Sunday, May 24, 2020

Protection for the Scattered

The Seventh Easter of Easter / Year A
John 17:1-11

The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, the 12th Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, is a masterful communicator with a great feel for his audience.  I’ll give you an example.  Some years ago, after attending a Lambeth Conference, where all the Anglican bishops (and their spouses) from around the world gather in England once every ten years, Bishop Lee gave a detailed report of their discussions and deliberations to the clergy of the diocese at our own spring conference.  It was clear and informative and something most likely only clergy would find interesting. 

A few weeks later, Bishop Lee spoke about Lambeth at the yearly gathering of the Episcopal Church Women of the diocese.  Here he told the ladies nothing of what he had shared with the clergy.  Rather he talked about the afternoon all the bishops and their spouses loaded into dozens of buses and went off to Buckingham Palace for afternoon tea with the Queen.  He mentioned a special fund had been set up so the wives of foreign bishops from poor dioceses could afford to purchase clothing suitable to the occasion.  The ladies at the meeting let out a great sigh of relief when Bishop Lee shared this.  It was as if they themselves had been spared a great humiliation.  Then he described in some detail what was served and how things went and what it all looked like and by the time he was done most of the ladies felt as if they had been at the tea with the Queen. 

But Bishop Lee saved the best for last.  It seems a young woman from the diocese – I think her name was Annie and she may have been the chancellor’s daughter – was spending the semester studying in England and Bishop Lee, who has some pull on the other side of the pond – managed to get her an invitation to the tea.  Annie was surely one of the youngest and no doubt most attractive people at the party.  Bishop Lee related as he, his wife, Annie, and a few others were chatting, a dignitary approached them, begged their pardon, and asked their permission to introduce Annie the Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, who was standing right there, wearing whatever princes wear at such an occasion and looking, well, royal.  Most blessedly, it seems the finest schools of Richmond suitably prepared young Annie for such a moment. 

Now this took place over 20 years ago, but I suspect there are still a few women passed out in the pews of that church, having swooned at the thought of meeting a prince at high tea at the palace.  My point: When telling a story, know your audience!

Beyond entertainment purposes (come back to me ladies, and focus), I share this story to help you to appreciate an important aspect of understanding the bible.  So, for example, when reading one of the Gospels – say John – it is helpful to ask who is the original intended audience and what is happening in their lives.  This question helps to explain why the author shares some details of Jesus’ life and teaching, while ignoring others.  John does it for the same reason Bishop Lee held two very different conversations about Lambeth, even though they both were true of the gathering.  Who is your audience and what do they need to hear?

John’s is the only Gospel to include what is known as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.”  After sharing the meal we now call the Last Supper, Jesus offers parting words to his followers and then, in chapter 17, he prays for himself, then for his followers, and finally for all believers.  Most likely it did not happen like this (I mean, decades later who could remember a detailed conversation word for exact word?), but rather John collects various teachings, sayings, and themes of Jesus and weaves them together in this setting as a literary device to say something powerful to the people for whom he is writing his Gospel.

He writes it some 50 years after Jesus’ life.  By then, John may just be the only living connection between Jesus’s initial disciples and the current community of followers gathered around him.  At first, this group functions well within the local Jewish community; attending synagogue and participating in local commerce and affairs.  But over the years, as their understanding of Jesus increases (scholars say they develop a “higher Christology”), their beliefs become increasingly at odds with the teachings of Jewish rabbis.  Eventually John’s community is forced out of the synagogue and barred from life and commerce in the village, and various other forms of persecution ensue.

This is the context in which John writes his Gospel.  Understanding this gives us an even deeper appreciation for the intercession Jesus’ prays in today’s reading:

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, protect them in them your name that you have given me.”

Then, as now, the world is not a safe place, but for very different reasons.  Then, as now, Jesus intercedes to protect the faithful (remember the image I spoke of two weeks ago: the mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings).  I suspect those initial readers took great comfort knowing God was protecting them, but I doubt they flaunted it.  I doubt they used these words to as a directive to storm into the synagogue and brag about how God makes them invincible.  More likely, God’s protection gives them a feeling of peace, the strength to persevere, and a hope for a better day to come. 

What does God’s protection look like for us in our world today?  Not long ago I drove past a church in Smithfield with one of those message boards out front.  On this day it happened to say, “COVID 19, in the name of Jesus you are defeated!”  If only it was that simple, I thought.  It occurred to me a better message for the faithful would be taken from Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  My faith does not tell me God will make a pandemic magically disappear.  Rather it tells me we are all in this together and God is with us and is giving us everything we need to get through this time together.

One of my colleagues pointed out recently you can’t live life without taking risks.  You risk your life every time you get in the car and go for a drive.  You have to take risks, she said, but you don’t need to create risks!  In other words, be smart, take precautions, expose yourself to danger as little as possible!  I imagine this is how John’s first readers understood God’s protection and I suggest this is what we claim for ourselves.  God gives to us peace and confidence, but we will not push it as if our faith in God makes us invincible.

Another colleague passed along something she had heard recently: Up until the middle of March we were the Church Gathered, but overnight we became the Church Scattered.  We can no longer be together in our building to worship, to fellowship, to study, or to serve.  Yet, while we no longer gather, we are still the Church, even if scattered.  Speaking of Holy Week and Easter Sunday, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry recently expressed amazement and appreciation for how most Episcopal churches have adapted to on-line worship.  He said, and I quote, “It was not easy, and it wasn’t always pretty, but dog-gone-it, we kept the Feast!”  And we did and we continue to do so!

When Jesus asks the Father to protect his followers who are in the world, he has a specific outcome in mind.  He does not ask this so no harm will befall us.  He does not ask this so our lives can return to normal.  He asks it so his followers may be one, as he is one with the Father.  For Jesus, the focus is not on gathered or on scattered, it is on Church.  We are still one, though scattered. 

I sense the strength of our community every time we gather for Morning and Evening Prayer.  I sense it as we gather on these Sunday mornings.  And I sense it every time I cross paths with one of you, either here at the church or at the grocery store or when I am out taking a walk or during a phone call.  This time we are apart is reminding us how important we are to one another.  I so look forward to when we can be together again, without fear or hesitation.  Until then God is protecting us so that we might be one and we are… yesterday, today, tomorrow, and no matter what comes.  We are God’s.  We are in God.  And nothing can separate us from the love of God.