It was a gift to be able to preach and serve at both services at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Toronto this past Sunday. Here is the text of my sermon.
This past Wednesday, I enjoyed spending some time with the Society of Mary, talking with them about the place of Mary in Luke’s Gospel. And I, as all public speakers do these days, tried to sell some books afterwards. Since we were on the threshold of Ascensiontide, one of the books I brought with me was a little devotional my brother Aaron and I wrote about this wonderful event. One of the listeners picked up the book and asked me, “Will this book make me like the Ascension?” What a great question! Well, it prompted one of my own. “Why don’t you like the Ascension?” I asked. “It leaves me feeling abandoned.”
I get that. There are times in our lives as disciples of Jesus when we might feel profoundly alone, wishing, if this is not too crass, that we had a cellphone number. Direct encounters with Jesus, at least before the kingdom comes in its fullness, are the unique provenance of mystics and saints. I don’t know about you, but I am not a mystic. And while I am, I pray, on my way to sanctification, I have never been “caught up into the third heaven,” as St. Paul was.
So I get the feeling of abandonment that my new friend spoke of. Do you, too? And like her, that loneliness is sharpest for me in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.
On the threshold of his departure from the world, the Lord Jesus knew that feelings of loneliness and abandonment would be a returning trope in the lives of his disciples. Not just the twelve or the extended company who travelled with them, but all those whom the Father had given him, as he describes the people for whom he prays in our Gospel lesson. All of them. All includes my friend. All includes me. All includes, well, all of us. The Lord Jesus himself, in his humanity, prayed for us on the verge of his departure. He continues, in that now ascended humanity, to pray for us before the throne of his Father. And that is good news. Let’s explore it further.
What does Jesus pray for us who live between the already of his ascension into heaven and the not yet of the final transformation of ourselves and all creation?
He prays, first of all, that the Father protect his disciples that they may be one even as he and his father are one. His words call to mind the powerful image that was developed in our Gospel lessons for the previous two weeks: that of the true vine. You remember the image, which accentuates how the life of discipleship is an organic union with Jesus such that the divine life flows through him—the vine—into us—the branches. In this way, we participate, we share in God’s own life, we are deified. And through our sharing in that life, we are fruitful and we are “pruned” to become more fruitful. And the fruitfulness Jesus describes here is the fruitfulness of a faithful disciple.
When Jesus prays for us that we be protected, and that in that protection we might be one, he prays that his disciples would remain united to him, and in that union, we remain united to each other. Jesus prays this way because, he says, he is leaving the world and his disciples are not, or at least not yet. And in his absence, if the joy of the disciples is to be complete, if the disciples are to rest in the protection of God, if they would continue the mission of bringing the life of God to the world, they will need to be protection.
This is not the only request the Son makes to the Father for us. Here is the second. I ask that you not take them out of the world, I ask that you protect them from the evil one. The protection that is continuing in the life of God that comes to us through the Lord Jesus is protection from the evil one. We are not accustomed to thinking or speaking in this way. This parish church lives on a lovely street in a city noted around the world for its, well, dullness. Very little bad happens in Toronto. And so it is that we might regard Jesus’ words here with a little confusion. For so many of us the world is basically a good place. Oh we have our challenges, but we would not cast them as attacks from the enemy of our souls.
Is that true for you? It is for me. But here’s the thing: it is not true for the majority of the followers of the Lord Jesus around the world today. It is truly tragic that most of our media sources leave the global persecution of our brothers and sisters underreported. Some, worse, sensationalize it. But there are a few that tell the truth. (If I may commend a book here, the title is Christianophobia and the author is Rupert Shortt, the biographer of the former Archbishop, Rowan Williams). If Jesus prays for his disciples that they be protected from the evil one while they remain in the world, it is because they need such prayers.
Here’s the nugget—if we are united to God, and through that union to each other, and if in that union we bring the life of God to the world, we will need to be protected from the hostility provoked. And so we add our prayers today to the prayer of the Lord Jesus for those of our brethren who, so much more than us, need his protection from the evil one today.
To the two requests for protection, Jesus adds a third: that his followers be made holy by the truth of the Father’s Word. The notion of holiness here is not some mystical quality, but simply means separateness or otherness. Jesus prays that by the truth of the word, his followers would be kept separate from the world. Of course, the connection to the previous requests is clear isn’t it? And there is a deeper one. Who is the Father’s Word in the Gospel of John? None other than the Lord Jesus who spke of himself as the truth. Jesus prays that, by his own life flowing in us, we would be drawn into the truth, we would be protected from the world, we would be made holy.
It is hard not to work our way through this part of Jesus’s prayer for us and not feel a sense of dislocation, otherness from the world. And so we are wise to remember that the world which the Lord Jesus left in his Ascension, the world in which we remain, the world which is acknowledged by the Lord as a place of hostility both for himself and those who would follow him, is also the world that the Father loves, the world to which the Son was sent, the world to which we who are in the Son are also sent.
Have we been abandoned? It may well seem like it in this time between the times, in the tension between the already victory of Jesus and the not yet consummation of his kingdom. But we remain united to him who even now prays for our protection and sanctification, who lives his life through us, and who calls us out into the world that he loves. And in that mission, we are never alone.