St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Easter (May 8, 2016)

Liturgical Color: White

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Come, Lord Jesus

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in the abundant and joyful presence of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In these days, it seems we are nothing if not divided. Racial tensions continue to mar our national scene. Governments fail to honor their charge to see to the public welfare as in Flint, Michigan. Women are still paid far less than men for similar work. Political contests serve to enflame anger, uncivil behavior, and untoward words by both candidates and supporters. Congregations continue to splinter into factions. The scandal of denominationalism abounds. And those who are one in Christ level accusation and judgment at one another, often with assumptions that some are "in" and others are "out."

Into our divisions of mind and heart, politics and religion come the hopeful and healing words of our Lord-a final piece from Jesus' great pastoral prayer in John's gospel. In counterposition to the tendencies of our day, this prayer of Jesus very obviously focuses on unity. Jesus desires that his disciples be one, that we share consciously and vitally in the one body of Christ, making our Lord known in the world despite his having left us, at least in the flesh.

Before I get more deeply into this matter of unity, let me pause for some additional context. Last Thursday was Ascension Day. It is the festival that stands 40 days from Easter and that commemorates a little-known and poorly-understood biblical story. In Luke's story of the ascension (Luke 24:44-53), which comes at the very end of his gospel, Jesus blesses the disciples and ascends. "While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God." (vv. 51-53)

Only Luke records this story. Mark makes mention of it, but in what appears to be a later addition to the text.The time-frame is noted in the first chapter of Luke's second book, the Book of Acts, and for forty days the Church hears and reflects upon the stories of Jesus' resurrection appearances. The journey to Emmaus is perhaps chief among them. But there are also appearances to the women. There is Jesus showing his scars. There's the broiled fish dinner. There's a time of teaching. In Matthew, Jesus offers the charge that we call the Great Commission—to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach. And in John, there is the triple charge to Peter to feed his sheep in the world, reflecting his triple denial that preceded the crucifixion. (John 20:15-17)

Perhaps you noticed that the paschal candle stood beside the altar from the Day of Resurrection through last Sunday. The presence of the lighted paschal candle at the altar during that time is symbolic of Christ's presence with the disciples during all of those resurrection appearances, ending—just last Thursday—with the Ascension of Our Lord.

Now, let me return to the extended prayer for unity in John. I believe it to be part and parcel of the ascension since it makes clear to us exactly what is on the mind of Jesus in these final moments—in this case those immediately prior to the events of the crucifixion. Note how this part of the prayer begins: "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word." (John 17:20) That's us, folks. Our Lord continues, "that they may all be one" in the same way that Jesus is one with the godhead. It is a call to transcendent unity, marked by commonness of purpose, profound sharing, serendipity, and synergy—marked by community that expresses itself as unity. I think we can readily say that we have failed horribly to honor these final desires of our Lord.

And yet, this prayer strikes me as profoundly relevant to this weekend, personally and communally speaking—and in a positive light. Yes, it is Mother's Day. And that is a wonderful thing in and of itself. But perhaps, like my family, yours has marked other blessings that brought you together in profound and joyous ways.

Even though our nation honors mothers on this day, I hope you'll forgive my noting that I am today a very proud father. My son, Bryce, graduated from medical school yesterday.

As if that weren't enough, I am also a very proud grandfather today. We get to celebrate the baptism of my granddaughter, Maris Josephine, this morning. And, of course, it is delightful simply to have her and her family present here in Bloomington for a few days, since their home is now in Albany, New York, where Bryce will begin his residency in pediatrics next month and where Megan teaches in the language department of the State University of New York at Albany.

And to top it all off, tomorrow is Maris' first birthday.

What a weekend! I feel as if I am ascending into the clouds of the seventh heaven! And I rejoice in the unity that is shared in the Body of Christ and in my now further extended family by virtue of a faith that bridges differences of doctrine and distance. Maris is held today in a holy embrace that extends into many families of faith and across many borders of geography.

