I’ve known a few preachers in my time who after they finished their sermon offered a rather lengthy prayer that was almost another sermon. In fact it appeared as if the recipient of that prayer was the congregation rather than God. That’s how I feel when I read John 17. John begins by saying:
When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said: “Father the time has come. . . .” (Jn. 17:1).
There’s a lot of stuff packed into this prayer, much more than we can digest in one sitting. There is a word that is present in this prayer, however, that speaks to where we have been this past week.
Has the word eternity been on your heart and mind this week? Last Sunday I shared some of my own feelings about Alice’s death and on Thursday we gathered to remember and celebrate her life. Her death has caused many of us to think about our own mortality and perhaps about what comes after death. Stirred by Alice’s example, several members approached me about making plans for their own services, and maybe others of you were thinking about it. There’s wisdom in this, though you needn’t be quite as comprehensive in your planning as was Alice!
So here we come today, with Alice in our thoughts, and find that today is Ascension Sunday. I don’t know about you but the Calvinist in me finds this fact to be providential and not coincidental. Ascension Sunday is all about saying goodbye and looking forward into the future. Although Jesus has yet to go to the cross in John’s gospel, in Acts 1 not only is Jesus resurrected, but he’s commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses, promised them the Holy Spirit, and is ready to say goodbye, whether or not they’re ready. Maybe we can sympathize with the disciples.
A High Priestly PrayerBut the passage that we’ve read isn’t about the Ascension, but about a prayer. Of course it’s not just any prayer, it’s Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, and in it we hear Jesus say: “It’s time for me to go home,” so glorify me as I’ve glorified you, protect them as they live their lives in the world, and may they be one, as we are one. Some scholars call this Jesus’ “high priestly prayer,” and he’s doing what priest’s do, which is intercede for others. That’s what Alice was. She was an intercessor. I guarantee you – if you got a card from her, she probably prayed for you as she sent out that card.
The Gift of EternityAlice’s death is fresh in our minds, but Jean’s death wasn’t all that long ago, and she too has left us a legacy of faithfulness to God. There are others, of course, who have died over the last few years, whose deaths have marked your own lives. Remembering their lives and their deaths can be difficult and even painful.
Death is a difficult thing to deal with. No one likes talking about it. We don’t like talking about it with our spouses or with our children. In fact, there are more than a few people, hopefully none of you, who don’t take out life insurance, because it’s so morbid. But death is part of life. Alice understood that, which is why she planned her service well in advance of her eventual death.
This leads me to the verses that really stuck out to me this week, and apparently also when I decided on the title for the sermon. Here in John 17, as Jesus is interceding (and preaching), we hear him say that God had given him the authority to give to everyone, whom God had chosen, the gift of eternal life. I wonder what this means, that God has authorized Jesus to bestow on us the gift of eternity?
Knowing GodMany years ago, when I was in seminary, a theologian named Orlando Costas spoke at Fuller Seminary. Although that lectureship occurred more than 25 years ago, I remember him posing a question for us to think about. Costas told us the big question facing us isn’t whether there’s life after death. The big question is this: “Is there life before death?” If Jesus has the authority to give us eternal life, and Costas is right about the big question that faces us, then what is eternity all about?
Remember how Jesus defined eternal life in John 17? Remember how he said to God: “This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.” If eternal life involves knowing God and Jesus, whom God sent into the world, then when does eternity begin? Could it begin now, in this life?
If eternal life involves knowing God – maybe not in a full sense, but in a real sense nonetheless – then what does this look like? How do we know God? Where is God present in our lives? As I ask this question, I’m mindful of our tendency as human beings to create God in our own image. Perhaps that’s not surprising – after all, Genesis 1 says that God created us in God’s image. But taking that caution into our minds, might we not encounter God in the lives of godly people like Alice and Jean as well as in the lives of little Eric and Sylvia? Have you experienced a sense of God’s presence in the beauty of music or nature? You know one of the great things about life is that it’s so varied. What speaks to me might not speak to you. How you connect with God might be a bit different from me. Maybe that’s why we have Episcopal Churches, Disciples’ Churches, Baptist Churches, and Pentecostal Churches – just to name a few options.
Or maybe you would like to try the way envisioned by Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic, whose biography I read recently. Julian was a very holy person, who spent most of her life inside a small room praying. As far as I can tell, she never left that room. Food was delivered through a small door and whatever needed to be taken away from the room went back out that same door. From what I’ve read, she had some intense encounters with God. Although I’m not sure that her methodology would work for me, her writings continue to bless people to this day. Brother Lawrence, on the other hand, found it possible to experience the presence of God while peeling potatoes and washing dishes.
As we ponder this question of knowing God, perhaps we might pay attention to this qualifying statement of Jesus.
I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you have sent me to do. Now Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you when the world was created.I know that we can take this passage to speak of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I’m sure that this is partly the intent of John, but could it speak of more than this? Could it speak of our own calling and our own work in the world, work that is not yet finished for most of us? Perhaps, what we hear in this passage is a question of a legacy. What is it about our own lives, which will continue to bear witness to the presence of God in our world after we’re gone?
May I leave this word of definition, as we ponder the meaning of eternity. Eternal life is this: “To know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.” May we embrace this message of eternity, so that we might be one, even as Jesus is one with God.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Ascension Sunday/7th Sunday of Easter
June 5, 2011