An Eternal Word

Easter is fifty days long.  That’s a liturgical fact that we talk about for lots of reasons at this time of year.  We’ve carefully noted the passing of the days and weeks lately.  We began our Easter season with readings from the scriptures that focused on the appearances of Jesus to his disciples in locked rooms, on the road to Emmaus, by the Sea of Galilee.  We’ve heard the adventures of the apostles in the book of Acts, recounted the miracles and the preaching and the conversions through which the early church grew so rapidly and so improbably.  In this past week we have commemorated the Ascension of our lord into heaven, and now we are preparing for Pentecost Sunday, next Sunday, when we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles.  The word “pentecost” comes from the word for fifty.  We’ve been counting the days.  Some of us take the fifty-day commemoration of Easter as a personal challenge, nudging ourselves to remain especially aware, particularly joyful, all that time.  We remind ourselves that Easter isn’t just a big day or even a week, but a long liturgical period of rejoicing and giving thanks for the mystery of our salvation.

The church does this for us regularly.  It shapes our time.  Our celebrations here together tell us where and who and why we are, and they remind us that the world’s calendar is not our calendar, no matter how dutifully we check that calendar app on our cellphones.  The time we are living in is not the time the world acknowledges.  In the world, history is just, as they say, “one ‘darn’ thing after another.”  No real shape, just an inexorable moving forward that may scare us or fill us with a sense of promise, depending what we are telling ourselves about the “progress” of human history.  We just happen to be here for the early part of the twenty-first century, and after we go it will be someone else’s turn.

But Christian time is different.  Time as we experience it moves back and forth.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  We say that just about every Sunday, and every year we move through the life of Jesus, marking the moment of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and the season of Advent, the joyful feast of the Nativity, the stories of the life and ministry of Jesus and the powerful season of Lent, leading up to Holy Week and Easter and Ascension and Pentecost.  

But even in this period when we are marking and reliving the events of Jesus’s life, time has a startling depth and a complexity for us.  Easter may be fifty days long, but then it comes for us again every Sunday.  Every Sunday is Easter.  And every Mass is also the Last Supper, the banquet Jesus shares with his disciples before he is abandoned by them and given over to death. And every Mass is also the feast at the end of time, the great banquet at which we all have a place waiting for us. 

And our marking of these feasts, even the calendar-specific ones like Ascension and Pentecost, is something much more complicated than historical reenactment.  We aren’t putting on a play about the past here.  We aren’t looking backwards, exactly.  We are celebrating the way that God has broken into time, and is continually breaking into time, in the person of Jesus.  In our own lives.  We are celebrating that Jesus is with us now, and that we are in some sense already with him in his kingdom.  We are trying to map eternal life onto a calendar that only has three hundred and sixty-five days, and so we take every chance we can to remind ourselves that with Jesus, our great Alpha and Omega, we are participating in the creation of the world, the redemption of the world, and the celebration that is the end of all things. All the time.

And that thought brings us to this rather awkward Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  Also known informally as that Sunday squeezed between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost, when it’s not entirely clear where we are in time.  You may have noticed that the gospel we read this morning is not a post-resurrection passage at all.  It’s from the seventeenth chapter of John, and it tells the story of Jesus’s prayer for his disciples, just before Jesus is arrested in the garden and taken away to his crucifixion.  

The way these events unfold in John’s gospel, it’s the evening meal just before the Passover celebration.  Jesus has gotten up from the meal, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed the feet of his disciples.  That happens in the thirteenth chapter of John.  And in our liturgical life that happens on Holy Thursday.  And then there is a long set of discourses that culminates in a long prayer, and what we hear this morning is from the middle of that prayer.  Jesus is speaking directly to God the Father, allowing his friends to hear him pray.  He is praying for them.  And so for us today it’s still Holy Thursday.

We don’t have to think of it this way, but the way our readings are set out in this season we may imagine that that moment of unity, of Jesus’s love for his disciples-- “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them until the end”—this sharing of prayer with and for them, has quietly continued in the background during our busy Easter.  As we have observed Holy Week and all the joyful days since then, as we have marked time, as Maja and Z have been baptized and as ten others joined them in confirmation and reception into the church, as our bishop has come to celebrate with us on the feast of Saint Mark, as great and good and difficult changes have come to our community, as new plans are being made and our sidewalks repaired and the feast of Pentecost is eagerly awaited, as winter gives way to spring and summer, that moment of Jesus’s loving prayer with his disciples has quietly continued.  Somehow, between Ascension and Pentecost, Holy Thursday comes back to us, as though it had never ended.  As Jesus becomes more and more mysterious, rising from the dead and then ascending bodily into heaven, we are catapulted back into the still center of his communion with the ones he loves, whose feet he has washed, still praying to the Father for them and with them.  This vulnerable Jesus, surrounded by the ones he loves, allowing them into the very prayer of his heart, just before they betray and abandon him.

We know Jesus in triumph and mystery, late in this Easter season, and yet in the middle of his triumph we hear him softly speaking words of love for fallible humanity.  We hear him praying for our protection.  We hear him praying in thanksgiving that the Father has given us to him.  “They were yours,” Jesus says, “and you have given them to me, and I have protected them, and now I give them to you. What they know about me is that everything I am comes from you.  My glory comes through them and their joy is complete in me.”

This prayer of Jesus narrates the still, contemplative center of our life in him.  Though time passes, with triumph and with agony, this never goes away.  This moment in scripture promises us that our lives are gifts from God.  This moment of prayer contains the certainty that we are living in God because Jesus has given himself to us and Jesus and the Father have given themselves to one another.  This prayer is the assurance of grace, the knowledge that nothing we have done has made this gift of life in God possible.  In the beginning, the word was with God, and the word was God.  The word of God has been given to the church, and the church has kept the word of God.  And now--even this very day--the word speaks to us: unchanging, undeterred, unafraid even of death. 

Jesus prays, just after the passage we hear this morning, for those who will believe through the words of his disciples.  That is, he prays for us.  We receive his word.  His word assures us of belonging and protection, of being sent, of being chosen, of being given.  This hour of prayer, this time of Jesus’s intimate presence, never ends.  This word is never not spoken.  And in all the changes of our times, this word is all the reassurance we will ever need.  

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson

13 May 2018

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 17, 2018 .