In February I had the great privilege of being invited to speak to the student body of a Christian liberal arts college in Branson, Missouri. I was asked to speak as a Christian who had made a successful career in the performing arts. But since my engagement was less than a week after my ordination as a priest in ACNA, I also was asked to address how God had led me from one path to a very different one. I saved time for Q & A at the end, and the questions were focused and brilliant. But one student asked a surprising question that had not been addressed in my talk: he wanted to know what was my favorite book of the Bible! It was very easy for me to respond at once that it was a tie between the Gospel of John and the book of Romans, and the winner on any given day usually depended on whether I was in a more devotional mood or a more theological mood. But I then added that it was easy for me to name my favorite chapter of the Bible, and that it was John 17, the chapter that contains what we call either the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus or the Intercessory Prayer of Jesus.
This prayer is unique and remarkable because it takes us more deeply into the heart of Jesus than anything else in the 4 Gospels. It also takes us more deeply into the relationship of God the Son with God the Father. It’s not that Jesus had failed to address this many times in the Gospel of John, capped off by His stating, “The Father and I, We are One” (John 10:30) and His telling Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). But those statements are more beautifully and lovingly illustrated in this prayer than anywhere else. Jesus takes these truths beyond theological statements about the unity of the Godhead and applies them to us as believers in Him: He asks “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us” (John 17:21).
That would have been an amazing desire on His part had the persons in view only been His intimate circle of disciples. But in the previous verse, He has prayed, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word” (17:20). That’s us! And to what end does Jesus make this His prayer? He tells us: “so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (17:21). Our oneness with the Father and the Son has a missional objective, an objective in line with the Great Commission of Jesus: that the world may believe!
This is absolutely a promise of Jesus. It springs from His genuine heart’s desire. That makes it one of the most precious promises Jesus has made to us. In verse 24 of this chapter, Jesus prays, “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” Jesus asks the Father that we may be with Him for all eternity. What a comforting thought for His disciples in the context in which they are hearing this prayer as they are brought into the very fellowship of the Godhead!
What is the context of this prayer? We’re still in the Upper Room where Jesus has told His disciples, “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father” (John 16:17). He had stated this in terms of sending them the Holy Comforter, Who would mediate His presence to them. It’s not at all surprising that the disciples were unable to decipher His meaning. But just a short time later Jesus said, “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father” (16:28), And this time His disciples responded, “Now You are speaking plainly and are not using a figure of speech... By this we believe that You came from God” (16:29, 30). And you remember that Jesus had prefaced all of this by saying, “Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1). Everything Jesus says to His disciples in the Upper Room is intended to provide comfort for the circumstances they were about to face. And that message of comfort reaches its climax in the intercessory prayer when Jesus asks the Father to bring His own into the very union that they share with each other. We can’t possibly ask for more than this. This is a rock-solid promise on which our hope may be firmly based.
This incredible drama is far from over; in fact, it’s only beginning. As soon as this prayer is ended, Jesus will go to the Garden of Gethsemane with His disciples, where Judas will lead those who are coming to arrest Jesus. Soon the trials will end, the crucifixion will occur, the glorious Resurrection will triumphantly overturn the apparent victory of evil and death, the post-Resurrection appearances with their words of peace and comfort and further instruction will pass and in just 40 days from the Resurrection, Jesus will ascend to the right hand of the Father.
If you’ve been marking off those days on your day-timers, you will know that the Day of the Ascension was this past Thursday and today is what is known in some churches as Ascension Sunday. That’s why our first reading from the Book of Acts was the account of the Ascension, prefaced by the understandable yet clueless question of the disciples, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
On Ascension Day this past week I was in Wisconsin with our Bishop and many priests and deacons of the Diocese of Quincy for our annual clergy retreat. The Bishop explained that while he had already prepared his sermon for that day, God had awakened him in the middle of the night to give him a completely different sermon. In his vision he saw a stirring analogy between the parenting of birds in their nests as he witnesses it at his Abbey and how Jesus cared for the needs of His disciples. And it made me reflect on our own recent experiences right here in our back yard.
