Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11 The Seventh Sunday of Easter 24 May 2020
At first sight I find this Sunday rather strange in the Christian Calendar. In reality we know that the Holy Spirit is now with us all the time in all his fullness. However the situation in the Christian Year is that we celebrated Ascension Day last Thursday when we celebrated Jesus ascending into heaven and sitting at the right side of God his Father. But the day of Pentecost when we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming in all his fullness is not until next Sunday. Today is the Sunday between these two festivals.
We must put ourselves in the position of the apostles in Acts 1v12-14, who, after Jesus had ascended into heaven and before the coming of the Holy Spirit, had returned to Jerusalem. They went to the room where they were staying, whether this was the room where Jesus spent his last evening with them and instituted the Lord’s Supper, or some other room is not certain. But what they did there was ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’ (v14).
Prayer is the link with today’s Gospel Reading from John 17. It follows on from the Farewell Discourse that we thought about last week which was given by Jesus to his disciples in the Upper Room immediately after they had finished the Last Supper and the night before his crucifixion. After this Jesus prayed, so John 17 begins “After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you’” (17v1). Our passage today is part of the great prayer of Jesus which William Temple described as ‘perhaps the most sacred passage even in the four gospels – the record of the Lord’s Prayer of self-dedication as it lived in the memory and imagination of his most intimate friend’.
Jesus had been strengthening his disciples, explaining to them that he would now physically leave them as the cross beckons, but then the gift of the Holy Spirit would come (John 16v4b-15). But having given his attention to the disciples and their needs Jesus now addresses his Father. It is a long prayer, the only long prayer of Jesus which is recorded, offered after the Last Supper, but before his betrayal and crucifixion.
This great prayer of Jesus splits neatly into three sections, although they do overlap a little: v1-5 Jesus prays for himself; v6-19 Jesus prays for the disciples; v20-26 Jesus prays for all believers. Today I will concentrate on v1-5 in which Jesus prays for himself.
John’s Gospel is heavy with themes that recur. One of these themes is ‘hour’. ‘The hour has come’ (17v1). At the first sign when Jesus changed water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, Jesus said ‘my hour has not yet come’ (John 2v4). At that time, the beginning of his public ministry, his destiny was ever before him. When Jesus taught the people of Jerusalem in the temple, the authorities tried to seize him but found they couldn’t, because his ‘hour had not yet come’ (7v30; 8v20), and there are other examples.
But when Jesus washed the disciple’s feet before the festival of the Passover, ‘Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father’ (13v1). He knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and return to his Father.
Jesus was living his life in the context of eternity. Yes, obviously Jesus was a special case, but it is a reminder for us to live our lives holding on to an eternal perspective. St Paul said ‘… we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4v18).
If we view our lives only from a physical point of view, then we are on an inevitable downhill slope to death. But there is more to life than just the physical as we well know. One of the reasons we gather to worship is to feed the spiritual aspect of our lives, and we are missing this in the current lockdown. From a spiritual point of view, someone said life is like climbing a hill that leads to the peak of the presence of the glory of God. That is why, midst all the problems and distress in these present days it is important to remember that life is both physical and spiritual, and we need to keep the spiritual, eternal dimension in mind.
A second major theme in John’s Gospel is ‘Glory’. In today’s reading ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you’ (17v1). In the first five verses of John 17, the word ‘glory’ or ‘glorify’ occurs five times. Glory was first introduced at the end of the prologue ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (1v14).
Donald Coggan, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, asks the question in one of his books that if we had to complete that verse ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his ….’ how would we have completed the verse? Possibly by saying ‘we have seen his humiliation’, for Jesus made himself of no reputation, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross. But for John, the cross is not humiliation, it is glory. No longer is the cross a stumbling block, but a stairway by which the Son ascends to the Father.
The Father glorifies Jesus by sustaining him in his perfect obedience, even unto death. Jesus glorifies the Father by the perfection of the obedience which he offers. So the cross becomes the means of glory, because Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross is the expression of his love and because it marked the completion of his work on earth.
There is a First World War painting showing an engineer fixing an essential field telephone line. He had just finished the work so the essential messages could get through, when he was shot. The painting shows him at the moment of his death, and the caption written under the painting is ‘through’. The engineer had given his life so that the message could get through. That is what Jesus did, he gave his life so that the love of God could get through to all people. And so the cross was his glory. His was perfect obedience in perfect love.
From this follows two things. In v2 Jesus gives eternal life, and in v4 Jesus work on earth was finished. Through these two truths of Jesus’ life, the Father is glorified.
It is our duty and our joy to bring glory to God ourselves. A well known phrase from the Westminster Shorter Catechism says ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’. We do it in the same way as Jesus, by doing the work of God in the world. Our worship should lead to mission. In the prayer at the end of the Eucharist we say ‘Send us out in the power of the Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory’. In the Service we have fed on Christ, now we go out to live and to work to his praise and glory.
One final thought – Jesus prayed for Himself. Yes, it was a prayer of consecration of himself as the cross loomed. This was a key point in his life, and I know that is unique.
But many of us older Christians were brought up almost to despise ourselves. You may have sung that little chorus based on the word JOY – Jesus first, yourself last, and others in between. But we need to remember the great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
Sometimes Christians feel they should not be concerned about themselves. We fix our eyes on God, or on other people, but to be concerned about ourselves we might think is almost selfish introspection. The JOY chorus is a ‘clever little ditty’, but I believe it is wrong thinking. I believe we do need to care about ourselves and pray for ourselves, and not feel guilty about it. If Jesus prayed for himself, so should we.
Someone said ‘joy is the echo of God’s life within us’, and so a much better chorus to sing about joy is ‘Joy is the flag flown high from the castle of my heart … when the King is in residence there.’
So, no need to feel guilty about praying to God for ourselves, our needs, when we need guidance or talk through our issues with Him. And, of course praying that our lives may bring glory to God. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!