John 17: 1-11
Rev. Peter Faass
The opening words of the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel are the beginning of what is referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer: “Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.”
The setting of the High Priestly Prayer is the upper room on the night before Jesus dies. He and the disciples have just finished foot washing and sharing their last supper. Jesus prays out loud so his disciples may hear him.
In this prayer, this man is about to sacrifice his life to complete the work he has been given – to inaugurate God’s reign. This prayer focuses on life, hope, and ultimate love.
On this Memorial Day weekend, this reading evokes images of the women and men who have served in the armed forces and died for this nation for the past 241 years. Like Jesus, they sacrificed their lives and completed a task for a greater cause - ensuring our nation’s freedoms and defending the sacred gifts of life and liberty. Their lives were and are a living prayer of love for this nation.
As we celebrate the beginning of summer this Memorial Weekend with barbeques, picnics, parades and relaxing, may we pause and give thanks to God for these sacrificial prayers of love given to us by these fallen soldiers and sailors. We do the same when we thank in our worship for the gift of love Jesus gave us in his sacrifice on the cross.
In his farewell prayer, Jesus spoke to God on behalf of the faith community. “I am asking on their behalf,” he prays to God. He asks, “Holy Father, protect them [the community of faith] in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
With these words, Jesus entrusts the future of the faith community to God. We often forget this powerful theological statement. The future of the church is in God’s hands, not ours. This reminds me of the bumper sticker that states, “If God is your co-pilot, switch seats.”
In this era of institutional church decline, more churches struggle to pay bills, achieve balanced budgets, are challenged with membership growth and with using their building as an asset, etc., this message comes as a wake-up call and a huge relief. The future of the church is in God’s hands, not ours. While that doesn’t release us from proclaiming the Gospel and building God’s reign, it means we are not in control of what God desires the church to be into the future, or how it will get there. Regardless of church’s future, Jesus tells us God will protect us as we do God’s work in the world. That’s a cathartic message. It lightens the burden considerably when wardens, vestry members, other lay leaders and clergy accept that the church’s future is up to God. We just have to be faithful and trust in God’s protection.
At the heart of the High Priestly Prayer, we learn that the Father gave us Jesus, “to give [us] eternal life . . . And this is eternal life, that they [the faith community] may know you, the only true God.”
Christian theology often focuses on the idea of eternal life being the afterlife, i.e., heaven. The idea of eternal life as a future, other-worldly experience contradicts what Jesus preached, that “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17: 21). In this prayer, eternal life comes from knowing God.
As Jesus prays, God is in him, and he is in God. We know Jesus as love. We gain eternal life by knowing God, who is love, and then we live with love.
Jesus’ life, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension reveal the extent and nature of the love that informs our knowledge of God. They reveal the character and identity of God revealed in Jesus, whose life so overflowed with love that he freely gave himself for the salvation of the entire cosmos. To know this God of love is to have eternal life.
If we are to become one with the Father and the Son, we must embody a giving sacrificial love in our lives by:
Every little thing we do, if it is done in love, reveals God within us – the members of the faith community - to others. It ALL matters.
A candidate for our music director’s position emailed me after he auditioned for us this past week. He wrote that he and his girlfriend “…agreed that [Christ Church] was one of the friendliest parishes they ever visited.” His comments remind me that every person and encounter matters, especially when we embody the love of Jesus as we meet them.
To love is lived prayer. The women and men in the armed forces we remember this weekend lived and died in love defending the values of our nation. Their lives were lived prayer. They knew eternal life in the here and now because of that, and I know they are safe in God’s protection.
Jesus, in his High Priestly Prayer, says our lives are in God’s protection, that God is in charge, and that with God ultimately “all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” This knowledge about God frees us to incarnate the love of God in all that we are and do. In his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus calls us to a life of living prayer by emulating the love of God within him. When we emulate this love we become one with them, and we come to know God. Eternal life will then be ours forever.
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-15
Rev. Peter Faass
The capture and destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE was an apocalyptic event for Israelites. Everything they valued, socially, religiously and culturally, had been assaulted and threatened. Many believed that the oppressive Babylonian empire would force them to commingle with foreign nations and exile, diminishing the Hebrews’ core identity to extinction.
The exiles despaired, lamenting that their bones were dried up and their hopes had perished. They felt cut off from the Promised Land, the holy city Jerusalem, and from God.
Amidst this dejected situation, God sends the prophet Ezekiel, who experiences a series of oracles including the vision of the valley of dry bones. Prior to seeing these oracles, God told Ezekiel of his desire to offer the House of Israel a new heart and spirit to revive and give them hope by relaying visions of Israel’s future.
In the opening verses, Ezekiel proclaims, “I was among the exiles by the river of Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1).
In this particular vision, Ezekiel sees an arid valley full of dry bones. The valley appears to be a former battle site, with unburied bodies of dead soldiers left to rot and be eaten by carrion birds and animals.
God asks the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.” God tells him to prophesy the bones. As he does, the bones slowly come together until they are covered with skin. God then breathes life-giving spirit into these bodies. “And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
God says these bones are the people of the House of Israel. God tells them, “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel . . . O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
It’s an awe-inducing yet impossible vision to believe. For the Hebrews in exile, the good news was difficult to hear and more impossible to visualize.
By relaying his vision, Ezekiel challenges the Israelites to view their dire circumstances through God’s eyes rather than through their limited vision. With human eyes, can dry, desiccated bones live? Of course not!
If we see through God’s eyes, bone suddenly comes to bone. One commentary states, “Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tight. Watch as God’s spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up – a great army testifying to the power of God . . . [Through human eyes] can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Absurd! But look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit and return home.”
