May 16, 2021
Keep Calm and Carry On
One of the miracles of modern science is the ability to correct problems with our vision. I am very near-sighted, and as I’ve grown older my lens prescription has become more complicated. These days I wear a different contact lens prescription in each eye, lens one for close-up work and lens two for distance. As long as I keep both eyes open I can function reasonably well both near and far. I am in awe of the resilience of the brains God has given us.
Whenever we read the Gospels we are reading them, as it were, through two different lenses. With lens one we are in the story with Jesus and the disciples, imagining ourselves today in that upper room on Maundy Thursday, and through lens two we know ourselves to be on the other side of the resurrection 2000 years later, living in the community of the church that celebrates Easter every Sunday, that tries to live by Jesus’ teaching, and that awaits his coming again. Today we have a lens 3 to complicate matters even more: we are at an in-between moment in the church year, between the Ascension last Thursday and Pentecost next Sunday.
These multiple lenses can make for a confusing jumble of emotions.
With lens one, I’m tense with anticipation of the suffering that Jesus is about to undergo.
With lens 2 I’m joyful because he has risen and we are Easter people, celebrating our redemption.
With lens 3 I am trying to make sense of what happened with the Ascension and getting ready for a new season in our life.
AND, if I’m also paying attention to the reading from Acts, I am back there with the disciples in the upper room, after Jesus has left them again, not knowing that the Holy Spirit is about to descend on them.
This mixed bag of feelings reflects real life: it’s similar to where many of us are a lot of the time, and perhaps especially now.
We see the end of the pandemic approaching, and we rejoice to have made it through and to be able to worship in person and see our friends again.
We grieve the loss of millions of people to this virus, perhaps including some dear to us, and all the hardship the pandemic has caused.
We are exhausted by the vigilance and the constantly changing conditions and guidelines.
We are strangely anxious about going out in public and being in a crowd after staying home for a year, wondering whether to mask or not to mask.
And we are worried about how the world might have changed and how much more it might change in the post-pandemic era.
Who or what will help us make sense of all this confusion? We can start with the Gospel.
This section of John’s Gospel is known as the Farewell Discourse. It’s a long set of teachings that Jesus shares with the disciples on the night before he dies. They don’t know that he’s about to be arrested and killed, but he does. So these chapters contain all the important things he wants them to know before he is taken from them.
If you have ever lost a loved one, perhaps you were blessed by the opportunity to have a last conversation, a farewell discourse, a chance to say all those important things to each other. When my parents died, when the man I was married to for 28 years died, I did not have that opportunity. But when my beloved in-laws came to the end of their lives, I was privileged to be able to tell them what they meant to me. It somehow made the grieving less painful.
So here is Jesus, taking this last chance to tell the disciples, and through them us, all that they mean to him. He begins by humbly washing their feet. He breaks bread with them. He tells them about the Holy Spirit that will come after he is gone. He tells them that he is going away. And then he prays this long prayer, which is known as the high-priestly prayer, because in it Jesus takes the role of the high priest in the Temple, speaking to God on behalf of his people. I have always struggled with this section of the Gospel: the language is convoluted and hard to follow. But for those of us searching for meaning, for something to hold onto in the confusion and struggle of our world, there is something here for us.
Jesus says to the Father, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” The life and work of Jesus teaches us about the true name of God, the great I AM who created the heavens and the earth. And that true name is love, the love that gives of itself, that gets down on its knees to wash feet, that shares the table and breaks bread with every sad and broken human being.
Jesus prays that all who live by his words will be protected, in a world where it often feels like there is no safe place. The Holy Spirit is God’s continuing presence among us, leading us forward and emboldening us to courageously proclaim the good news of the Gospel, setting aside fear as we grow into the full stature of Christ.
Jesus speaks of the joy he has experienced in being a part of this community, among friends, among people who dare to speak their truth in love, even when the rest of the world resists truth and love; and he asks God to continue to guide this community in the way of truth, which is the way of eternal life.
The last verses of the prayer are not included in our reading, but in them Jesus extends his prayer from those in the room to those who will believe in him through the word that the disciples will speak. He asks that all who follow him may know the unity with one another that he knows with the Father, a request that we echo in our baptismal service when we begin by proclaiming one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of All. And Jesus ends with words of love about his friends: “I made your name known to them and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
He ends where he began, with love. And then he walks out to meet his death.
The story from Acts picks up later, after the crucifixion and resurrection, after the 40 days when the risen Christ returned to his friends, after the Ascension. Once again Jesus has left them, and once again the disciples are grieving and fearful. But, as human beings have always done after every loss and every disaster, they prepare to pick up the pieces and carry on. They work through the confusion of the moment to restore their community, to mend what has been shattered, to prepare for whatever may come next.
And, because they remain faithful, because they stay together in spite of the loss and the confusion and the fear, what comes next is what we will celebrate next week: the bewildering, invigorating, inspiring fire of the Holy Spirit, that will drive them out to proclaim the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, igniting a flame of courageous love that will spread and grow, reaching all the way across the centuries and the globe, even to us here, today, as we in our turn prepare to pick up the pieces and carry on, trusting that where Jesus has gone, there too will we, in the end, be welcomed. Let us pray.
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (Collect for the Sunday after the Ascension, BCP p.226).