Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Words God Gave Us

John 17:1-11

1When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your son, so that the Son can glorify you. 2You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. 3This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. 4I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created.

6I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.

9I'm praying for them. I'm not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. 10Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them 11I'm no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I'm coming to you, Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

This is not a sermon. This is a very intimate moment between God the Father and God the Son into which the gospel writer drops us. Within the narrative progression of John's gospel, this prayer precedes Jesus's arrest in the garden, and follows a long series of teachings that began with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

Within the progression of our church calendar this is the final Sunday of the Easter Season, on which we celebrate Christ's ascension into heaven, to sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty. Knowing that he is returning to the Father, Jesus prays for the disciples at the end of his earthly ministry.

I am at the opposite end of my ministry timeline. I'm a first call pastor on his first Sunday. Sure I've completed all the appropriate coursework and crossed the stage, diploma in hand, I've even been approved by all the requisite committees and subcommittees. I have been affirmed in my calling and in being qualified. This is not my first time in this pulpit, I've been here as a supply preacher a couple of times over the last year. But this is my first service in this new relationship that we have together.

God could have put me in this pulpit at a time when we celebrate one of the great call narratives from scripture: Young Samuel saying "Yes Lord?" Isaiah answering "Here I am, send me." David being sought out in the field and anointed as the next leader in Israel. I'd have been thrilled to introduce myself alongside the call of the first disciples, leaving behind our nets and following Jesus, or Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. But that's not what God had in mind.

God, in his wisdom, decided that I should begin here on a Sunday when we celebrate the story of Jesus's departure from being a physical presence among us. God, this morning, is present in the intimate prayer between Jesus and his Father, where we disciples fade into the background so that we can catch a glimpse of who Jesus is when he's not healing or teaching those whom the Father has put in his path.

So this is not a sermon, This is God the Son is speaking to God the Father, not to us. If this were a film, the camera would be centered on Jesus as he looks up to heaven. We'd be the slightly out-of-focus bystanders, wondering at all we've heard and seen over this easter season. We are imagining what may happen in the next chapter, after Jesus has returned to the father.

Our imaginations are fed by his prayer, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him." Soon Jesus will be lifted up in a way that shows us not only himself, but reveals the face of God as well. Jesus gives our imaginations a picture of eternal life as well, "This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent." It's not a far-off possibility, it's a present reality where we are able to encounter and know God.

Once we have come to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent to be among us, how can we not live a life that is free from all the baggage that burdens us in our lives. God sent Jesus to free us from that weight, to break the power of sin and death for all time! "This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent." Eternal life is present today. The sacrifice has been made, the victory has been won, we can act knowing that our baggage does not define us, our relationship with God does!

Today is not a day to celebrate that we have a new minister or that I have a church. It's a day to celebrate God. It's that eternal life thing: eternal life is not to know that our church is growing and has all the best programs. It's not to know that we have a context in which is do ministry. It's not that we have worked so long to come to this point. Eternal life is to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God sent. Our celebrations are all conducted in knowledge that God intervenes in the world and has called us to be a community united in Christ. We celebrate because our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

So I'm grateful, and indeed I celebrate the opportunity to begin my ministry because I know that God is at work in this community, and I am honored to be a part of both the work and the community. I am joyful because I enjoy God, and by extension I shall also enjoy the ministry to which God has called us. For me, that ministry begins with getting to know what God is already doing in our midst, and in getting to know my fellow disciples here: the people who are the Presbyterian Church of Lowell.

Jesus is praying on behalf of the disciples, whom he has gotten to know very well over the course of his earthly ministry. He prays in verse seven "I gave them the words that you gave me, and the received them." We are just beginning to get to know one another. You've seen a brochure about me, and maybe talked with me once or twice around the church this week, but we're just embarking on this journey. God has put us on this journey together for a purpose, even though the destination has already been chosen on our behalf. Just as the disciples were God's and God gave them to Jesus, so God gives us each other because none of us will get very far by ourselves.

God has given us each other because we need each other. We have been called together for a purpose. I firmly believe that the reason we're on this journey together is that God has given us a word to give each other. Jesus gave the disciples the words that God gave him, and we, as disciples, have received them. Now it's our task to share them with each other, and with the rest of the world. For as our Acts passage read this morning, we "will be [Christ's] witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the Earth."

Jesus, on the other hand, states outright that "I'm praying for [the disciples]. I'm not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours." Jesus's prayer is not some over-arching universal blessing, he knows God is taking care of all creation in the crucifixion and resurrection. For the ascension, he knows that the transition will be difficult for his followers, so he prays for them specifically. Even after they negotiate that shift, they won't be able to sit back and rest, the Holy Spirit is coming at Pentecost to compel them outward. They're moving from difficult transition to being equipped to work on behalf of the kingdom of God.

 I think it's a fair leap to say that Jesus wasn't just talking about his followers who were in the room, but all of God's people in every time and place. You know, like us. I've done a lot of research over the last several months into the history and character of our community. Even in the starkness of presbytery and church records one can see that this church has not had an easy road over the last few years.

My own path is also not without it's potholes. My final year at seminary my wife and I maintained a long-distance marriage. We were convinced that each of us were called to the work we were doing, she at Kings Mountain and I at Columbia Theological Seminary and Saint Andrews. We were also certain that we were called to be with one another within the covenant of marriage, which only made balancing our relationship and careers that much more difficult. We moved forward in faith that our distance was a temporary status, and that the God who called us to be together would provide the opportunity for us to labor close enough that we could live together.

A little over a year ago, I finished my coursework at Columbia, and moved back in with my spouse. It was, and still is, wonderful to live with the person whom I love, even though it meant leaving behind the work that I found important and fulfilling. I made a little money with supply preaching, and eventually found an unpaid internship at a hospital which gave me opportunity to develop my pastoral care abilities, but it didn't give me the opportunity for worship leadership that is part of my identity.

Now I'm here, not in some generic church to deliver a substitute sermon, but with the people whom God has given me. And this church now has a Preacher whom God has given you. God has built a community here, uniting two churches almost 67 years ago to become the Presbyterian Church of Lowell. I'm not going to try and remake this church in my image, or try and shape the community into what I think it should be. God is already present and active here. God has given you a word to say to me, and I want to pay attention to what God is saying to me through this community.

This is a sermon, an act of proclamation and testimony in public worship. This sermon, and the others that will follow over the course of our journey together, is one way in which I will share the words God gives me. So too will be my Pastoral Counseling and my involvement in Christian Education. I will find ways to share the words God gives me through mission and outreach, through service to the larger church, and even through administrative work.

This congregation also has words God gave y'all, and I want to hear them. It's not just feedback like "Enjoyed your message, preacher," although I am eager for that feedback. It's also the ways that your lives reflect how God is active in your lives. The Word of God is present in more languages than are spoken or written, and the name of God, which Jesus has given us, is written on our hearts. Let us, therefore, find every expression we can manage to share the words God gave us with one another, and with the world.

Irrespective of the difficult roads that have shaped our recent history, separately and together, God is always working on us and through us. I'm not here to try and reform the church or "save" it, we've already got a savior, and this is the last Sunday of his earthly ministry.

But it's the first Sunday where we share a ministry together. We will take the prayer Jesus lifted on our behalf and use it to propel ourselves forward. We will share the words God gave us with each other so that we can better know the God who is in our midst. From there we shall go from Jerusalem, to all of Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Witnessing to the ends of the earth is a big task, too big for even the giants of faith lifted up in other Bible stories. The only human action that reached that far is when a man named Jesus of Nazareth was lifted up on the cross to die, and then rose from the dead. Of course, that one was also God's action.

So for these big tasks, when we cannot make the breadth of the journey alone, God gives us each other. God has given us the words to encourage and instruct one another, and our hope is that we will be one, just as God the Father and God the Son are one.

My prayer, therefore, at the beginning of our ministry together that we are able to share with each other the words God gave us, and that we will remain united in Christ even as we share our diverse perspective of how God is at work in our midst.

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