I note these things not simply as a matter of personal interest. They are intended to spark your own reflections about family, community, and civility, inspired by the heart-felt desires of our one Lord. They mix together in our hearts and our reflections today with both the story of the ascension and the final wishes of our Lord for unity.

Part of those reflections might turn us again to Mothers' Day. We might suggest today that Jesus prays for those who are sitting with him and for us much like a mother who has adopted children. They belong to God, but God gave them to Jesus to care for, to teach, to nurture. Soon Jesus will go away and he prays for these children with the love of a motherly heart.

"(A preacher recalls) talking to a woman whose son was in (her) youth group. 'Every time he goes out of the house, I say a prayer that he'll be safe,' she (said). 'You know, when there are more than two black boys walking down the street, people get suspicious. They attract attention from the police. It happens all the time,' she said. 'Even if they don't do anything, they're likely to get in trouble. So I keep praying until he comes back in the door.'

"Jesus' prayer doesn't stop with those seated at the table... Jesus is praying also for you and for me," as a mother prays for her children.

"Just when we think we've figured out what's going on in John's gospel, we are surprised at every turn. Jesus proclaims God's love for the world, yet prays that these beloved children will be protected from the world. Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd whose sheep hear his voice -- yet, just when we're ready to shut the gate, Jesus says, "I have other sheep that are not of this fold -- I must bring them also." Just when we point to John's gospel to confirm that God is our Father, we hear Jesus praying from a mother's heart. Even in John's fatherly gospel, (which speaks very much to me today), we (also) see a picture of Jesus who seems very much like a mother.

"Perhaps we should have known from the first chapter of John. 'In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.' This eternal, cosmic Word (with a capital W) translates the Greek word logos. Yet, everything that is said about the Word comes from Old Testament descriptions of Wisdom. Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of God. Wisdom, pitching a tent to dwell upon earth. Wisdom, beside God as co-creator from the beginning. Wisdom, the female figure translated in Greek as Sophia. Indeed, Raymond Brown, in his classic commentary on the Gospel of John, says that "there are parallels to Wisdom in almost every detail" found in the opening verses of the gospel. [Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I - XII, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966)5231] The reason John chose logos instead of sophia was because Jesus was male.

"Can we be open to God's surprises? Could it be that the Spirit that moved over the waters in creation became a mothering presence in the Gospel of John? Could it be that when we insist that God can only be called Father, the Spirit of truth whispers other names in our ears? Jesus prayed for his beloved, adopted children on the last night of his life. He prayed that they would be one, even as Jesus and his motherly Father are one.

"The life of faith is a journey filled with surprises. Just when we think Mother's Day is about cards and flowers, we're reminded that the original Mother's Day proclamation urged an end to war: 'We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.'[Julia Ward Howe] Just when we think we know all about Jesus the Good Shepherd, he's out looking for sheep beyond our fold. Just when we think the Word -- capital W -- is an abstract philosophical word, we're reminded that Jesus is Wisdom/Sophia in earthly flesh. Just when we argue that God can only be called "Father" we hear Jesus praying as a mother worried for her children. 'I will not leave you orphaned,' Jesus said. You are my own and I will be with you forever.'" (Barbara Lundblad, Working Preacher)

This is the wondrous mystery revealed in the 14th century to Julian of Norwich, whom we commemorate on this day. This Christian woman devoted her life to God through study and contemplation of scripture. She wrote a theological treatise entitled "Showings" and her words have now become a hymn that we will sing in just a moment. "Mothering God, you gave me birth. Mothering Christ, you took my form. Mothering Spirit, nurturing One." God is always more than we imagined. God is always closer than we had dared to dream. God is always hoping that we will see beyond the limits of our own families, parties, and tribes to see ourselves as united spiritually and cosmically into one by a God who challenges all of our categories of thought and contention.

And so, with John of Patmos in our second lesson this morning, even as we see signs of hope in our troubled lives in an unjust world, still we yearn for unity and understanding. So we too offer our plea, "Come, Lord Jesus!" Come among us to heal, to strengthen, to renew, to inspire, and to make us one. Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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