Fr. John Allison
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
May 21, 2023
Christ Church, Hudson
Years ago I had a close friend who was many years older than me, roughly twice my age as a matter of fact. He was the husband of a professor of mine and a weekly habit of playing chess together grew into a friendship that lasted through many years and several moves for us both. I remember him today because as he neared the end of his life he liked to talk about the philosophical aspects of death. I say philosophical because Adrian was a professed atheist. He was Jewish by birth but for him religion never moved him in any meaningful way. The conversation I’m thinking of today, however, was as he pondered the value of the promise of an afterlife. “Maybe it makes sense,” he said. “After all, we all want to feel like we have something waiting for us, a reward, a promise.”
At the time, I couldn’t articulate what I found troubling about his statement but, intuitively, it didn’t match my experience. And now, I can say that it doesn’t even really resonate with my understanding of faith, even though in the popular imagination Christianity is often reduced to what one needs to do to get to heaven, or what one needs to believe. Indeed, there is often so much focus on the transcendent, on the heavenly, that the very real, immanent presence of the holy amidst us is overlooked.
Our reading from John’s Gospel today gets at this as Jesus prays for his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. The scene is the Last Supper and builds on our Gospel readings from the last two weeks, what we’ve explained as Jesus’ farewell discourse. He has just finished telling his disciples that he is going away and they don’t quite understand the implication of all that he is saying but in his prayer we have his vision of what it means to be holy.
In the larger scheme of the liturgical season of Easter we are in the intervening ten days between Ascension and Pentecost, what is known as Ascension tide, and the disciples are without the Risen Jesus and still awaiting the Holy Spirit. This is the time depicted today in our first reading from the Book of Acts. There is a gulf, a void, and these words from Jesus, his prayer delivered weeks ago, on what for us was Maundy Thursday, offer the foundation on which the disciples, and by extension us, are to build.
Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me so that they may be one as we are one.” We read today just the beginning of the prayer but in it we see Jesus’ concern for the disciples as they seek to continue in his way. Protect them. Make them one as we are one. Protect us. Make us one with Christ just as Christ is one with his Father in Heaven. Send us into the world and love as Christ has loved. Jesus’ prayer is to equip us to do his work, and to share in the oneness between the Jesus and his Father in Heaven.
All too often, as my friend illustrated, Jesus’ teachings are spiritualized to the point that we forget that we are sent out, that Jesus’ prayer is to equip us for the here and now of the world around us. It’s in the here and now, in the present, that we begin to grow into the oneness that Jesus describes. Or, as he says a bit later in this chapter from John, “that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” That’s what he calls us to here, now.
The cross as we most commonly depicted here in the west, has a long vertical axis and a much shorter horizontal axis. Typically we understand the vertical axis as representing our striving toward God and the horizontal as our duty to the world. What isn’t as commonly known, however, is that the cross existed in a somewhat different form in various pre-Christian cultures. It was known by different names but one form, the one that I wear around my neck everyday, is called the sun wheel and it is simply a cross with each axis of an equal length enclosed in a circle. We often see this reflected in the Celtic Cross. The significance of this form of the cross is that the vertical and the horizontal are equal; our devotion to the heavenly is equal to our embrace of the created order and that it is where these two intersect, where the immanent and transcendent dimensions of our experience cross, that we find equilibrium. This is the joy that makes us complete.
Almost six months ago we celebrated the Incarnation—God came to us and took on human flesh in the person of Jesus. God with us. In this past week, on Ascension Day, Christ ascended bodily, in the flesh, to his Father in Heaven and left his disciples with a promise and a mission to love as he loves. This is not a mission looking upward into the spiritual realm but a promise that is realized today—now.
In today’s reading from the first chapter of Acts, the disciples stand gazing upward as Jesus ascends and two men robed in white, angels we are to presume, stand among them and say why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In the flesh, bodily and he returns to us in the same way. If we fix our gaze so intently upward we miss him here, now.
In our baptismal covenant we say we will seek and serve Christ in all persons. Christ is here with us—if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. The life of faith is a life that cultivates this way of seeing and this way of loving. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, that they be protected, that they be united in his love, is a prayer for us. The disciples for whom Jesus prays are our representatives and as he prays for them and sends them, he prays for us and sends us as well.
Like my friend said to me so many years ago, we do like to feel we have a reward waiting for us. Jesus’ prayer, however, is not about the afterlife. His promise begins now, here, in the world to which we are sent. That’s the life of faith to which we are called and that’s the present moment in which Christ’s joy is planted. Amen.