A Sermon preached on May 13, Easter VII, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19
The "Thy Kingdom Come" global prayer movement began this week, on Ascension Day. We are invited to pray with Christians from around the world during the nine days between Ascension and Pentecost for the coming of God’s Kingdom. This year’s guiding theme is “Changed Lives → Changing Lives,” which is a helpful reminder that God’s Kingdom is not just something we wait for in prayer, but something we are called to help build by allowing the Holy Spirit to change our lives, and to show us new ways of living and loving. And by being open to where that Spirit is leading us.
For that reason, I am not entirely happy with this morning’s collect, which seems to me to focus a little too much on the heavenly aspect of God’s kingdom: “you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven.” And “send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.” Not that this petition is wrong, just incomplete. “Thy kingdom come” is of course the third line of what we call the Lord’s Prayer. And we pray that God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. So, we have things to do here, before we are exalted to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.
In this morning’s Gospel reading from John we heard an extract from Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples that takes up all of chapter 17. Though it takes a second or third reading to notice, (or a clever commentary), his prayer actually bears a lot of similarities to the Lord’s Prayer that we know from the Gospels according to Luke and Matthew. It’s longer, John always is, and more involved and could perhaps be called a commentary or expansion on the prayer we know so well and that we use at almost every service. John’s version starts – before today’s extract - with the words, “Jesus … looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father’” (John 17:1) – our Father in heaven! Jesus calls on and glorifies – or hallows – God’s name several times: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known.” (17:26) He also emphasizes how he has ensured in his life that God’s will be done: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” (17:4) But the bulk of the prayer, especially the section we heard this morning, is about the disciples, and therefore us as the disciples’ successors, and about their and our role in the world.
First Jesus gives thanks that the disciples have come to know God, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world,” (17:6) and to recognize that God is the source of everything that Jesus did and said: “the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” (17:8) This is vital, literally life-giving, because only if we believe this, can we trust in Jesus and the God who sent him. This is also the main theme of the passage from the Letter of John we heard: “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” (1 John 5:11) We receive the same words and hear the same truth in Scripture, in the stories of God’s acts of salvation in the Old Testament, in the Evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’ life, work, and sacrifice, in Paul’s and the other writers’ interpretations of the meaning of that life, death, and return.
Next, Jesus asks for God’s protection for the disciples: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me.” (John 17:11) The protection is twofold, against temptation and against the dangers of the world. In the words of the Lord’s prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The world offers many temptations. Jesus recalls the temptation of the one who was lost, Judas, to worldly power and influence. Jesus prays against that great temptation of division, “that they may be one, as we are one.” (17:11) We are divided when we put anything first other than God and our neighbor, whether ourselves or our nation. America is not great, and Britain is not great, except in the geographical sense, and Germany is not great: God is.
The world also presents real dangers to Jesus’ followers. In this prayer, Jesus uses the word world both as a mission field, more about that in a moment, and as a synonym for the hatred he encounters, and that leads to his death, and that his followers will encounter. In this sense, the world is not the whole world, but only that part that rebels against God and chooses the path of darkness, rather than light, hatred, rather than love, lies, rather than truth. This is the embodiment of the evil one that Jesus prays for them to be protected from.
Finally, Jesus prays for their mission. Jesus’ followers may not belong to the world, but they are in it. “I am not asking you to take them out of the world,” Jesus prays, (17:15) and “as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (17:18) What for? To bear witness to God as revealed in Jesus Christ. To embody the change God wants to see in the world. To fight evil wherever we see it. We would not need the protection that Jesus prays for if we kept quiet, and silent, and ignored what is wrong, if we kept our heads down. We need God’s protection because we are called to speak out and to act. To name some recent or current examples: Against the so-called hostile environment towards immigrants that Theresa May fostered and encouraged in the UK Home Office. Against the recent rise of anti-Semitism here in Germany and elsewhere. Against sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination that the “me too” movement is highlighting, also within the Church.
To put it positively, we are in the world for those Jesus went out of his way to meet and to care for: the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. At its core, the message we bring is very simple. Jesus is God. God is love. God’s kingdom, the one we pray for and work for, is ruled by love.
Earlier I criticized today’s collect for focusing too much on the heavenly kingdom. One reason we are in the world and yet do not belong to it, one reason we are sanctified, set apart, is because we are citizens of both citizens of both heaven and earth. As Christians, we belong both to this world and the next. We are called to love by the values of God’s kingdom now, although it has not yet fully come. We pray that with God’s help we will live lives faithful and true to the God and God’s word and in doing so speak truth, create justice, and offer mercy and compassion. In the church calendar, between Ascension and Pentecost, we are still waiting and praying for the gift of the Spirit that empowers us to act on God’s behalf in the world now that, in Jesus’ words this morning “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.” (17:11)
I pray that God will work both in us and through us, so that God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will be done.