Spanning Heaven and Earth - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Spanning Heaven and Earth

John 17:1-11, Ezekiel 36:24-28, Acts 1:6-14

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John 17:1-11

17 These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee:

As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.

And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.

I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word.

Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee.

For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me.

I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.

10 And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them.

11 And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.

Ezekiel 36:24-28

24 For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land.

25 Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.

26 A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.

27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.

28 And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.

Acts 1:6-14

When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?

And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.

But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.

10 And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;

11 Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.

12 Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day's journey.

13 And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James.

14 These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.

Our readings included the story of the ascension as well as  Jesus' prayer on the night before he died and I'm going to give attention to both this morning.

This account of the ascension can be difficult for many.  The scriptures include reference to many events that are obviously beyond our usual experiences of the world but perhaps no other is quite so comedic.  I often make a point of spending some time looking at art associated with the readings for the day and frequently find them helpful aides to contemplation.  This isn't really the case for the ascension.  Here the words of the scripture stand best alone I think: Suddenly two men in white robes stood amongst them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go."  Artistic representations of the Ascension are interesting but as a curiosity rather than as images that bring the passage to life.  Perhaps you know the sort of work.  They often show the disciples gathered around a rock which has the marks of Christ's footprints left behind and Jesus is seen disappearing at the top of the frame, often with his legs left dangling.

On the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem there is a chapel of the ascension.  Inside is the ascension rock, said to bear the foot prints of Christ.  I have some pictures of my own visit there.  Now we know that the chapel of the ascension became a site of veneration in the fourth century.  Before this Christians are believed to have gathered in secret, because of fear of persecution, in a small cave which is near by - at the site of what is now known as the church of the paternoster.   It's interesting that there was a cave of the ascension.  Imagine the comic potential that that might have today!  It suggests that those early Christians were perhaps rather less prone than we might be to equate truth with the most literal reading of scripture.  

Today's Gospel from John's gospel gives us Jesus prayer on the night before he died so takes us back to the events that we remembered in Holy Week.  I'm sure some of you will have heard the Rev Lucy Winkett's thought for the day on Maundy Thursday this year.  In it she pointed out that we must all live through a night before we die and for those who are aware of the immanence of death it may be a time of heightened experience, one that crystalizes in our consciousness a realisation of what is most important.  Events in Manchester this week remind us that we will not all have the privilege to know the hour of our passing but we know that Jesus repeatedly warned the disciples of what would happen to him and he chose to spend that night before he died having supper with his friends.  As usual, the disciples struggled to make sense of Jesus' teaching.  Realising the limitations of language he turned to actions.  In her Maundy Thursday sermon Alison spoke of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and movingly of her own experience of washing her mother's hair who was suffering from an advanced stage of Alzheimer's at the time.  Her words reminded me of visiting my father before his death, messaging his aching body, tending his feet and how these action spoke what was too difficult to express in words.

It's only in John's Gospel that we have the account of the foot washing and only there also that we find an account of this prayer, by far the longest of Jesus' prayers that the Gospels give us.  It's known as the farewell prayer.

Elsewhere in the Gospels we read of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane after he and his disciples leave the upper room after the last supper and set out across the Kidron valley to the garden of Gethsemane.   Luke tells us that Jesus sweated blood and that he prayed that the cup of suffering might be taken from him; 'but not my will but thine be done' he said.

The tone of the farewell prayer is very different, it's much more reflective which is why it is used in the service of the 'watch' that in some churches immediately follows the foot washing and Eucharist on Maundy Thursday.  In Matthew's Gospel Jesus asks the disciples who had fallen asleep, "could you not watch with me one hour?".  In this vigil we seek to respond to that requesting with readings from the Psalms with sections of this farewell prayer.  In the section of the prayer we heard this morning Jesus prays "glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you... I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do" he says. He prays also for his disciples "all mine are yours and yours are mine and I have been glorified in them". 

There is a special quality in passages of scripture that give us Jesus' own prayers.  We can be very confident that Jesus would have prayed the Psalms and we see that reflected in the Gospels, even on the cross where Jesus uses the words of Psalm 22 -  "my god my god why have you forsaken me" he says.  Here in John's Gospel we have an account of Jesus' prayers on the night before he died.

But why do we have this passage in the lectionary today?

Well in it, Jesus speaks of having left the earth.  After the ascension we return to those words - "and now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you" he said.  It has important lessons for us.  Jesus explains that we share in God's glorification in the world through our actions and he prays for our protection- "Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one".  It also includes a definition of eternal life.  "This is eternal life" he says "that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent". 

Having prayed from the perspective of one that had left this world whilst he was still in it, Jesus gives us a prayer that spans heaven and earth and is relevant to times past and times yet to come.  Wherever we stand today and wherever we might be in our earthly pilgrimage, it's a prayer that tells us that eternal life is the knowledge of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent.  And we prepare ourselves now to receive him in the breaking of bread.


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