The Reverend Kathleen Killian
The Last Word
Our scriptures on this seventh Sunday of Easter are soaked through with prayer, and appropriately so; for the risen Jesus has ascended and the Holy Spirit has yet to descend. As disciples of Christ, we are in a transitional or ambiguous space, waiting for Pentecost. And so we pray with Paul and Silas who are praying and singing hymns to God in prison at the midnight hour; we pray with St. John in his Revelation—Come, Lord Jesus, Come—the final words of the Bible. Then, in our gospel, we pray with Jesus as he prays what is sometimes called his high priestly prayer.
Jesus prayed regularly and frequently, though we don’t usually get to listen in as we do today. In our passage, Jesus prays for the unity, glory and love of his disciples who were present with him at the Last Supper, and for future generations of disciples—for us and for anyone and everyone that might believe—his single prayer spreading outward in concentric circles like ripples on a pond, his immense invocation extending over the boundaries of time and space. If Paul and Silas’ prayers caused an earthquake so violent that it shook the foundations of the prison, opened its locked doors, and unfastened their chains, imagine then, the magnitude of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples—for us, for you and for me; surely his prayers are transforming and leave us shaken, opened and freed.
Jesus’ high priestly prayer is the whole of chapter seventeen in the gospel of John. We read only a small portion of today, but in our seven short verses Jesus prays five times about love: we hear that love is before the foundation of the world; that love is the very bond of the Godhead; that love is at the heart of discipleship; that love is glory and glory love; may love, Jesus prays, glorify those who follow me.
Jesus prays not only for love but for a unity of love, and for the union of the minds and hearts of his followers; a love that is relational, reciprocal and creative, and lived out. Jesus pours himself through prayer into the heart of the Father, that we may be one, heaven and earth, person and God, cosmos and humanity all bound together by this small four letter word upon which rests the meaning and revelation of creation. Love is the ground of revelation, and our receptivity to love leads to fuller understanding of God’s desire for us. Love is the last word, and the last word of Jesus’ prayer for us.
This is the thrust of Easter and our Christian faith, that in our very flesh love is alive, God is alive, and true love knows no separation. There is no greater truth than this, that we are already in communion. As disciples, our work is to realize and manifest this great love in this particular time in history, while also seeking to recover the lost and broken pieces of our original wholeness, which litter the world.
We do not need Christ to tell us that the world is full of trouble (Peterson from Reversed Thunder). Perhaps more often than not, our experience of the world and our selves in it is one of disunity, disagreement, dislike, disorder, disease, and disassociation from the pain and suffering of life. Jesus’ prayer might seem to support our distance and separation from the world, as in it, Jesus tells his disciples that they do not belong to the world; that they are to be like Jesus himself: fully in this world but not of it, not owned by the world, but belonging to the whole, and wholly to God. Our essential identity as a disciple is not shaped by the values and claims of our culture and world but by life in Christ.
Jesus does not condemn the world and its creatures, for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to it, that all may have eternal and abundant life. But within this juxtaposition of “in but not of” lies a warning to his followers about the disfigured parts of the world that seek to destroy the good and do not love. In preparing for this sermon, and in the aftermath of yet another heart-wrenching school shooting, I’ve been thinking a lot about love this week and what opposes love. What is the opposite of love? Some say hate, others fear, but I’m wondering if the opposite of love is evil, which feeds on hate and festers fear.
In the news this week there’s been quite a bit of rhetoric about evil; that you can’t legislate evil, that it’s not guns that are not evil but the people who use them. If this were so, we still have a problem in our country, which has 400 million guns—more than our population—because they are a massive stumbling block to love and the gospel of Christ. This week a just turned 18 year old, who is not allowed to vote, was able to legally purchase semi-automatic rifles that are made for one thing only, to kill people quickly and efficiently. What is evil is the ease by which such weapons can be obtained, and our idolatry of guns. Idolatry of any kind is a moral sickness and sickens the soul of persons and nations.
All week I kept hearing Jesus’ admonitions ring in my ears: From Matthew: If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:6). Then from Luke: Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! (Luke 17:1).
In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul preaches the gospel of love: Be careful, he says, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak (1 Corinthians 8:9). And then in Romans: Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother (Romans 14:13).
In response to Israel’s idolatry, Isaiah prophesies the word of the Lord: Prepare the way, take the stumbling block out of the way of My people (Isaiah 57:14).
As many have this week, I’ve struggled with a real sense of helplessness in the face of yet another atrocity, and that there seems to be a stranglehold on the soul of this nation. I’ve been alternately outraged, angry, sorrowful, frustrated, despondent—when is enough enough?—and struggling not to give into the hate and fear that evil would have me do. But then I read a little something from Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy about three basic responses to crisis: denial, despair, and feeling the intensity of our feelings and doing what we can. This is perhaps the hardest, to feel all the feelings, and yet be a sign of hope in a world without a solution; to lift up our our personal intensities before the Holy One and take a step, however small, which for me is often to pray.
I’ve also read and heard quite a bit this week about prayer, so many people praying in Uvalde and Buffalo, across the nation and even around the world, but also many others saying that prayer is not enough; it’s a tired and worn out platitude—which it can be if disingenuous. But, as a person of faith, as a people of faith, as followers of the Prince of Peace, we are called to faithful prayer, no matter how spindly or inadequate our prayers may seem to be. To quote Eugene Peterson from Reversed Thunder, our book study: History is a long sequence of battles between the forces of Good and Evil. People of prayer are in the middle of it even when the guns are silent. Prayer is the realization of personal powerlessness, and at the same moment, participation in God’s power. Prayer is not mystical escape but historical engagement as it participates in God’s action; God uses our prayers in God’s work.
In the most basic sense, the answer to any prayer is that we are heard, always. But sometimes, maybe often even, we feel we’re not, and that our prayers are not answered. This is when we must remember and claim the blessing of being wholly received in prayer, and that all prayer is in essence one prayer, a summons for God to come, for the Good to prevail. The answer or outcome of prayer is perhaps not as creative as praying itself, because the immediacy of prayer is where its power is: God is here, and love is now.
Coursing through Jesus’ prayer for us is hope, hope that we are willing to embrace the truth of divine love, costly that it may be; that when any of the great elements of creation get between us and God, becoming idols, judgement topples them and restores us to trust, deep love and respect (paraphrase Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder). I know that sometimes I am afraid to trust myself directly to this unraveling, and to the all encompassing, all embracing revelation of God’s heart. Understandably perhaps, we humans prefer “manageability” over revelatory and sweeping truth. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to pray for the sake of unity and love. Christ ascends not beyond the clouds and out of reach, but into the One Divine Heart that is our very own—which means that in the end, everything will be okay, and if it’s not, then it’s not the end.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.