You can see our two bluebird houses at the back of our lot. The one on the left has housed several generations of bluebirds, and each year at the beginning of May we watch to see whether we will be blessed by new bluebirds in residence. Observing nature can bring both lofty blessings and deep disappointments.
The male bluebird does a scouting mission, visiting houses here and there until he determines whether one is suitable for bringing his female partner to raise their next brood. Not one scout has ever found the house on the right to be acceptable, but once again this month the one on the left met with approval and the nest-building began. But this time a predator intervened, commandeered the nest, ejected a beautiful blue egg already laid in the nest and chased our bluebirds away.
In listening to the Bishop’s sermon, it reminded me of how Satan had entered the heart of Judas, one of the very disciples chosen by Jesus, to be the predator whose betrayal resulted in the arrest in the Garden. But then, as the Bishop continued, his words echoed our past experiences when the bluebirds had successfully fended off their predators and raised their young in that box. Every day they would take turns gathering food for their young, filling their beaks with mealworms and taking them into the house. Eventually the day would come when the parents would force their young out of the box and lead them to the mealworm feeder, where they needed to feed themselves and, ultimately, fly away to whatever lay ahead for them. And so Jesus could pray to the Father saying, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).
All analogies have their strong points and their weaker ones, but this behavior of the bluebirds reminded me of how Jesus cared for His disciples. He guided and guarded them as the Good Shepherd cares for His sheep and as the bluebirds care for their young. Yes, the predator managed to gain control over one of the 12, but the others continued to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from Him. The time came when the next phase of their learning required that they be kicked out of the nest to find food on their own.
But Jesus had a plan in place that was vastly superior to the ways of the bluebirds. In the Upper Room He promised that He would continue to come to them through the Holy Spirit. He told them that the Holy Spirit Who had been with them would now be in them, reminding them of all that He had taught them (14:26), bearing witness of Him (15:26), guiding them into all truth (16:13) and glorifying Jesus to them (16:14). And this was precisely how Jesus could say to His Father “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us” (17:21).
That’s where the missional component kicks in. “I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me” (17:23). How will the world know anything at all about this unity of Father, Son and believers? Only through our witness to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives that makes this unity a reality!
It was only 10 days after the Ascension that Jesus descended once again, as He had promised, in the Person of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, which we will observe next Sunday. What were the final words of Jesus to His disciples before His Ascension to the Father? We heard them today in the reading from Acts: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” We’ve looked at that statement several times in recent weeks. Now we’ve come to the moment in the calendar year when remember the occasion on which those words were spoken. And they provide the very foundation for the missional objective of Jesus in His great Intercessory Prayer: “that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me.”
We are to be witnesses to that truth, and we’re enabled to deliver our witness in the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve been kicked out of the nest to do the work of evangelism and mission, but we do it in the strength that God supplies when He promises never to leave us or forsake us. That promise is based on the one Jesus gave to His disciples in the Upper Room; and the author of Hebrews, who repeated the promise in his epistle, immediately follows it up with this statement: “We can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5, 6).
We serve a risen and ascended Savior Who is in our world today in the Person of the Holy Spirit Whom He sent so that we can make Him known to persons who never have been in greater need of His saving grace. He established His Church as the means whereby the message is to go out into all the world. And what is that message, according to the words of Jesus in His prayer to the Father? It’s the message of God’s love, the message that God loves us just as He loved Jesus Whom He sent for us and for our sin. In just a moment we will affirm together as we do every Sunday that it was “for us and for our salvation” that Jesus “came down from heaven, and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered death and was buried. On the third day He rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;” and, on the day that we celebrate today, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
May we be faithful to proclaim that message of God’s infinite love, so that when Jesus comes “again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” we will have done our part to ensure that everyone among our family and friends will have heard the message and accepted the Word of Christ, and so will be part of “His kingdom” that “will have no end.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen