17 May 2021

Waiting and Praying: the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Today’s reading from Acts is Act Two of a three-part drama. If we’d had an Ascension liturgy on Thursday, we would have heard Act One: Jesus ascended—they watched him. Examples of Christian art… We are in what I call a “mini-season of absence” between the time when Jesus ascends and when the Holy Spirit descends. Act Three of our story, which we’ll hear next Sunday when we gather on the lawn for Holy Eucharist. “Wait here. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”

Of course we live in a post-Pentecost reality and so the Holy Spirit is with us always, but I think the metaphor of waiting and wondering is an apt one for our time. The reign of God is already here and not yet here. We are restored and yet we are not yet restored.

If we look around today, at this earth, our fragile island home, at what is happening in the land where the disciples first met Jesus, or our own block, we don’t have to look far to see that the restoration the first disciples hoped for has not yet taken place, certainly not in the way Luke anticipated. Our Body is not whole. Separation and mistrust dominate our public discourse in the world around us, and in our own lives. You don’t need me to summarize the headlines for you. Violence is all around us.

We live in a time and place where we are surrounded by vulnerable and broken people whom Jesus came to love and tells us to love, and yet they are hard to love, especially if they disagree with us on matters we care about, or fire deadly munitions into holy places, or leave trash in our parking lot or break our windows.

It is sometimes hard to see restoration and hope in action, but Jesus is not absent: his body ascends and therefore he enters us in a new way. With the Ascension, the disciples’ work—our work—of becoming the Body of Christ begins in earnest.

In today’s gospel Jesus prays for his disciples. Essentially, he prays, among other things, that we be in the world and not of it. To be in the world is to be affected by all the things that affect us, to understand that the brokenness around us is not part of God’s design. To be in the world but not of it is to resist the temptation to discouragement, doubt, cynicism, or hopelessness.

We have been having conversations lately about possibility, and about dreams for our block. Our half-block. Underlying these conversations is the question: Just how much do we want to build a new community? Just how expansive do we want this new community to be? Some of us find this conversation terrifying. Some find it exhilarating. Perhaps it is both. Perhaps we are where the first disciples were as they watched Jesus ascend and wondered what was next.

In the midst of our waiting and wondering, Jesus us a gift: his prayer for us. Because, when there is nothing else to do, we pray. Prayer can be the balm for waiting, the glue for the Body of Christ.

This prayer of Jesus’, sometime called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, is a long and generous prayer. I pray for all of you on a regular basis, but my prayer is not nearly so long as Jesus’. We read a third of it each year on this seventh Sunday of Easter.

Jesus makes two intercessions on our behalf: he prays for protection, and for holiness. The life of discipleship is not easy; we need these prayers.

First, Jesus prays: Holy God, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. Protect them from the evil one. To pray that we might be protected in God’s name is to pray that the disciples—then and now—continue in the identity conferred upon them by God’s name. To keep that identity in God is to know who we are and whose we are.

The disciples are not a social group, united and identified by their love of nature, or their good works, or even their wonderful coffee hours. God’s name holds the disciples and defines them. It is in this identity, this belonging to God, that we are protected from the evil one who is everywhere.

When Jesus prays for us to be protected, part of what we need to be protected from is discouragement, cynicism, doubt, or despair. The temptation to discouragement or despair is all around us. If you volunteer for any of the ministries that happen in this building during each week, you find yourselves in community with people whose entire lives are one huge experience of loss and betrayal relived every day. So we need Jesus’ prayer for protection, not from other people, but protection from hopelessness.

Sanctify them, Jesus prays. Your word is truth. Set them apart for the work they will do in the world. Send them into the world as holy, set-apart people. In the world in which we live, thinking of ourselves as set apart, holy, is countercultural. Holiness is not about morality—that may a by-product of holiness and is definitely another sermon for another day. Holiness is about identity and belonging. As followers of Jesus, formed in God’s name, we are resident aliens. Like the old Hebrew National hotdog commercial, we answer to a higher authority.

I don’t know about you, but I am a follower of Jesus because I believe in the vision of restoration and reconciliation for the whole world that Jesus proclaimed and that the resurrection promises. That is part of my identity. I need a community of Jesus followers to work with me toward this vision; I think we all do. And I need Jesus’ prayer for protection and holiness to do this work in the midst of all the challenges.

It is only fitting that in this novena, these nine days between Ascension and Pentecost, we are reminded that what we need in order to be sent into the world on the other side of Easter is oneness and identity, protection and sanctification. Even as we wait, we are one with God, set apart from the many forces that draw us away from God. Every week when we show up in this place or on this screen to hear God’s word and pray together, we act out and live into this becoming holy, becoming one.