7th Sunday of Easter
May 20, 2012
John 17: 6-19
I got back from Atlanta late Friday night after a week of a preaching conference. If you think the name, “Festival of Homiletics” sounds nerdy, you should have been there. There was worship at 8:35, 1:30, and 6:45 every day, with lectures in between by famous preachers and preaching teachers. We heard traditional preaching in a glorious, huge church with stained-glass windows, black preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s parish church, and post-modern preaching in a recently renovated theater. We heard the preacher of a unique congregation of tattooed ex-users that is attracting grey-haired couples from the suburbs, a “straight up ELCA pastor, she claims, who lays out the Gospel with the timing of a stand-up comedienne. There was the preacher from Kenya who leaned into the microphone to tell us that we are living in God’s story, and the preacher of a mega-church in Kansas City who told us that the key to growth is to throw out the lectionary and preach sermon series on topics that attract the un-churched. We heard a famous writer of liturgy and hymnody teach us to lead a cappella singing in our congregation. We attended Ascension Worship in a packed church that holds 2,500 people, with a chamber orchestra, a choir of 70 people, and an organ that made the floor tremble. It was a blur, and it was awesome.
One thing I learned is the difference between Lutheran preaching and others. Others talked about God-that God is trustworthy, that Jesus is bigger than our narcissistic ideas of why we need him. Others had memorable stories or made me laugh, but the Lutherans never failed to tell me why knowing Jesus was important, and that God’s good news in Jesus is news to us that is too good to be true, it is the path from death to life. It is Jesus’ resurrection that is the guarantee that every promise of God is the truth that sanctifies us. It is Jesus himself that is the Word God sends to give us full and abundant life, in this life and in the life we look for in the next world.
The story from the Bible we have before us this morning is the last Easter text. In this reading from John’s Gospel, we get to overhear Jesus pray. In this prayer you hear some of the language that is used in our creeds about how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit fit together into one God. So, in this interlude after supper on the night when he was betrayed, Jesus is saying goodbye, and preparing his students for the work they will do after he’s gone. In previous chapters of this Gospel, Jesus has promised to send his Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate. And now he takes his leave. He claims that he has done his work well, he guarded them, he taught them about the love and desires of God for them. They are not his, he says, they are God’s, and have only been entrusted to him to learn and grow and to be sent out. Keep them safe is his great plea, because they are now so vulnerable, since they are no longer of this world, but they are now of God’s world. They will be on their own now.
One of the words that jumps out at me is “joy”. Jesus prays that they may have his joy made complete in themselves. It makes you wonder what they heard: did they hear him ask for protection or did they hear that they were about to be abandoned? Could they hear that joy is possible when it seems so impossible? The resurrection teaches that God can make a way when there is no way. And the incarnation teaches us that God comes to live in our very flesh, the flesh that can know the pain of loss and joy even at the same time. As Karoline Lewis, the preaching teacher from Luther Seminary told us: the Greek words for “grace” and for “joy” have only two degrees of separation. I was listening to her and remembering joy and loss at the same time:
I was sitting in the pew next to my ex-husband in a peach-colored dress bought for the occasion. It was my daughter Rachel’s wedding. I was watching her make the same vows that her father and I had been unable to keep. She had been the light of my life, so honest, so generous, so fearless. And then when she became a teenager, she learned to keep a secret life that included ditching school for weeks at a time, a boyfriend twice her age, and friends who shared every kind of chemical substance with her. She included her little sister in many of her adventures. The damage to our recently divided family was impossible, and I threw her out and changed the locks when she was 17. The pain of our divorce was not as deep as the pain of the loss of my girl. It had taken years for us to mend that relationship. But after all the pain and injury, she’d come back and become part of our family again, living with her sister and I under one roof. It was like getting a part of your own body back. And now here we were, giving her away. I was so proud of her and the life she had chosen. The joy of it caught my breath. And the grief of knowing that she was really no longer mine stabbed me unexpectedly.
Our fully-fleshed theology – our understanding of how God is at work to call us and invite us into God’s love – means that we can hold together every hard thing that it means to be human with the joy of being in Jesus. This is Jesus’ message for you in this prayer. In the midst of the pain that you live everyday, that you can know joy and sadness in the same second. And that Jesus knows what that means.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep, protect, guard your heart in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.