Ascension Sunday

Sermon from John 17:6-19

A few weeks ago RC and I discussed some of the worship plans for the summer, and he decided to plan for a lengthy summer series specifically focused on the Lord’s Prayer. This is a shameless little plug for it – if you’re able to make it here this summer, I know it will be well worth it!

I came across some stories about children praying the Lord’s Prayer,  which I plan on sending to RC soon:

One woman had been teaching her three-year old daughter the Lord’s Prayer. For several evenings at bedtime, she would repeat after the mother the lines from the prayer. Finally, the little girl decided to go solo. The mother listened with pride as she carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer: “Lead us not into temptation,” she prayed, “but deliver us some E-mail. Amen.” Another woman shared that her particular four-year old prayed the Lord’s prayer but instead of debts or trespasses he said, “And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”

As I try to tell our children and youth often: There is no such thing as a “bad prayer.” It is one of those ways we are able to connect with God, and the only thing that’s “required” is for us to be honest and ourselves when we do it. We are fortunate that we have beautiful examples of prayer in the New Testament, where Jesus needed this connection to God, so he prayed often, and of course, vulnerably and transparently. Our reading from John’s Gospel this morning is meant to be particularly moving, as it was a prayer for us.

He prayed for a number of things for his disciples:

  • Joy – That Jesus’ joy would be made complete in us
  • Belonging –  That they would belong to God and not the world
  • Sanctification – That they would be truly set apart
  • Mission – That they would go out into the world
  • Protection – From v. 11: That they would be one, as the Father and the Son are one.”

“That they may be one as we may be one.”

It’s interesting to me that Jesus did not offer prayers for successful ministries that would flourish all over the world, he did not pray for bigger, better, more beautiful temples or church buildings, he did not even request that God give them “faith,” though that was a familiar word Jesus used numerous times.
He asked God the Father to give them unity.

Unity is a word that gets thrown around a lot especially there in those moments when a team needs to rally for a second half comeback, when an organization is experiencing low morale, or even when a church is in the middle of dissension and conflict. And, of course, it’s no coincidence that this country has as its name the United States of America. But, Jesus wasn’t praying for a general tolerance or feeling of working together, he specifically asked that God would make them one as he and the Father are one.
The model we have for unity is not anything less than the connection, the bond, the relationship between the Father and the Son.

This was meant to be truly earth-shattering for the Jewish disciples to hear that their unity, their community, their life together, that this would not be rooted in something intellectual and academic
or even something rules or regulations, it would find not only its model, more than that, the life source for unity in the very relationship between God the Father and God the Son. It is the intimate connection, the unbreakable bond, the most loving relationship between God the Father and Son that was meant to be what makes us touch and be touched by each other and God.

And so, it is important to remember this relationship, especially while we are nearing the end of this Easter Season with Ascension Sunday today even though we didn’t read the typical Acts Chapter 1 passage. John McClure – Homiletics and Worship Professor, writes about it on the PCUSA website: “Most Presbyterians consider the Ascension to be an exotic notion, something reserved for Eastern Orthodox Christians or Roman Catholics. We do not typically see Presbyterian churches named Ascension Presbyterian Church, though we may have seen signs hailing us to enter Ascension of Our Lord Catholic School or the Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension. It may take us by surprise, therefore, to discover how important the doctrine of the Ascension was to John Calvin…The Ascension of Jesus Christ was deemed so important by our ancient forebears in the faith that they made it a part of the earliest Christian creeds. Early Christians saw the Ascension as a promise of great things to come for all believers.”

 The prayer that Jesus prayed for us, especially about unity and being one, this would be more than a prayer; it would be a promise even for us as believers today.

 McClure goes on, “In his most striking commentary on the Ascension Calvin says: ‘Since (Christ) entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows, as the apostle says, that in a sense we already sit with God in the heavenly places in him (Christ).’ At the Ascension, our humanity, our ‘flesh,’ has been ‘taken’ (Acts 1:11) by God’s Beloved One into the very heart of God. This is profound good news for us as Christians and for our whole world. It means that we are more deeply valued, loved and held by God than we may have known before. So, we grow and change. We move from one place to another. We endure disease and violence. We live with the sometimes painful rhythm of suffering and death. We make mistakes and we commit sins, knowingly and unknowingly. But through it all, we carry with us a vision of our humanity being taken up by Christ into God, caught up within an ultimate, redemptive purpose for our lives. This ascension of Jesus Christ is good news for us as Christians, and through us, for our world. This includes the suffering refugee, the abused child or spouse, the victim of war or terror, the lonely one in the nursing home, the one who struggles with depression or a lost sense of worth and value, those who are sick, all who are in difficult transitions in life. It means that God values, holds, transforms, and loves us in our fragile and broken humanity in Christ. It means that, at the Ascension, Jesus took all of human life, which he cared for so deeply, and brought it ‘into the heavenly places,’ into the very heart of God.”

Of course, prayer is one of those ways we feel we are being brought into the very heart of God, totally and completely ourselves. And I know that here in this place, as most of the confirmands I’ve worked with have expressed as favorite moments in worship, our times of lifting up joys and concerns together, the prayer together, and the Lord’s Prayer together are moments of the kind of connection we are meant to have with each other and with God. It’s difficult to put into words, but I know I have felt that connection here in those small, quiet moments between requests for prayers, I’ve teared up often, in that sharing, and prayerful lifting up. “Call this connection awareness, mindfulness, mysticism, aesthetic sensitivity, faithfulness, or whatever; it is a fundamental necessity of Christian life and community,” (Jan Richardson). 

 As we enjoy this summer weather, as we celebrate and hopefully take some time to be with our families and loved ones this Memorial Day weekend, as we remember the men and the women who have served this country in the military, and especially those who have died in service, as we mark the end of seasons in our lives, and our church life together, we continue journeying forward entering I hope more fully into what Jan Richardson of the Painted Prayerbook calls “the tapestry of stories” that is, the beautiful weaving together of stories and lives, as we dramatize together the call and response, that is the relationships between Jesus and the first disciples, the seasons of our own discipleship throughout the life cycle, the ritual practice of the great Christian rites, the recounting, remembering, and re-telling of these significant moments – as one greater movement of desire to be face-to-face, heart-to-heart with God.

May our life together be a continuous prayer lifted up, a passion lovingly lit,  and a promise lived out as we find our stories interlaced with each other and with God.