Sermon preached at St Mary’s Calstone on 12th May
Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, John 17.6-19
Today is the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost. It is interesting, I think, how in the UK Ascension Day does not really feature, whereas on the Continent in most countries it still is a public holiday.
In the Church of England, this is now the third year that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, have asked people to use these ten days between Ascension last Thursday and Pentecost next Sunday to pray for the nation and the Church. The initiative is called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, and this year for the first time there will be a big event in Salisbury Cathedral as well, next Sunday evening, 19th May.
I’m not quite sure what I think of the initiative, I have to be honest. I was surprised that when you type into Google ‘Thy kingdom come’, the first page of results is linked to this campaign. This, on the one hand, is great, because it shows that there is a lot of interest. However, on the other hand, I wonder if I’d rather had the Lord’s Prayer itself coming up as a first hit? But it does give us an opportunity to reflect on what we do when we pray and what we pray for too.
Our Gospel reading this morning is a good starting point. It speaks in a way about what Jesus’ prayer is for his disciples. The reading in John’s Gospel is the last part of what is known as the ‘farewell discourses’, because they are spoken just before Jesus and his disciples go to the garden where he will be betrayed by Judas.
Chapter seventeen, from which this passage is taken, starts with the words ‘After Jesus had spoken, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come;’. So the words we hear today are directed from Jesus to God the Father, so they are a prayer in itself. In this particular passage, Jesus is praying not for everyone, but specifically for his disciples. There is something specific about this group of followers, and they need Jesus’ prayer as he is about to be taken from them.
The first thing Jesus asks for is protection. Firstly, protection that they may be one. As disciples, their focal point has been Jesus’ teaching. Whenever there was confusion or dispute, they would have had Jesus to ask for clarification or guidance. That time is now coming to an end, so yes, there is the risk that they will become divided by disagreement and rows.
This is what we of course see every day in our churches. The different Christian denominations disagree about almost everything you can think of. Think only about debates over the creation story, women and leadership and which human relationships are God-given and which are not.
Disagreement per se is not a bad thing. It helps us to think through our own position, and helps us to articulate and refine our arguments, as well as learning to see where others may be coming from, and even at times, change our own point of view. It is precisely what I try to tell the pupils I teach: that hopefully discussion and disagreement widens their perspective, instead of narrowing it.
But often we see the opposite happening. Instead of truly listening to each other when we disagree, we become defensive and entrenched, and start finding a group of like-minded people. This has happened in the Church throughout the ages, and has continued to happen within the Church of England too. Fractions try to convince others that they are the only true church.
So yes, now as then, we, as Jesus’ followers, need this protection, so that we may be one. Jesus then asks his Father for protection from the evil one, which I would take to mean protection from all that leads us away from God. Temptations, not just to do bad, but to stop doing good. Not just to speak lies, but to stop speaking the truth.
Because in all this, we have a truth to proclaim and to guard. And so, the last request we hear of this morning is for the disciples, or could I say ‘we’, to be sanctified in the truth. That we may be made holy by the truth.
Speaking the truth is one of the foundations of the Christian life. That is not to mean, as I already implied, that we can never be wrong, on the contrary. Crucial for speaking the truth, being truthful, is to accept that we won’t always get it right, and that we continue to grow and to learn. Through others and through our prayers.
Speaking the truth is difficult, because, I think, paradoxically, it makes us vulnerable. The obvious example is politics. It is very hard for politicians to admit that they have been wrong when they change their position. I feel that’s maybe why we have ended up in a situation where much that is said is so elusive that you almost can read anything into it. But that’s not speaking the truth.
Nor is speaking the truth proclaiming simple and blunt statements. Not all migration is bad, nor is unlimited migration sustainable. We indeed use too much energy and create too much waste, but we cannot completely stop consumption. As we see, speaking the truth is difficult. Because in most cases we don’t know the full picture, and we also realise that if we want to live the truths we speak, we need a certain level of self-sacrifice.
However, that is precisely what Jesus prayed for. That we, his disciples, may be sanctified by the truth. Sanctification has connotations of purification and getting rid of what corrupts us, and that will at times feel like, or yes even be a sacrifice. But one that will lead us closer to God, and one that will make our lives more truthful and joyful.
So, back to prayer and these days between Ascension and Pentecost. At Pentecost we will celebrate that the Holy Spirit came to the disciples to spread the Gospel to the nations. It is a transition from the message being for the chosen few to all who want to hear.
Maybe that is what we can pray for then, that being united by our faith in God, our confidence in Christ, we can speak the truth to those who want to hear. Not just our truth, but the truth we have been given, accepting that through every encounter we have, we learn and grow ourselves as well. Because not only I, not only you are being sanctified in the truth, but we all are.
And so to end with the prayer commissioned for the Thy Kingdom Come initiative:
your ascended Son has sent us into the world
to preach the good news of your kingdom:
inspire us with your Spirit
and fill our hearts with the fire of your love,
that all who hear your Word
may be drawn to you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.