Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sermon for Easter VII

St John's, Albion--John 17:1-11

If you pay even a modest amount of attention to the life of the Diocese of Springfield—perhaps through the quarterly newsletter, the Current, or the website, or the Facebook page—you will be aware of the emphasis we are placing on faithful Christian discipleship. We have embraced the notion that every baptized Christian is called to be a disciple—a follower—of Jesus Christ. We have identified seven marks by which discipleship naturally expresses itself in the lives of baptized Christians. If you’d like, I can talk about those seven marks during coffee hour; just give me the thumbs up!

Of course, embracing discipleship means that we have embraced a high standard of fidelity and ethical living. It’s not easy to live up to such a standard. We are constantly aware of our failure to do so, and it can become discouraging. We have a sense that God is watching, ever hopeful, and is perpetually disappointed with our efforts. Our default assumption as to God’s opinion of us is that we are a community that is never able to live up to God’s expectations.

The applies at all levels, beginning at the level of the nuclear family. There isn’t one of us who hasn’t been touched in some way by a failed marriage, even if we haven’t personally gone through the trauma of divorce. There isn’t one of us who hasn’t been touched by a breakdown in parent-child relationships. In our domestic lives, we have failed to be faithful disciples. We have fallen short of the calling of our marriage vows and our responsibilities as parents and grown children, and we are aware of having thereby grieved the heart of God.

Failure in discipleship also applies and the level of the parish, the local church congregation. I’ve been an active participant in eight different local church communities during my life, with the diocese of Springfield now being the ninth. Never have I encountered one that has not been seriously affected by chronic anxiety and almost constant conflict of one degree or another. It hasn’t often been open warfare, thank God, but it’s been all too apparent that churches are definitely hospitals for sinners and not country clubs for saints.

And need I even mention the distress that the Episcopal Church nationally, along with the worldwide Anglican Communion, has been going through in recent years? Whenever Anglicanism makes the news I want to stop up my ears. Yet, we certainly don’t have a monopoly on this sort of thing among Christian bodies; we are hardly unique in this regard. But we are nonetheless vulnerable to a downward spiral of discouragement and self-contempt. As regards our personal failures, the language of the traditional form of the General Confession—“the remembrance of [our sins] is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable”—as regards our personal failures, this language might strike us at times as a little over the top. But as regards our collective failures as a church, it strikes me as right on the mark.

You’re no doubt familiar with the old saying that a preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I can tell you from experience that afflicting the comfortable is a tricky maneuver to get just right and not have it backfire, for obvious reasons. But I have to say, comforting the afflicted is sometimes even harder, because, all too often, people seem to have a strange loyalty to their affliction. People will defend their abject unworthiness, their status as worms in the sight of God, with a surprising degree of passion. When I was in seminary, we had a retreat conductor who posed a question—indeed, gave us an assignment—that he knew would be difficult for us. I found it a lucid moment, and I have asked the same question of others many times in the course of my ministry. The question is this, What is it that God wants to thank you for? What is it about you—the way you are, things that you’ve done—that would motivate God to want to express gratitude to you? This is a hard question precisely because it calls us to lay aside our obsession with our own unworthiness, our pervasive sense of having cosmically let God down, and calls us to live more intentionally and more fully into our baptismal identity as the community of those who have been buried and raised with Christ and become adopted sons and daughters of the most high God and heirs of the kingdom of Heaven.

Today we have before us a quite extraordinary passage from St John’s gospel. In “literal time” it narrates an event that took place as part of the Last Supper, the night before Jesus was betrayed. In “liturgical time,” we read it three days after the feast of the Ascension, which celebrates Jesus’ return—bearing our human nature with him—to the “right hand of God,” there to ever make intercession for us as our great High Priest. So this passage is part of what is known as the “high priestly prayer” of our Lord. And in this prayer, we are assured that we are a community for whom Jesus prays. Now let that sink in for a moment, because it really is a quite astonishing thought. We are a people for whom Jesus prays. Jesus our High Priest holds us up before the Father and intercedes on our behalf.

The NCAA basketball tournament, “March Madness,” is still a relatively fresh memory, so imagine, if you will, a college basketball coach in a very successful program. This coach has a record of being very demanding of his players. He works them hard, and holds them to the highest standards of dedication and performance. It often feels to the players like he doles out praise only very sparingly, and they have a constant sense of not being able to live up to the expectations to which their coach calls them. They realize that they disappoint him regularly. Yet, this coach is constantly working on their behalf, constantly interceding for them with the Athletic Director, with the college president, with the alumni. He works hard to ensure that they have the highest possible quality practice and training facilities, that the players who are struggling academically get the tutorial help they need, that they travel in a reasonable degree of safety and comfort—in short, that they have all the support they need to be able to focus on playing team basketball to the best of their ability—indeed, beyond what they believed was their ability—without being distracted by other concerns.

My beloved, for us, Jesus is this coach! He calls us to high standards of discipleship, standards that we regularly and frequently fail to meet. Yet, he is in our corner, constantly interceding on our behalf that we have all the support we need to live out our vocations as faithful Christian disciples. We are those for whom Jesus prays.
This applies at the level of the nuclear family: Jesus prays to the Father for your family to be healthy and happy and to grow in love, because this glorifies him and the Father. It applies at the level of the parish: Jesus prays to the Father for St John’s to succeed in its mission and vision and goals; he wants you to grow and prosper and be happy and healthy, because this glorifies him and the Father. It applies at the level of the diocese: Jesus prays to the Father for the witness and vitality of the Diocese of Springfield, because this brings glory to himself and to the Father. It applies at the level of the province: Jesus prays for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican communion, and for all churches everywhere, that we be faithful to the gospel in every respect, because this brings glory to himself and to the Father.

This realization that Jesus is our 24/7/365 intercessor enables us to change our perception of who we are, and what we expect for ourselves, and how we live together.  We are called to faithfulness in all things. There is no relaxation of the expectations or standards of discipleship. They are demanding. But the burden is not all on us! We have support. We have the resources we need to fulfill our mission—individually and corporately. Jesus is praying for us! Alleluia and Amen. 

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