Preparing for leaving
Sermon for Easter 7 by Rev Dr Sam Cappleman
There has been much in the news recently about leadership. Whether it’s the adverts for the local elections where we are encouraged to vote for our local leaders or the debate there has been about the expense claims of our elected leaders in national government leadership and the qualities of those people who aspire to it are headline news.
Today’s readings have the theme of leadership running through them. The reading from Acts describes the election of a leader to replace Judas among the disciples by drawing lots – perhaps an appropriate method for electing our local leaders given the impact that some of the latest revelations may have on the turn out.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus is preparing for leaving and wants to prepare the disciples as leaders of the embryonic church Christ is to leave behind. The disciples (in chapter 16) have just acknowledged who Jesus is (the Messiah) and that He has been sent from God.
It’s as if it safe for Jesus now to return to the Father, the disciples have finally understood who Jesus is and what is His mission on earth. We read that after His prayers, Jesus crosses the Kidron Valley (presumably from Jerusalem) to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. The purpose for which He came is reaching a climax and its fulfilment. Indeed, Jesus Himself has just said that He is completing the work that the Father entrusted to Him.
It around the time of the last supper and Jesus is painfully aware that He is leaving His mission in the disciple’s hands. Given how they seem to have misunderstood what this is until now this is a risky prospect
Chapter 17 falls into three sections, the first where Jesus prays for Himself, the second (today’s reading) where He prays for the disciples and then thirdly He prays for all believers. Today’s passage, the prayer for the disciples, gives us a unique insight into the compassion, love and concern Jesus has for His disciples
The disciples had relied heavily on His physical and visible presence and this was about to change, about to end. Jesus understands their concern and prays for them.
The disciples had finally accepted the words of Jesus (unlike others such as the Pharisees and Sadducees and many of the Jewish ruling party). They had come to know Jesus was of divine origin and understood His divine nature and task. They had become man (and women) of faith and would become His agents on earth and as they do so they will become more ‘one’.
And as He prays for His disciples Jesus’ prayer has a fourfold theme.
Firstly, it’s as if Jesus is like a parent who is seeing their child off to school or University for the first time. The first ting He asks for is protection – He asks that the disciples would not get led astray or start mixing with the ‘wrong crowd’, fall into the ‘wrong hands’. He knows how vulnerable they are and open to misplaced ideas of leadership and unsound teaching and ideas. But the time has come for Jesus to depart and so He asks the Father to protect them as His physical presence leaves them.
Secondly Jesus prays for unity. Jesus is aware that it is often the sheep that are separated from the flock that find themselves in distress. It’s the animals that get separated from the herd in the jungles plains and desserts that gets picked off and eaten. It’s a model for the church – a united church. One which we find hard to demonstrate today but one where our unity is our strength and support. Unity, which is about holding on to one another in all circumstances, not allowing the world’s hostility and scepticism to divide us.
Our unity as a church is about protecting the unity we have, not trying to defend the divisions we seek. Unity is holding on to one another and not allowing the scepticism and hostility of the world to divide us. It did not divide Jesus from the Father and it should not divide us from each other.
Thirdly Jesus prays that the disciples might have joy, the joy that He has experienced in seeing them become fulfilled in the Father’s work. The joy that comes from doing the Fathers will and seeing others and the world transformed by His love.
In praying for their joy, Jesus acknowledges that the disciples are no longer of this world, no longer of the people who do not believe that the Messiah had come. They have believed in His word, the message revealed and are about to live this out. Jesus has absolute certainty in the Father and the disciples should too. God had given the disciples to Jesus – they did not choose Him, He choose them. It’s as if God had lent the disciples to Jesus and now He is handing them back into the safe keeping of God. They are no longer of this world, no longer apart of the people who do not believe, who are opposed to the will of God. They have been transformed. And so transformed, as they proclaim Jesus so they step out into the place where Jesus’ will is done. This is their joy. It will be like seeing children succeed.
Fourthly, Jesus prays that the disciples will be sanctified, set apart and made holy for His work. This requires that they are at one with Jesus, in unity with Him. But they cannot be at one Jesus if they are not at one with each other and in unity with each other. Nether can we bear witness to Christ if we are not at one with Jesus, as individuals or as a church and at one with each other.
We are to be at one with each other so we can be sanctified by God and set apart for His work and mission and be His leaders in the church.
And Jesus’ prayer for the early church, its leaders and all believers (as the passage continues in John) should be our prayer too. That our leaders in the church (and in other areas too as it was impossible to separate the church from politics and society in Jesus’ time) are protected, united, joyful through doing their work, which should be none other than the work of Christ. That they and we too, would be holy, one with each other and God through Jesus and set apart to reveal God’s glory to the world.