Sunday, June 01, 2014

Sunday, June 1 (Ascension Sunday)

Scripture:  John 17:1-11, Acts 1:6-14
Sermon:     We are the answer to Jesus' Prayer

What do you give one who has everything?  For Christmas, birthday, anniversary, graduation, whatever … what do you give that he (or she) hasn’t already got?

It’s Jesus’ last night with his disciples.  Soon he will be betrayed.  It’s graduation night when he changes from being rabbi to redeemer, from teacher and healer to martyr and messiah.  And on this night of all nights, when God Father of us all will surely give him whatever he desires, what does Jesus ask for?

In our reading he doesn’t pray to be relieved of the burden.  That comes later and only in the other Gospels, when he leaves the upper room to go out to the garden.  That’s where he wonders if he really has to do this, then prays, “Thy will, not mine, be done” – which some say is the only real prayer we can ever make – that instead of praying for specific things – even things like health, well-being, comfort and peace, really all we should pray for is to know God’s will and be enabled to do it.

That Garden Prayer, though, is in the other Gospels.  In this Gospel Jesus is still at the table with his disciples when he turns to God in prayer.

And in this final prayer he doesn’t pray for world peace – like Miss America and many good-hearted liberals.  He doesn’t pray for revenge on his and God’s enemies, an end to evil-doers, or a swift and sure triumph of the right – like so many fundamentalists.  Nor does he pray for a million pieces of silver to help finance some megaproject for the kingdom – something that many people of all stripes are tempted with.  

He prays for the one crucial thing he does not have – or will not have any longer.  He prays for a body to do God’s work and act out God’s kingdom in the world. 

                “I am no longer in the world,” he says, “but they are …”

Peter, James, John, Andrew and all the rest hear Jesus pray to God that they be a body to do God’s work and act out God’s kingdom in the world as he has with his. 

                Father, I thank you for the ones you have given me.
                I have shown them your heart and mind.
                I am no longer visible in the world, but they will be.
                I thank you for the body you have made them to be in me,
                and I pray they be of one heart and mind with you and the kingdom,
                as you and I are one in the work of the kingdom.

It’s no accident being at the table with Jesus and the other disciples.  Nor is it our choice, our goodness or our strength that bring us here.  We are here by God’s choice, by God’s grace and good will.  Nor do we choose who we are here with.  If we want to be in relationship with God and the work of the kingdom, we must be in relationship with whoever else God has chosen to be part of the body.  It’s bigger than you and I; it’s as big as God’s desire for the world.
It took the first disciples and the early church a while to catch on to this.  We see it in the stories the New Testament tells of their struggles and their growth into their calling.  Church history since then tells us we also never get it always right and that we often lose God’s way and what Jesus prays for.
The Book of Acts, though, is the helpful story of how the disciples of Jesus learn to live into, and live out Jesus’ prayer for us.  It’s a story of our becoming the answer to Jesus’ prayer, and it all begins with the disciples learning to stop looking heavenward. 

                “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” 

Heaven is big these days.  “Heaven is for Real” is the title of a best-selling book about a four-year-0ld boy – the son of a Nebraska preacher, who sees heaven while undergoing surgery – and is able to talk about it after.  The book is now also a movie.  It led to a book-style special edition of Time magazine titled “Discovering Heaven.”  Maybe it’s also leading some to give God and religious faith another try – maybe there’s something to this faith thing after all.
When I was a child in the church, heaven was what it was all about.  The ultimate question was whether I would be in heaven or hell, and the good news of Christianity was that it was a way to be sure of heaven after I died.  
I’ve since come to see, though, that God and Jesus are more concerned about Earth than heaven, and that heaven in the Bible is not so much where we go to be with God after death, but where the power of God comes from to shape life in a good way on Earth right now.
Our bulletin this week includes this quotation from John Holbert, the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas:

…heaven-gazing with increasingly stiff necks is not the work of a true disciple
of Jesus.  Real disciples head for places of Holy Spirit power, a power that
will make them witnesses, proclaimers of the good news of Jesus the Christ,
the one who has come to release the captives, to pay special attention to the
disabled and all the marginalized of the society, to see the places where
oppression is rampant and speak [and act] against it.  In 2014 we have far too
many heaven-gazers and far too few disciples. 

Or, as he says in the summary to his blog post:  Ascension Sunday is about the dangers of looking high when Jesus asks us to look low at the people he has come to redeem.” 

In this vein, Rev. Thom Shumann, a minister of the Presbyterian Church USA, whose words we adapted for our Call to Worship, writes this little meditation he calls “signs”: 

not in a great flood
                washing us all away,
                but in the muddy puddle
                where children float boats created out of leaves and twigs,
                                we find your power; 

not in the superstars
                who step off the red carpet for a quick selfie,
                but in the kitchen of the grandmother
                setting out a platter of just-baked cookies
                and glasses of cold milk for the kids coming in from school,
                                we feel your presence; 

not in the candidate's confetti-strewn ballroom
                with ecstatic supporters popping champagne,
                but in the inner-city emergency room
  where nurses treat their patients as if they were royalty,
                                we glimpse your glory. 

Even the Time magazine special edition on “Discovering Heaven” is sub-titled, “How Our Ideas About the Afterlife Shape How We Live Today.”  It reminds us of the direction Jesus gives to not leave Jerusalem and to wait there for the promise of the Father, for “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria (in other words, in the holy centre and in the unholy fringe), and to the ends of the earth.”
Because it’s not only heaven that’s real.  Jesus tells us the kingdom of heaven – the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven, is also real.  
And the one thing Jesus prays for is for people – for his disciples especially, to be a body that is open to the power that will help them do God’s work and act out God’s kingdom in the world as he has.  
As we think about Jesus – not only rabbi but redeemer, not only teacher and healer but messiah and saviour, we know what he wants.  And we are – at least we are meant to be, the answer to his prayer.

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