7th Sunday in Easter
May 17, 2105
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At the gym last week, my coach casually walked me over to this contraption and handed me a pair of 8 lb. weights. “I want you to lean forward on this padded bar and brace your calves on the padded area behind you, then lift the weights out with your arms extended, 12 times then rest, three different times.” She showed me how. Yike! I knew I couldn’t do it. She held the weights while I carefully braced my legs against the back bar and shifted my weight forward enough to be able to raise my chest and shoulders out into the air. “It uses the whole chain of your back,” she stated encouragingly, “from your calves all the way up to your shoulders.” Not sure I wanted to know that. But there I was, actually stretched out into space, all the muscles we had so carefully schooled in my back holding me up. I took the weights; I raised my arms out and lifted those 8-pounders like a muscle man, exactly 12 times. Then I did it again and again.
I tell you this story because as I read about Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, I thought again about being challenged to act beyond your expectations and finding that you have the training and the muscles to do what you never thought was possible.
In our reading today, Jesus is going away. This is the night of his arrest. He’s been preparing his disciples for the scary times that await them. The disciples are going to be challenged beyond what they think they have the capacity to bear. And Jesus prays for them. He prays for protection from the evil world that they will challenge, and that will hurt them in the same way that it is going to hurt him. He prays that they will remain rooted in the love that he has shown them is the love the Father has lavished on humanity through his coming. But most of all he prays that they will be one with him and with his Father, and one with each other.
Being one is the sign of the presence of the divine life in John’s Gospel. So John gives us stories about the gentle shepherd gathering his sheep. We have the story of the feeding of 5, 000 men in which the remains of the feast are gathered so that none may be lost. We have stories of wholeness being restored: blind man being made to see and Lazarus being raised from the dead. Jesus prays that his disciples will share the oneness that he and the Father have shared, the divine life that pumps through the vine into the branches.
Jesus sees his disciples as being part of this divine life, holy and set aside by God for the work for which they have been schooled and invited. He prays that as he has been sanctified for his own work, they too will be set apart.
The complexity of this reading is almost like a puzzle, like those Russian dolls; you open one up and inside is one just like it, which you open up to find another, smaller, exactly like it, and on and on and on. In this puzzle, no matter how many layers you remove you find the same message: God’s enormous love at the heart of every dilemma, every invitation, every attempt to do the work you are called to do, every disappointment or failure. It’s the love that bears all things, hopes all things, endures, all things. It’s the love that never ends.
I think this is a perfect reading for us to hold in our hearts as we go forward in our vitality work together. We are asking hard questions of our work here at Our Savior’s: where we experience God’s presence among us, about our experience of tension in our community, about the energy for our work together to be Jesus for each other and for our larger community. These conversations are hard and deep when they are done well, and they are scary. The decisions we will be making based on the information and movements of our hearts in this process may be wonderful but asking them honestly is a big risk.
But I really think that in many ways we can’t fail. Jesus prays for us just as he prayed for those first disciples. Jesus loves us completely, he has invited each of us to be here, no matter what or who we have been or have not been. He bestows on us the power to be his disciples in this place. He prays that we will find our truth, that we will be protected from hurt and evil, and that we will be one as he and his Father are one. It is the same prayer he prayed for those about to live through the worst day of their lives. They came out on the other side pondering their new work, and, filled with the promised Spirit, they changed the world.
You never know what you are capable of until you are challenged to do something really hard and scary. Challenged to lean out over the empty air and lift those weights, I was sure I couldn’t do it. It turned out, Rhonda was right. She had been building me up to be able to do it. And so Jesus prays for his disciples and for us, for whom he has been at work within the love of his Father to build us up, to give us the courage and confidence, and to watch over us with joy as we live into our great task of changing our world right here, right now. Amen.