After Jesus shares one final meal with his followers in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday, he tells them he will be leaving them soon. Then he looks up to heaven and prays for his followers. Known as “The High Priestly Prayer”, the Lectionary divides it into three readings, one for each year of the cycle. Today’s gospel reading is the middle section of that prayer.
You are forgiven if, in listening, you found it difficult to absorb. I have been sitting with it all week and still find it dense and repetitive. There are 338 words in these four verses. ‘World’ is used 13 times, the verb ‘to give’ appears in one form or another nine times, ‘protect’ or ‘guard’ four, ‘truth’ four, and ‘name’ and ‘word’ three. No wonder something gets lost in translation.
The idea of being given intrigues me. Jesus states that the Father has given his followers to him and in his prayer he gives them back to the Father. We don’t think often about giving a person to someone. It happens at a wedding: “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” For centuries daughters were thought to be the possession of the father and his answer of “I do” sealed a transfer of ownership to the husband. Whatever the giving of a bride means today it certainly is not that. When I was a kid we played a lot of pick-up games at a small park at the end of our street. If one team dominated the other it was common for someone to say, “This isn’t fair. You’ve got to give us Joey to it make it even.” I’m not sure either of these examples gives us much insight into what it means that followers of Jesus are given to him and then given back to the Father.
Here is one that might. When parents send a child to school, especially if it is a boarding school, there is a sense that they are giving their child to that school. They are entrusting him or her to the faculty and staff with the expectation they will shape and form the child. And, at least at the college I attended, my parents expected the school would keep me safe. The Father gives Jesus’ followers to him in much the same way. Jesus forms them through his words and examples. And he protects them, both from the Evil One and from the world.
At every baptism we are reminded that in order to follow Christ we must renounce three things:
· Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.
· The evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.
· All sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.
Generally speaking, we Episcopalians do not talk much about Satan and spiritual forces. I can recall only one time in my 28 years of ordained ministry I heard a parishioner say (in all sincerity) “the devil made me do it.” Do you remember Jesus’ parable about the seeds that fall on different kinds of soil? Do you recall what happens to the seeds that fall on hard, packed ground? The birds eat them. And when Jesus explains the parable, what does he say the birds represent? The Evil One who snatches people after they hear his word. Some in the Christian tradition believe that Satan is always on the prowl. Some feel personally attacked by the devil. My experience is more in line with Jesus’ prayer – whatever is out there and whatever it is capable of doing, I trust that I am protected, that I am guarded.
The world is a different story. While there is much in God’s creation that is good and glorious, there is also much that can corrupt and destroy. One of the things that first drew me to the Episcopal Church is the way we engage the world. We are much more open to it than the tradition in which I was raised. That tradition emphasized the fall and totally depravity. Everything about society and the culture was riddled with sin. The congregation was “walled off” from the world and the building was something like a bunker meant to keep out every bad influence. Think about a church that has its own day school, athletic fields, and recreation center. It is trying to protect its members from the world and its influences by giving them fewer and fewer reasons to be in it.
We in the Episcopal Church believe that the world is fallen, but not totally evil. Our members live in the parish but also in the community. We see the church as a place to receive spiritual guidance that we use as we reenter daily life and work. We believe that our world is good and hopefully getting better. Rather than pulling people out of the world into the protective confines of a church, we believe our mission is to go out into the world in order to be ambassadors of God’s kingdom. By looking for the good in the world, from time to time we get soiled by the bad. But I would rather run the risk of this than take the stance of completely removing myself from the world in order to sit in judgment of it.
Without a doubt, renouncing all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God is the most challenging of the three renunciations. Jesus pointed to this when he taught that it is not what goes into a person that makes him unclean, but what comes out. The words and the actions that come out of a person emanate from the heart, the home of our desires.
And while Jesus’ Priestly Prayer does not contain the word ‘heart’, there are two times he refers to it. He says he gave to his followers the words the Father gave to him in order that they might be sanctified. To be sanctified is to be made pure and set apart for a holy purpose. Do you ever think of yourself in this way? Some areas of my life and personality feel holy and pure, but other areas… not so much. I see myself as a work in progress to be sure. Perhaps you feel the same way about yourself.
The other heart reference is to joy. “I speak these things…,” Jesus says, “so that my followers may have my joy made complete in themselves.” In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buenchner writes:
“Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.”
I like that. Happiness comes and goes based on the moment and the circumstances, but a person either has joy or does not. Tough times and difficult experiences will not take the joy out of a joyful person. And moments of blessing and goodness may produce in a joyless person the brief emotion of happiness, but it will never lead to an enduring joy. A sure and certain sign that a person has received what Jesus has given is the presence of joy in his or her heart.
The good news in today’s Gospel is that, while living in this world and following our Lord can be very challenging, Jesus is praying for us. Jesus has entrusted us into God’s care and keep. We are loved deeply, purely, truly, just as we are. Knowing this produces a joy which endures and abides.