Most of us at one time or another have received a ‘pep’ talk: some words of encouragement and support as you face a new opportunity or challenge. Such talks are given by head teachers to school leavers, by university vice chancellors at graduation ceremonies and by company bosses at the end of staff training days. Even bishops are prone to give their clergy such inspirational talks on occasions! If your experience is anything like mine, such addresses can leave you feeling as inadequate as you feel encouraged.
All four gospels have Jesus giving his disciples such ‘locker room’ talks in which he explains things about himself and his ministry which do not appear in his addresses to the crowds. John records these talks in more detail than the others. The central part of his gospel from which our readings have been taken on the last two Sundays records a lengthy talk which Jesus gives his disciples at the time of the last supper on the night before he died. It is prompted by the impending betrayal of Judas and begins with words of reassurance to the disciples that his parting from them will not be permanent; that he goes to prepare a place for them. He assures them that they have a future in the kingdom, in his father’s house. In chapters 15 and 16, the pep talk goes on to speak of the job which Jesus will leave with them; to continue his ministry on earth. Jesus will be the vine and they will be the branches. Jesus speaks about prayer and how the gift of the Holy Spirit will enable the disciples to carry out his mission. They are truly inspirational words offered with a blend of direction and encouragement, stick and carrot.
This brings us to chapter17, to the words of today’s gospel reading. The first verse sets the scene: ‘After Jesus had spoken these words,’ that is after he had finished his pep talk, ‘he looked up to heaven and said,’ ‘Looked up to heaven’ is a term often used to tell us that Jesus was praying. I am sure that most football coaches giving the players a good talking to in the dressing room at half time don’t finish with a prayer, but it may help their prospects if they did, yet Jesus ends with a prayer…and quite a long one at that. John 17 is often regarded as the great prayer of Jesus. The other gospels have Jesus praying later that night in the garden of Gethsemane. It is entirely reasonable that he prayed both in the upper room with the disciples and then alone in the garden. The two prayers are of a different order. Here his prayer is for himself and his disciples. It is also for those who will ‘believe in me through their word’ (verse 20) that is every true Christian believer through the centuries including us here this morning.
So, what does Jesus pray?
He prays that God may ‘glorify’ him as the Son and that he, the Son, might glorify his Father, God. Glory is a key bible word and especially so in John’s gospel. We might apply the word to the monarchy, to a favoured football team, a sun set or a ship in full sail. In this context, it is about God and what truly constitutes and belongs to God. It is about his utter holiness, perfect beauty and the honour which is due to him. But our God is about relationship. God does not behave like a boxer or self-promoted African president who says: ‘I am the greatest.’ The glory is to be given to him by his Son through a life of humble service; the one who has finished the work he had been given to do. (verse 4) He in turn gives glory to the Son whose hour has come. Yes, the glory will be in the suffering, as Jesus lays down his life upon the cross and so earns the authority to give eternal life to all who believe. (verse 2) ‘The glory of God is a reciprocal relationship: it is something forever freely given.’ (Newbigin, 1982)
So, we say: ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever. Amen
Secondly, Jesus prays for his disciples. Primarily, this means the twelve whom he had called to share his earthly ministry, but various cues in the gospels lead us to believe that it includes a wider circle including some women. Jesus affirms in his prayer that what he had received from his Father, he has now given to them. On the eve of the crucifixion, Jesus is sure that they now believe that he really is from and of God: that they have been given the words from his Father. (verses 7 & 9) Jesus goes on to pray for their protection now that he is not in the world and that they be ‘one’, united in the same way in which he is united to his Father. (verse 11)
Once again, notice how Jesus says that he has been ‘glorified’ in them. (verse 10) Isn’t that remarkable? These were fishermen, tax collectors, ordinary people, one of whom was a about to betray him and another deny him? Yet Jesus acknowledges to his Father that he is glorified in them! Here in lies a key message for us today in these words of Jesus. As he looks beyond his impending death on the cross, beyond his resurrection and final parting from his disciples at the ascension; Jesus, in both his pep talk and prayer at the last supper envisages the time when these disciples would continue his work. He is not so much concerned that they get the sales pitch right or that they don’t do and say things which will let the side down. He knew that would happen. What is clear from these valedictory words and the prayer which follows is that Jesus was leaving the world a community, a group of people who were one with him and his Father. This community would be the custodians of the words he had given them, they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and through them, others would believe.
On this Sunday after the Ascension, as we look forward to our celebration of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, may we be clear that Jesus’ legacy to the world is not only a book of words, a place in history, an influence on western society and democracy although he has left us all those things. Most importantly, he has left a community of people which we call the church. He has left it to love the world in its suffering and to teach of the forgiveness and hope of eternal life offered in Jesus.
When it comes to a blatant act of human sin such as was witnessed in Manchester last Monday evening and the appalling suffering caused, Christianity does not and should not just offer words and platitudes, it offers the love of a caring community who are one with Jesus and the Father through the Spirit, a community whose glory is in service, who follow their Lord in walking the way of the cross, sharing the pain of the world’s sin and in acts of love and kindness redeeming it to eternal life.
Thankfully, most of us don’t encounter the terrible scenes of a terrorist attack or other atrocity during our daily lives, but we do face the same world that Jesus did, where dark things in people’s hearts cause much pain and hurt, where people struggle for meaning and true security. Let recall the words of Jesus’ pep talk and especially the sentiments of his prayer. May we not just come to church for what we might get out of it or to make us feel better. May we be church? May we be the community Jesus wanted to leave as his legacy? Can we be rooted in him as the branches are in the vine? Can we be one, committed to one another in prayer and worship, open and filled by the Holy Spirit? If we take heed of Jesus’ dressing room talk, we will be ready for the game of life, to be truly church, truly Jesus to our world. In this will lie our true glory, the glory of God, the glory of Jesus, the servant king, the glory of the Spirit and the hope of all with whom we meet.
Newbigin, L. (1982). The Light Has Come. Michigan: Eerdmans.
Easter 7 Sunday After Ascension 28.05.2017