Before Jesus Ascended, He Prayed

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Last Thursday was Ascension Day. Next Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost. And you might very well expect today’s Gospel reading to take place during the ten-day period between the Ascension and Pentecost. But surprisingly it doesn’t. Instead, we go back in time, and we get a snippet of prayer that Jesus offers up at the Last Supper. I say “snippet,” because today we hear only the second of three sections of Jesus’ so-called “high-priestly prayer,” which he prays at the conclusion of two lengthy farewell speeches extending over three whole chapters of John’ Gospel. The first section of the prayer is for Jesus himself. The third section is for the future Church. And the second section, which we heard read today, is for the disciples reclining around the table at the Last Supper.

Última_Cena_-_Juan_de_Juanes

In a sense, we are eavesdroppers. This section of Jesus’ high-priestly prayer is addressed to God—not us—and it is offered on behalf of the original disciples—not us. So why does the lectionary have us listen in? I think there are two reasons. The first is that, as baptized Christians, we are meant to continue the ministry of the original disciples, and we can expect to encounter some of the same struggles that they did. The second reason has to do with a tradition of the Early Church to expound on the sacraments at every sermon during the 50 days of Eastertide. (The technical term for this practice is mystagogy.) And believe it or not, today’s Gospel has some profound implications concerning both baptism and Eucharist, despite the fact that neither sacrament is explicitly mentioned in the prayer.

But there is a problem! As we eavesdrop on Jesus’ prayer, we find that he is speaking in code. One of those code words is the word world. We get a sense that something cryptic is intended when we hear Jesus say, “I am not asking on behalf of the world.” Why would Jesus refuse to pray for the world? The answer is that, in John’s Gospel, the word world almost always refers to humanity in its fallen state. More specifically, it refers to those who willfully defy God’s will for them and who actively oppose the message proclaimed by God’s Son. Given this understanding of the world, it is not such a surprise that Jesus does not pray on behalf of the world. For the only prayer he could make is that the world cease to be the world, that sinful humanity cease to be sinful humanity.

But Jesus differentiates between the world and himself, and between the world and his disciples. He states that he and his disciples are in the world, but not of the world. They act in the midst of fallen humanity, but they do not belong to fallen humanity. And to the extent that we live into our baptism, the same can be said about us! For at our baptism, we were sanctified in the Truth, just as the disciples were. We were consecrated as a priestly people. We were dedicated to the Triune God. We were set apart for God’s express use. At baptism, we were separated from the world of fallen humanity, even as we continue to live our lives in the midst of a broken and sinful world.

Jesus warns the original disciples that, when the world realizes that they do not belong to the world, they will be hated for it. And they will be persecuted. In some parts of the world today, Jesus’ prophecy is quite literally true. In Iraq and Libya, Christians are still being killed just for being Christians. Here in the United States, however, the situation is more subtle. Here, we Christians rarely suffer outright persecution for our faith. Even so, we encounter an ever-present tension between discipleship and daily life, between the demands of the Gospel and the demands of our society, between Christ and culture. Perhaps Christians are not so much hated in American society, as they are disregarded and ignored. (The exception that proves the rule would seem to be conservative evangelicals. They refuse to be ignored.) If only the Episcopal Church could make its voice heard as broadly and as clearly! But as a rule, we tend to be a rather reticent crowd. We don’t like to be at the center of a fuss. And yet sometimes, just sometimes, it occurs to me that that is exactly where we are meant to be—at the center of all the fuss.

Map_of_the_world_1998

Admittedly, living in that tension between the Gospel and the world around us can be exhausting. And we need regular respite and rest. We go on vacations to get away from it all. (And speaking personally, I’m very grateful for my recent trip to Greece.) Sometimes, we turn to books or to movies or to music to escape the tension of daily life. And, of course, we turn to the church as a place of refuge, as well we should. But with such refuges comes temptation. We are tempted to hide ourselves in our refuge, wherever it may be, and to stay there. We imagine how nice it would be to stay on that Greek island and never come back, or how we might just read and read and read and never have to deal with the messiness of real life. And with the ready advent of MP3 players and streaming video, we have constant access to soothing music and entertaining films to anesthetize and numb us.

But we are not meant to be permanently numb; we are meant to be out and about in the world doing God’s business. Jesus reminds us in his high-priestly prayer that, just as the Father sent him into the world, so he is sending his disciples. This world of fallen and sinful humanity is where we have been sent to serve. It is the locus of our mission. The world desperately needs to hear the message of Jesus Christ, so that it can cease to be the “world” and instead become the Kingdom.

This mission to bring Good News to a world that does not always receive the message, or welcome the messenger, can be daunting. It can be terrifying! (I can only imagine what prison ministry must be like.) But we are not without means. And we are not on our own. Jesus prays that his disciples may be sanctified in the Truth, that same Truth which is the Incarnate Word, Jesus himself. He declares that he has revealed God’s Name to his disciples; in other words, he has manifested to them the true nature of the Divine. And he prays that his apostles to the world may be protected from the Evil One, who would tempt them to retreat and hide themselves in their refuges forever.

Communion bread and wine

Communion bread and wine

We too are sent into the world with a mission. We too know the true nature of God. And that nature is Love. So come to the Holy Table for refreshment, then take a deep breath and go back into the world and proclaim God’s love to the hurting, and hurtful, people you encounter each and every day of your life. Go into the world, in the assurance that you belong to God. Go, in the sure and certain knowledge that our Ascended Lord continues to pray to the Father on your behalf. Go, knowing that you were sanctified in the Truth at your baptism and that your consecration as a priestly people has been renewed at this very Eucharist.

© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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