Sunday is the Beginning

Sermon Preached on Sunday, May 24, 2009 at
St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
Easter 7B (John 17:6-19)

In this morning’s gospel, we are given the unique opportunity to eavesdrop on a most intimate prayer – Jesus’ prayer on the night of the last supper. In this prayer, Jesus stands in a between-time place – preparing to depart from the world and, at the same time, preparing to return to the Father who sent him. And as we listen to his words, we learn something about his hopes and expectations for those who will continue to carry the message in his name.
“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”[1]

Jesus prays for his followers and he sends his followers. The Greek word for those who are sent is “apostle” and so this prayer is, in essence, Jesus’ prayer for the apostles – for the first twelve and, through them, to each and every one of us who proclaim the name of Jesus as Lord, to each and every one of us who are sent by God to proclaim the message of salvation to the world.

John’s gospel was written sometime between 70 and 100 – some 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. And so the words of Jesus’ prayer give us some insight into the gospel writer’s concerns for this early Christian community. The so-called Johannine community, for whom the gospel is written, knows something of what happens to those who are sent out – Stephen was martyred in the year 34 or 35. James, the son of Zebedee, was murdered just 10 years later and 20 years after that – around the year 67 – both Peter and Paul are martyred. So, in the late 1st century, this Christian community is staying at home! And can you blame them? . . . It’s a mad world out there! But the gospel writer reminds them, through the words of Jesus’ prayer, that the mad world is, in fact, the world into which they are sent. Jesus knows very well the perils of the world - “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world. . .” but, nonetheless, he prays, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”[2] John’s gospel reminds the community that staying in the comfort of one’s home is not living an apostolic life; it is not living life as a faithful follower of Christ.

New Christians or seekers sometimes ask, “How do I read the Bible”? (This question usually comes after they’ve already started at the beginning of Genesis and made it up to the first long genealogy and thought, “e-gad, are you kidding me? I can’t read this whole book!”). I almost always suggest the Gospel of John. When long-time Christians ask the same question, I send them to the same place because, as Leon Morris says in the introduction to his commentary on John,

“John is like a pool, in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim. It is most simple and profound; it is for the beginner in the faith and for the mature Christian. Its appeal is immediate and never-failing.”[3]

But there is another reason to go first to John’s gospel. And that is because of our own tendency to be comfortable Christians, stay at home Christians, or, as David Zersen, former President of Concordia University in Austin, Texas describes us - “couch-potato do-gooders!”[4] Now our reason for being stay at home Christians is not fear of persecution – though there are many countries in the world today where the risk of religious persecution remains a very real threat.[5] Many of us come to church to escape from the harshness – the hardness – of the world. We long for a place where we can forget about the job we have lost, a place where we can seek healing for the cancer recently diagnosed, a place where the abusive and broken centers of our hearts, our homes, our communities, and our world can be set aside for a time, can be forgotten as we lift our voices in song and prayer – extolling the wonder and majesty of our God. And somewhere along the line, we have been taught or have come to believe that the time we spend in church – seeking comfort and solace– that that one or two hours a week is what it means to be a Christian and we forget that being a Christian means being an apostle – being a sent one – one who is sent out into the world – into the heart of the brokenness to share the Christian hope with the world.

Eucharistic Prayer C expressly prays that we not forget our place in the world as Christians:

“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”[6]

. . . strength and renewal that we may serve the world in Christ’s name. We gather for worship so that we might be strengthened and renewed for our ongoing mission in the world.

Sunday morning is not the end of our commitment as Christians; it is the beginning! We gather for worship so that we might be sent out once again. We hear this message also in our post-communion prayer: “And now Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”[7] And, my friends, there are so many ways to love and to serve; so many ways to be active apostles in the 21st century – visiting one of our parishioners in their home or long term care facility, canvassing a neighborhood for donations for our food pantry, hosting guests at The Branches, cleaning up a section of the beach, volunteering at the thrift shop, calling friends you haven’t seen at church for a while, offering to pick up groceries for a neighbor. To quote David Zersen again,

“It would be good for our buns, and our whole body, if we found more active forms of stewardship . . . Many are the ways in which we can be ‘sent ones,’ apostles for the Lord, giving credence to fuller meaning for our Christian community.”[8]

Let this Sunday morning not be the end of our commitment as Christians; let it be just the beginning!

[1] John 17:16-18.
[2] John 17:14b, 15.
[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans (1985)), p. 3.
[4] David Zersen, in “That They May Be One,” Synthesis (May 24, 2009).
[5] For example, Christians in India live in fear of some of their more extreme Hindu neighbors and The Standard Report reports that Christians are serving prison sentences for their beliefs in more than 40 countries around the world (Dale Linder-Altman, “Religious Persecution in the 21st Century,” July 17, 2007 available online).
[6] Book of Common Prayer, p. 372.
[7] Book of Common Prayer, p. 366.
[8] Zersen, ibid.