Eternal and ever blessed God, grant this day light to the minds that hunger for truth, and peace to the hearts that yearn for rest. Grant strength to those who have hard tasks to do, and power to those who have temptations to face. Grant unto all within this place the ability to find the secret of your presence, and to go forth from here in the strength of the Lord. Amen.
Today we celebrate two important and seemingly very different things – one – Mother’s Day – is a secular sort of “made up” holiday that indeed fulfills a wonderful purpose: to remember, honor and thank our mothers, whether alive or not, whether biological or not – that woman or those women who love, nurture, and guide us through life – often from our first breath of air.
The second is a truly sacred day – Ascension Day – the day we mark Jesus’ ascension from earth to be with God – after he appeared several times to his disciples following his resurrection. After Ascension Day, no one sees Jesus again, but in his loving prayer in the gospel today, he asks God to be with us and protect us – to show us the way – and so God sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts and minds – if we will but seek it and listen.
Much of what we human beings experience involves our emotions. Whether we like it or not, we respond to everything emotionally. Our emotions are involved when we experience love, hurt, anxiety, stress, anger, jealousy, depression, happiness, joy. The most important growing experiences that we will encounter as we travel along the journey we call life, are emotional experiences and feelings. Certainly, they affect our mind and body, but they really reside in our spirit: that part of us that we Christians believe is eternal and connects to other spirits – and to the Holy Spirit of God. Our minds cannot fully comprehend the spiritual depth and breadth of our lives, for it is woven into our very nature – and we believe it is that part of us that exists before and after our life on earth.
The Gospel of John, from which today’s reading comes, is very different from the other three gospels. Written some sixty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection, it is less a narrative and more philosophical; in many ways, it seeks to summarize all of Jesus’ teachings and work. In John, after washing their feet and sharing the Passover feast with his disciples, Jesus began a long series of sermons, known as the ‘final discourses’. In them, he reiterates again and again that God is love (1 John 4:8), and we are to love and serve one another (John 13:34-35); that he is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:5); and that we are to draw nourishment and direction from his teachings and examples.
Jesus reminds us that if we follow him, we cannot be ‘of this world’. If the world hates us, hurts us, demeans and wounds us, we must know it hated him first, and that we are part of a different kingdom – God’s Kingdom. Following these discourses, Jesus prayed. In the other gospels Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and we are told he prayed for strength for what he knew lay ahead. In John, however, this prayer, which we read today, is almost entirely for us – his disciples, for those he loved then and for those he loves today – you and me!
In the discourses, he promised the disciples that God would send them a companion – the spirit of truth – to guide and protect them, and so in this final prayer, he fervently asks God to do this.
He prayed, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they kept your word. Now they know everything you have given me is from you; of the world that you gave to me I have given to them, and they received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours and yours are mine; and I have glorified them.” (John 17:6-11)
Jesus continued to pray for the protection and unity of his followers, but then his prayer shifted to praying for all of his followers in times to come.
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes, I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:14-19)
In the years following Jesus’ death and ascension, his disciples would endure difficult and painful days as they spread his word throughout the known civilized world. They would be imprisoned, tortured and beaten, murdered; they would be alone and reviled. But we can only believe that the power of ‘the Companion of Truth’ that God sent – the Holy Spirit – was so strongly with them, so vibrant and clear, that they all endured, prevailed, and made sure that the work of Jesus of Nazareth changed the world forever.
We are all well aware that our world today is far from the Kingdom of God, but with all its flaws, it is closer to that Kingdom than it was 2000 years ago. Here we are, followers of Jesus, still facing difficult journeys of life, still encountering hate, deception, greed and consumerism, lust and depravity, violence and war, poverty and despair, addictions and destroyers, evil things and evil doings, just as Jesus acknowledged we would in his prayer. Each of us carries, in some way, the marks and scars of battling our way from birth to death in this world.
But, we, too, still have the Companion, the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth, the God of love which protects and guides us, and we reach The Companion through our spirits, usually through our emotions. I have come to realize that what one truly feels in their heart is more real, more true, than most things we can study or read. We can use prayer, meditation, intuition, dreams, sudden ‘ah ha’ moments. All of these can reveal the Holy Spirit, can speak to us, guide our ways, just as we are taught in Matthew:
“seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you”. (Matthew 7:7)
This, and this alone, gives us the strength and clarity of vision to not be of this world – to turn the other cheek, to walk away from conflict, to be the Samaritan who crosses the road to help and serve others in need, to face pain, illness and suffering with hope; to return hate with love, lies with truth, deception with reality, vengeance with forgiveness, and evil with goodness and love.
In short, our work is in this world. Jesus left physically, but we remain. What he began, we must seek to carry on. And Jesus left us the Holy Spirit, or Companion Protector so we may care for and serve others, love and forgive our brothers and sisters. We are promised no hedge, no short cuts, no escape routes, no end to the battle until we at last cross the River of Death to enter, once again, Eternity – and realize Death is not the victor. We are here, and we must stay here for a time to do his work.
Ultimately, we will always find the sheltering arms of God protecting us. Life is not easy, and if it is, we are probably not doing our jobs. But the reward is great and the Truth and Love of God will keep us strong!
So, take a minute today to look ahead to the coming week; read the prayer that Jesus prayed in John. Focus on how Jesus makes us holy for the sake of oneness with our fellow believers, and gives us courage along the journey, no matter how difficult the path. Ask yourself how God might use you to bring love to our broken, hurting world. How can God use you to transform the pain and darkness of our earthly life and turn it into the promise of resurrection and new life for others, as well as ourselves? Consider how Jesus guides you through his Holy Spirit, when you feel lost; don’t shut out your deepest emotions and feelings, – listen to them! Remember that Jesus prayed for and prepared a way for his disciples, and that includes us!
God answered that prayer then, and does so now!
‘the way, the truth, and the life”. (John 14:6)
Let us all seek to follow him.
Let us pray:
“Holy Father, keep us in your name … that we may be one … Sanctify us with the truth of your words. As you sent Christ into the world, so send us into the world, consecrated in truth, armed with your protection and love, and the good news of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension. Help us to turn our lives toward bringing the fullness of God’s Kingdom to all, sustained by the hopes and belief that when we reach the end of our lives, there will be no fear, no sadness, but real joy as we hear your trumpet sounding for us on the other side. Amen.
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, 13 May 2018