, cannot change a thing, then it would have been better had he not said anything at all and kept his heartfelt, but impotent intercession to himself.
But there’s more! Jesus prays that God protect us and make us holy: “(Holy Father) they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
Praying for our protection, Jesus reminds us that we are vulnerable to the evils in this world.
Praying for our holiness, Jesus calls us to be faithful.
Holiness. Being sanctified, consecrated, set apart by God for divine purposes. Being, as God is, other than this world. Being, as Jesus prays, in, but not of the world. As Jesus was sent into the world empowered by God’s name and truth (all that can be known about God and our life in God), so, too, we.
The kosmos, the world, in the words of Martin Luther, is “devils filled;” an unsafe place. So unsafe that there are times when I don’t want to know the latest news of natural calamity and human iniquity. Sometimes the world’s woes, paraphrasing Luther, “threaten to undo me,” o’erwhelming me with fresh awareness of my weakness and worse anesthetizing me to my pain and your pain; so benumbed that I become an unfeeling shell of my self, unable to be a real person present and engaged with you.
So, today, I pray: Jesus, by your Spirit, protect us and make us holy that we, in the face of all that can and will bring harm, by faith, will continue to do what we can, where we are, with what we have to do God’s will. And, through it all, confirm in our hearts this word of truth:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us…
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.(4)
(1) From Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, page 370.
(2) From The General Thanksgiving, BCP, page 125.
(3) Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981)
(4) From A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (1529); words by Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Illustration: My soul is sorrowful unto death (Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane), James Tissot (1836-1902)