Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Lifted up

John 17: 1-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 1, 2014    

William Blake, The Ascension, Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California,, 1803-05

             Today is Ascension Sunday, when the disciples moved on without an earthly Jesus or a risen Christ in their midst but instead were companioned and led by the Holy Spirit.  Even though this passage was written as taking place before the crucifixion, it reads like an ascension text, with phrases about glorification and Jesus no longer being in this world.

             John’s gospel was written approximately 60 – 70 years after the life of Christ, about 20 – 30 years after the fall of Jerusalem.  In this morning’s passage Jesus is with his disciples on the last night of his life.  In this telling of the story he’s washed their feet as well as eaten with them.  He then begins a long teaching sermon of farewell and then a prayer—really a time of spiritual direction and pastoral care for the disciples.  In order for this passage from the gospel of John to make sense, we really need to read a few verses from the previous chapter. 


            “Jesus said, ‘Do you now believe?  The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father (which can also be translated as Upholder, Protector, Nourisher) is with me.  I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace.  In the world you face persecution.  But take courage.  I have conquered the world!'" Jesus then follows these words with his prayer for the disciples.

            The subtitle for this prayer should be “How to pray when the plan goes to pot”.  Notice though that Jesus doesn’t pray for himself.  He prays for his disciples, this fledgling community of folks who experienced something of a resurrected Jesus, many of whom may have never known Jesus in the flesh, only in spirit.  Throughout the gospels it certainly appears that Jesus’ death was part of his plan but not that of the disciples.  How do we live with faith when the hopes and dreams we have go another way?  How do we pray when the plan goes to pot, following a savior, a teacher we know in the Spirit?

            Many times we don’t know how.  When we don’t get the job, when the biopsy comes back positive, when our love leaves us or when we need to leave a relationship, when the bottom drops out, we don’t know what to pray for or what we might need.  Prayer itself can seem hopeless.  But that is when Jesus can pray for us and lift us up.

When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary;
When troubles come and my heart burdened be;
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence,
Until you come and sit awhile with me.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up... To more than I can be.

            I’ve mentioned before that there is a Greek icon of the resurrection that powerfully illustrates how indeed Jesus lifts us up.  A strong, almost burly Jesus stands on doors to two graves, in some instances shattering them with his feet.  He is pulling two elderly people out of their graves, surrounded by angels, prophets, and apostles.  These two are Adam and Eve.  When Jesus rose from the dead, he raised all of humanity with him.

There is no life - no life without its hunger;
Each restless heart beats so imperfectly;
But when you come and I am filled with wonder,
Sometimes, I think I glimpse eternity.

            And we lift up each other.  (Here I invited the congregation to place a hand on someone's shoulder seated near them, to feel the physical connection of being lifted up, connected to each other).  The gift of community is to be absolved of the burden to be complete.  What we cannot do for ourselves, we often are able to do for others, like forgive, pray, listen, keep company with one another, offer what we can.  We feel ourselves lifted up by our families and friends, by the gift of music, when people are their true selves, when we witness someone do something they didn’t think they were capable of.  All this and more gives us courage to live through and keep on going when the plan doesn’t go the way we thought it would, to do the hard things life sometimes demands. 

            By the way we support and raise each other up, Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one is seen through us and in our life together.  As Bill Perkins charged us at the installation, “Be one.  Be new.  Be open.”  When Jesus lifts us up, when we lift each other up, we are able to be more than we thought possible.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up... To more than I can be. (1)

            Thanks be to God.  Amen.

(1)  "You Raise Me Up", Rolf U. Lovland, composer; Brendan Graham, lyrics.  Copyright: Universal Music Publishing AB

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