A sermon preached on May 13, 2018, the Seventh Sunday of Easter on John 17:6-19.
Easter is a celebration that lasts, not just one Sunday, not even just a week, but a “week of weeks”—49 days of festivity celebrating the resurrection of Christ from the grave, the triumph of life over death, and the reality of hope in our world. Why 49 days? I think it’s because it takes us at least that long to work out what the resurrection means in our lives. Jesus’ death on a cross and then his rising from the tomb is a shock. It’s an upheaval of the world. It’s a trauma. And, as with any trauma we go through in our lives, it takes time to put the world back together again and to live in it in a new way. Believing that Jesus rose is one thing, but learning to live in that reality takes time. And so the lectionary gives us that time, moving us gradually from stories about Jesus, the empty tomb, and his resurrection appearances to the disciples, to reflections on Now What? How does the resurrection continue in us?
Today, the last Sunday of this long festival, the gospel reading takes us back to the night before Jesus died. After supper with his disciples he offers a prayer—what is sometimes known as the Other Lord’s Prayer. This is not the concise prayer we all have committed to our hearts, but a long pouring out of Jesus’ heart before God… and before the ones he loves. We are meant to overhear this prayer as he converses intimately with God. As Jesus prays we understand the pain he feels, knowing he is no longer going to be able to be with his friends, his family. He pours out his heart to God, asking God to look after his people. This is the prayer of a mother or father, dying young, to place their children now in the care of God.
The setting of this prayer is certainly tragic, and yet it does not seem to be dominated by sadness and grief. Yes, you can feel Jesus’ anguish as he commends his family to God, but overall this prayer breathes reassurance and gratitude.
We, his disciples, are reassured that even though we don’t have Jesus with us in the flesh, still he has given us everything we need—his word and his life. He is no longer in the world, but we are, and we have his spirit. Eternal life itself is already ours to have and to give away in our turn.
We also feel Jesus’ gratitude in this prayer. As he is now in view of the end of his life in this world, his being is filled with gratitude for what has been, what is, and what will be. You hear this especially in the word give, which appears seventeen times in the prayer as a whole, and seventy-five times in John’s whole story of Jesus. To give, to give, to give. It seems that giving and gifts are at the heart of Jesus’ relationship with God.
There is a game we used to play with our son when he was a baby and a toddler. It involved his favorite toy at the time: a big, soft, colorful ball. We would take it and, with great show, give it to him. He would extend his little hand and joyfully receive this beautiful and beloved object. And then he’d look at us with a coy expression and give it right back! We would receive it with smiles and coos, and he would giggle for the sheer pleasure of giving and receiving. It truly gave him as much delight to receive as to give.
This game, which I think can be played with most babies, is an image of the Son’s relationship to the Father in John’s gospel. There is a never-ending mutuality of joy, gladness and delight as each gives to the other. “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you,” says Jesus in his prayer. Throughout his life Jesus modeled this overflowing abundance of life-as-gift. The life he received from God flowed through him to heal others. The words he received from God he shared freely with the world. The eternal life that was his, he gave to his disciples. On the last night of his life, when he prayed the “Other Lord’s Prayer,” he wanted his disciples to know that his life in this world had been a gift from God, and that he would receive it back again. His only wish was that his disciples would see this and know that they too were part of this great and joyous and eternal game of giving and receiving.
Friends, our life in this world is a gift. All that we have and all that we are is from God. We didn’t do anything to earn it, we didn’t do anything to deserve it. The good things that have come our way have come from God. And also the suffering. (Which is a harder word to say, and a harder thing to imagine gratitude for. Yet it is true.) Even our suffering can hold meaning, can be redeemed by giving it, like Jesus did, to God.
Today we are offered a part of this divine life of giving and receiving. We are invited to give all that we have and all that we are to God, who has given it all to us in the first place, and who waits to joyfully give it all back to us. Jesus welcomes us into the divine life of the Holy Trinity, that is like the toddler’s game of gleeful reciprocity – a never-ending circle of ecstatic gift giving. At the font, at the table: it is the same thing – we receive God’s life into ourselves in order to pass it on to the world. And that is how resurrection continues. It always was a gift not only for Jesus, but also for us, and through us for our world.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, maker of all things.
In your goodness you have blessed us with the gift of life…
With it we return blessing and praise to you,
offering ourselves to your service, and dedicating our lives to the care and redemption of all that you have made.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
Photo by Alan Emery on Unsplash