Sermon May 12 2024  In the World (John 17:6ff)                       Rev. Betsy Hogan

It’s a prayer at the time of leaving – the passage that Gordon read for us from the gospel of John.

The whole Easter season what we've been hearing are the stories of "after the resurrection". When Jesus keeps popping up, risen, visible, tangible, to interact with the disciples to give them comfort, to give them courage, to give them guidance… for the part that comes next.

The part where he leaves. Crosses the bar, slips beyond the veil, ascends into heaven. Which he's kept warning them about, that it's going to be happening – yes, he's been back with them risen for all these several weeks, but this is just temporary. And what they're ACTUALLY going to be left with is a Spirit.

NOT visible, NOT tangible, NOT in a familiar and beloved human shape that can be leaned into and embraced and heard and felt –

But this very nebulous and not particularly well-described SPIRIT. Wind, breath, power. Swirling sort of vaguely. In and around and through. In a way that's somehow uplifting, and somehow comforting, and somehow compelling – but very much not concrete.

More of a presence. Which, for the disciples, just as for us, even while recognizing and taking seriously the reality of the grief that represents – it's a shift beyond the veil that I think we ARE at some level able to grasp.

That the physicalness of a person isn't all of that person. That their spirit transcends the physical. That energy cannot be lost and it somehow continues. The disciples would already have known that in their life experiences, from whatever losses each of them has sustained.

In the Jewish tradition, the words of comfort after a death are "may their memory be a blessing" – and every one of the disciples would have heard those words at different times in their life and would know in their bones that it’s the "spirit" of their loved one being invoked.

So this is what they're being prepared for, all these weeks after Easter, by Jesus. The disappearing. In church-speak, the Ascension into Heaven – but in actual world-speak, the disappearing. That shift beyond visible and tangible into Spirit.

And WHILE Jesus is preparing them, he's also praying for them. His prayer at the time of leaving. A part of which was our reading this morning....

and ALL of which can essentially be distilled into asking God to watch over them and protect them after he's gone. Exactly what we might imagine such a prayer from Jesus would be. Saying to God, "the whole time I was with them, I watched over them, I tried to teach them everything, I tried to make them good and strong and faithful, so now when I have to leave them, I hand them over to you."

It's a beautiful prayer at the time of leaving, and exactly what we might imagine Jesus would pray for his disciples at his time of leaving.

Except that the interesting thing, parenthetically, is that at this point in John’s gospel, only sort of halfway through the story, he’s actually not leaving just yet. At this point in John’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples are only at the gates of Jerusalem. 

They haven’t entered for what we now call Palm Sunday. There’s been no epic confrontation with authorities, Jesus overturning tables in the temple. There’s been no Last Supper, no arrest, no crucifixion, no death and resurrection, and all those appearances afterward.

So this IS a prayer for the time of leaving, but it’s all kind of in advance. Which I have to say, parenthetically, open brackets, in relation to this reading, that I found quite striking since the last time three years ago when this reading turned up in our lectionary. In the relative newness now of what I’ve been experiencing as part of the manifest weirdness of the reality of MAiD – medical assistance in dying – as a thing for us. 

Which is that there’s a date. Which means that there’s an “in advance”. Which for all our aspirational self-encouragements to ‘live each day as though it’s our last’ we simply honestly don’t for the most part – but it IS a part of the newness in our human experience that’s associated with MAiD. 

And it’s weird. I think I really just want to name that, in the context of Jesus praying for his disciples at his time of leaving, but kind of in advance. Because there’s a date. We can hear these passages year after year and they never strike us that way in particular, but it’s a very weird thing on the ground. And we get to feel it as weird. 

And close brackets, at least for now. 

Because in terms of the import of this prayer that Jesus prays for his disciples in this time of leaving, what’s most deeply important to our discipleship as we try to live in his way is the emphasis he places in this prayer on the fact that he's leaving the disciples "in the world".

Which, I know it probably sounds a bit obvious – but it's actually not meaningless. Because at the time, in the first century, around the Mediterranean lands, there was a significant movement in the culture in general toward the kind of spiritualism that was instead focused on escaping the world, or denying the world. 

We see a bit of that trend in what we know about John the Baptist, who sort of wanders around the desert eating only locusts and wild honey. And the Essenes were similar -- another sect of first century Judaism that preached retreat from the world and focused only on "spiritual matters". 

And then in Paul's letter to the Corinthian church he makes mention of Greek philosophies that ALSO preached spiritualism and self-denial. So it's an emerging part of Judaism, it's an emerging part of Greek tradition -- it's very much a cultural ethos that's at play at the time that Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples. To be "truly spiritual" being understood as meaning to deny the world, to deny the physical. Retreating into a mysticism in which none of that earthly detail ultimately matters. It's very much a cultural ethos at play as Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples.

So he's absolutely clear in the words of this leaving prayer. The world is real. You, my dear disciples, are in it. And it matters.

His prayer is really specific. He's not just praying for God to watch over the disciples because he's leaving them. He's praying for God to watch over the disciples because he's leaving them in the world.

Living in the world. Participating in the world. Engaging in the world. 

Not retreating into some kind of holy sanctuary of bird song and roses, not escaping into some sort of barren emptiness where nothing really matters – in the world.

With all its specificity and detail and stubbed toes and leaky roofs and people. 

Beautiful amazing messy complicated people. Each of whom and all of whom are their own selves. Beautiful amazing messy and complicated. Built up out of their own experiences, their own traditions, their own cultures, their own graces and scars and needs and yearnings, and rooted with their own roots. 

Holy Father, Jesus prays with every fibre of his being, watch over them when I leave them, take care of them when I leave them, because I'm leaving them in the world – with people. And all the stuff that people get up to.

This is the part where we’re reminded by Jesus that our discipleship is in fact and always about responsive and responsible and active engagement with the world and its brokenness and its injustice and its hurt. 

This is the part where we’re reminded that Jesus defies every notion that faithfulness should be only about spirituality and not about advocacy or social issues or political issues. 

This is the part where we’re reminded by Jesus that our discipleship DEMANDS our engagement with these issues. That faithfulness IS active and political and engaged – it’s meant to be lived out in the world, top to bottom, inside and out, and full stop.

But it’s just possible that we’re tired. It’s just possible that the world’s getting a bit overwhelming. It’s just possible that we’ve actually found ourselves thinking “I literally cannot watch the news anymore, I need a rest, I need some space – oh look, it’s the northern lights. I think I’ll just watch the northern lights. Or maybe I’ll just enjoy other people’s pictures of them tomorrow, and instead go to bed.”

It's just possible that we’re tired. And things are a bit overwhelming.

It’s just possible that instead of the usual part where Jesus reminds us of all the demands of discipleship, what we really need is just the part where Jesus prays for us.

Dear God, he prays with every fibre of his being, watch over them when I leave them, take care of them when I leave them, because I'm leaving them in the world. 

And may it be so. Amen.