St. John’s Lutheran Church
21 May 2023 + Easter 7a
John 17.1-11; Acts 1.6-14
Rev. Josh Evans
It’s been said that our Lutheran faith is one of paradox: sinner and saint, law and gospel, death and resurrection.
True to such paradoxical roots, appropriately enough, our Easter season has been drawing to an end where it began – or shortly before – taking us back to Jesus’s “farewell discourse” over the past few weeks. These are Jesus’s final words to his disciples, his friends, before he would be handed over to be arrested, unjustly prosecuted, and ultimately put to death.
It feels a little asynchronous to hear these pre-resurrection words on this side of Easter … but their impact, even now, couldn’t be more timely.
Can you imagine what they must have been thinking? “You already left us once and now you’re leaving again?” No wonder they keep standing there, gazing up toward heaven. Waiting for him to re-appear. Maybe even reaching up, grasping at … what?
Of course they don’t want him to leave. Of course they don’t want to have to say goodbye. Again. Of course the leave-taking is hard.
Looping back to those pre-resurrection words, today we listen in to Jesus praying for his friends.
A prayer spoken into the midst of the upper room, filled with the pain of betrayal and abandonment, and the uncertainty and fear that comes on the cusp of loss and grief.
And remarkably, Jesus prays aloud – in the midst of his disciples. This prayer is meant for their hearing!
There is power to being prayed for like that.
Do you know what it feels like to be prayed for like that?
It doesn’t have to be very much either. Even the simple question “Can I pray for you?” can evoke a profound feeling of being cared for.
I remember hearing those words most recently as I was in the midst of my own time of vocational transition between calls. I can’t say I remember the words of the prayer, but I do viscerally remember the feeling, the profound sense of peace – even for a moment – that came from being cared for like that.
There is power to being prayed for. Ask any hospital chaplain, and they’ll tell you about being on the other side of that prayer.
Serving as a chaplain intern for a mere ten weeks, after just one year of seminary, I hardly felt qualified to offer “spiritual care” for my patients. Their feelings of pain – physical and emotional – of abandonment and loneliness, fear and uncertainty were real.
In the midst of that, it can feel like ending a patient visit with prayer is just a formality, at best, just something a chaplain “should” do … or, at other times, a convenient way of getting out of an awkward, uncomfortable visit, the sound of the “amen” as effective at whisking me away as the startling beeping of my pager. Sometimes, if I’m being honest, that was certainly the case.
But there were other times, at some point between the “Dear God” and the “Amen,” that I know something happened – a profound sense of calm, stillness, and peace.
There is power to being prayed for.
Jesus recognized that – and so he prays, aloud, for his friends.
In the midst of complicated emotions, Jesus doesn’t offer another miracle or parable or teaching, but a prayer that is more profound and more needed than anything else Jesus could’ve done for them.
Jesus prays on behalf of his friends. He offers them a reminder of their belonging to God and commends them to the loving protection and care of God, even as he himself is about to leave them.
Jesus’s prayer is a blessing. There is a blessing in the leaving.
A couple of weeks ago, I joined on Zoom with the saints who had gathered that Thursday night in Augustana Chapel, on the campus of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago – where I graduated from seminary just five years ago.
The physical and virtual assembly gathered that night from all over the country for one final service in our beloved chapel, before LSTC bid farewell to its building at 1100 East 55th Street.
To say that there were strong feelings in the room that night would be understatement. Nostalgia. Grief. Disappointment. Resentment, perhaps. Even anger.
It is a bittersweet thing to leave one’s physical building for the sake of mission. I suspect you know something about that, too.
It is also a bold, brave, and faithful thing. And, as President Nieman reminded us in his excellent sermon, “We’re not closing. We’re just moving.”
And what better way to mark that time of leave-taking and transition than around word and sacrament, song and prayer, gathered together as the people of God, to pray … and to be prayed for … in our worship together.
There is a blessing in the leaving.
Did the disciples hear those words again when the cloud took him out of their sight?
Did they hear Jesus’s prayer for them? Did they hear Jesus’s reminder of their belonging to God, Jesus’s plea commending them to God’s loving care and protection?
Did they hear the blessing in the leaving?
God is with us in the leaving.
God is with us in every moment of change and transition, and in the grief and uncertainty and fear that come along with those moments.
At the end of this Easter season, hearing Jesus’s pre-resurrection words in the context of a post-resurrection reality, we hold fast to this paradox:
There is a blessing in the leaving.
Jesus will not and does not leave his friends orphaned. Another Advocate – the Holy Spirit – is coming. (Come back next week to hear that amazing story.)
There is a blessing in the leaving, and we ourselves are witnesses to this blessing. Our lives bear witness. Our ministry – full of life and promise – is itself testimony.
There is a blessing in the leaving to carry us through to the other side of the leaving.
For now and always, we proclaim:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!