This Sermon was delivered at St Nicholas’ North Lopham, and St Remigius’ Royden for the Morning Services on the 2nd June 2019. Readings: John 17:20-end.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was about 4 years old, my Dad was finishing his curacy and was appointed to his first incumbency in Devon. Until that point we lived in a town where my earliest memories are of busy roads, squirrels in the churchyard and the loud nee naw nee naw of a fire-engine hurtling on by. Moving from a town to rural Devon was quite an adventure. I don’t know if you’ve been there recently but the motorways barely graze the edge of the county. You can make it as far as Taunton but then the M5 diverts down towards Exeter, which isn’t much use for the northern part of Devon. Once off the motorway you can follow a busy A-road for a while, and then there’s a less busy A-road before you’re onto B-roads and entering the maze of hedge bordered lanes which tangle around ancient farm boundaries and up down and around the hills.
I remember that first day in Devon my parents kept stopping the car by the road of the road to watch Buzzards circling on the thermals. They were quite excited. That night we stayed with a couple from one of Dad’s new churches, on a farm which was as picturesque as any postcard you’ve ever seen. This was the context of my childhood, living as the son of a clergyman in rural farming area. I can remember the time we were late to a service because cows had escaped a field and were roaming the lanes. Unfortunately I also remember standing by our front door and looking out across the fields and being able to count five columns of smoke from the funeral pyres of the livestock which had to be killed during foot and mouth; a tragedy which affected many people, including a good portion of my friends whose families had farms themselves.
Growing up as part of a small rural primary school, many of my friends were likely to want to grow up to be part of the family business; whether that be working on the farm or in the local garage. In turn, whenever I was asked about my future the question was never “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but rather “Will you be a Vicar like your Dad?”. My answer was always a resounding, “No!”
Clearly God had other plans.
However, even though I didn’t want to grow up to become a vicar that doesn’t mean that I didn’t value Church. I can remember sitting at the dinner table with Dad and a colleague of his when I was maybe 6 or 7 and asking questions about Noah and the Flood. I remember that when I was about 10 or 11 I had that moment where the Church really seemed to Journey through Lent to Good Friday and Easter day with Jesus. I have a vivid image of my Dad preaching from the marble pulpit about the importance of Easter to each of us and I remember wishing that Jesus would come back and tell all the preachers in the world the right words to say so that everyone might come to believe in him.
I don’t know that we have been given those words. It’s not like having the exact right formula of words can magic faith into existence. We might even be tempted to look around at the numbers of people who come to church on a Sunday and say that we’ve been given the wrong words!
But I refuse to give into that level of pessimism.
There are words of Jesus which have been kept safe for us and which we should consider to be immensely precious. The words of Jesus which we heard in our Gospel reading this morning are arguably the most amazing words which we can hear.
At the start of John 17 Jesus has just finished preaching to his Disciples, telling them that no matter what life and the world chucks at them, “Take heart, for I have overcome the world!” Standing before them, confident and assured of the victory over sin and death he is winning for them, he looks up to the heavens and begins to pray. First for himself, then for his disciples and finally for us.
That’s right. For. Us.
“For their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they may also be sanctified in truth. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”
Do we believe in Jesus?
Yes. How did we come to believe in Jesus? Because we were told about him by those who believed in him first. Whether that be through friends and family, through books or articles or videos on YouTube, we each have encountered the Gospel of Jesus through others, who in turn heard it from others and so on and so forth.
Much as a family tree or genealogy traces our genetic heritage, the tapestry of faith which is the life of the Church throughout the ages traces its origins back to those first disciples who were listening to Jesus pray just before he was to head to the Garden of Gethsemane. We are those who believe in Jesus through the word and testimonies of the Disciples as preserved for us in Scripture and presented to us by the Church. The portion of Jesus’ prayer read this morning, is literally the prayer of the same Jesus whose ascension to the right hand of God the Father we celebrated on Thursday; it is the spirit of the prayer which Jesus’ presence before the Father serves as a continual and ever-living prayer for us.
So what is Jesus’ prayer for us, what are these precious words which we have heard this morning?
“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.”
This is simply the first mouthful of an exceedingly rich dessert. I’m sure we’ve all had a slice of a deeply rich and delicious forest gateau only to find that there’s too much for us to finish. This prayer is similar, and rather than trying to eat the whole thing let us slow down and savour this mouthful, because it’s spiritually delicious.
Jesus desires us. Don’t let us be sidetracked by the idea of a dessert or the way in which the world around us tries to commodify desire through advertising as a form of instant gratification. No the desire of Jesus for us is a strong intention which leads him to be prepared to do whatever it takes to enable us to be with him and his heavenly Father.
The desire of Jesus for us to be with him is a commitment to what must happen, for us. This is expressed immediately before he leaves to the garden where he shall be met by Judas to be betrayed, arrested and, in due course, executed upon the cross. It’s a desire which takes the son of God to that hitherto unknown place, the brink of death. Death, it may seem obvious to point out but we do well to remember, is the antithesis of life. How can the God of life, who created all things become subject to the consequence of sin, the weight of evil and destruction of life in death?
The answer is he comes to it voluntarily, because he desires us to be with him. His victory over death in the resurrection isn’t simply an endurance through a terrible event. If we read the crucifixion narratives carefully we find Jesus on the cross prays and then with a loud cry gives up his spirit, and dies. After this Joseph of Arimathea asks permission to bury the body, and when Pilate hears this he is surprised that Jesus has died already. If we pay attention, we notice that the soldiers broke the legs of the criminals hung on the crosses next to Jesus so that they might die. But Jesus’ side they pierce with a spear to discover that the blood and water have already separated, a sign that he was truly dead.
We may flinch at this, hesitant to focus on the unpleasantly ugly details but they reveal to us a profound truth. Jesus was not beaten by the cross even in death. Hanging there for our sins he, as the man-who-is-God, felt the full force of death and sin pressing against him and still death could not claim his life. It was his last act, with a final cry, to surrender his life and to embrace not just his own death but our death. The desire of Jesus for our eternal company leads him to lay down his life for us so that we may in all truth and glory be with him in the presence of God the Father.
We who have been baptised into his death are baptised into his resurrection. We who have heard the words of the disciples and come to believe in Jesus have been given to him in all that he has done for us so that we might be one with him, and join him in the New Creation; a reality which is unknown to the world but is glorified by our participation in the divine love of the Father for his Son Jesus.
This mystical participation in the divine love of God can be hard for us to wrap our heads around, but we might visualise the relationship somewhat as a venn diagram. If we imagine a circle which represents the love of God which is complete within himself on the one hand, and the circle of humanity which is separate on the other; Jesus, the man-who-is-God and the God-who-dwells-among-us as Emmanuel, is that place and person where the two overlap and are firmly united in unending glory.
This is the prayer of Jesus for each of us.
“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.”
By sharing in the love of God the Father for the Son, by living in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are united not just with God in Christ, but with all those who have been grafted into Christ; each of us here today and throughout the universal Church in the ages both past and future. This is a tremendous prayer. These are precious words.
And they lay upon us a joyful duty to be united together in fellowship and worship, so that the world which does not know Christ may come to see and believe in him through the way we treat one another.
May we, sharing in the love of God, glorify his holy name.