If God can restore the desiccated bones of a hopeless people back to life, then there are absolutely no limits to God’s power to do the same for us. If we can see through God’s eyes, envisioning His hope for this world and us, then there is no limit for our being revived from the most desperate and hopeless circumstances.
God’s opening the graves of the dead and putting His spirit back into them also occurs in the story of Lazarus. This story, in John’s Gospel, was written by a community of early Christians recently exiled – or if you will, excommunicated - from the Jewish faith. At its inception, this community considered themselves a Jewish sect.
By the turn of the first century, institutional Judaism determined that Jewish expectations of messiah had not been fulfilled by Jesus, whom the community of John proclaimed as the authentic Messiah. So they were cast out, no longer welcome as fellow brothers and sisters of the faith, even despised. They were considered as good as dead.
This caused considerable despair and hopelessness. In the context of this situation, the author of John tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. Whether we believe this is an actual bodily resurrection or not misses the point. It does not matter if Jesus literally raised a corpse to life or not in the fourth decade of the first century, although he could have done so.
It does matter that for the despairing and entombed Johanine community that Jesus –who of course sees everything through God’s eyes - offers them hope and raises them from despair. That hope is centered in the statement Jesus made to Martha when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
In that theological statement, we find that whether in literal or metaphorical death, God’s love for us and the world defeats death in all its insidious forms if we believe in the way and truth of Jesus, who saw everything with God’s eyes.
Ezekiel shared God’s optimistic vision for the defeated and “as-good-as-dead” people. Looking through the eyes of God, Israel would soon be freed from exile and restored to Judea, and the Temple and Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Bone came to bone. Sinew, flesh and skin grew, and God’s life-giving breath was breathed in them. God’s vision of salvation for the people materialized.
In the community of John, the death and entombment of excommunication was transformed by Lazarus’ resurrection. Jesus did this because he loved Lazarus and in that love he conveyed his love for the despondent Johanine community.
In both instances, God gave despondent communities a new heart and spirit. Love is resurrection and life; to love is to see with the eyes of God.
The entire purpose of Jesus’ life was to teach humanity how to see through God’s eyes, which are the eyes of love. The hymn, My Song is Love Unknown, states, “love to the loveless show[n] that they might lovely be.”
The incarnate God always gives us a new heart and spirit so that when our bones are dead and dry, we may find hope to live through that love-filled sight. When we see through Jesus’ eyes, we are released from the graves that entomb us, and he becomes for us resurrection and life.
In those times when we feel as if our bones are dried up and our spirits gone, when we feel like the tomb has been closed over us and the stench of death grows ever stronger, I can think of no greater life–giving message than this one. This is true for us individually and corporately as we encounter social and political shifts that threaten us.
If we do, we have hope and it will propel us to testify to God’s power, and resurrected life will be ours.
Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
What is the Church of the 21st century called to be, do and look like? In my work for the United Church of Christ National Offices, I have the frequent opportunity to travel in order to ask this question. The resulting conversations are fascinating, fruitful, continuously complex, and inevitably lacking consensus (which is the beauty of the Church, in some ways).
Because the work I do focuses on church order and organization, the answers to the questions about what the Church is called to be & to do & look like tend to sound legalistic. So I’ll be part of a room full of deeply faithful folks who pray together and worship together and ask each other, “If we say that the Church is called to be a certain way, then don’t we need to change the Constitution & Bylaws on lines 6, 12 & 25, deleting Paragraph 3 of Article 2 and adding an addendum to Section B?”
Not surprisingly, the organization of Church life as it is described in Acts 2 holds much more appeal to us than Constitution & Bylaw debates about Church order.
They devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to praying. They held one another up in faith and in life – sharing their resources and their hearts. (Acts 2:42-47)
Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a Church! Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a Church where your name is known and your need is known, without shame for having need, where you are supported through seasons of crisis and lament, never lacking for signs of wonder to urge on your faith, never lacking for community who will struggle together for the sake of heaven.
Never lacking for bread, and it’s the rare Church that doesn’t eat well. Which is fabulous, because I like to eat, so the combination of food and God is always sound theological practice in my book.
How magnificent would it be if the 21st century Church broke bread with all people who were hungry! How beautiful would it be if the 21st century Church extended fellowship so that no one went through a crisis alone! How peaceful would it be if the 21st century Church called its own people to live with glad & generous hearts!
What is the 21st century Church called to be, called to do, called to look like?
Lest we pull our hair and gnash our teeth and groan with longing for the good old days when Church people prayed well and ate well and loved well, and never had to endure Constitution & Bylaw debates or spend an hour discussing the altar flower schedule…
Lest we believe too simply that the early Christians embodied Church better than the present-day Church…
The readings from John and 1 Peter this morning hint to us that the early Church shared some of our 21st century insecurities and imperfections.
Jesus’ admonitions and illustrations in John 10 suggest that his followers had a tendency to long for the kind of Good Shepherd who gathers the sheep into the fold, always in, always protected, always huddled together against fear, always wary of the stranger, always behind locked gates, always praying for the fence to be strong, for the wall to be high, for the green pastures to be a fortress, always suspicious of anyone who gets in by an unrecognized route, easily threatened by anyone who does not share their fears, quickly criminalizing anyone who dares to suggest that the still waters are abundant enough to share. Always in, never out. Sometimes the early Church found itself huddling in fear behind locked doors, praying for a Good Shepherd who would keep them safe, forgetting that Jesus in John 10 called himself the gate by which the Church was called not in but out.
Sometimes the 21st century Church resembles the early Church in its fears.
1 Peter encouraged the early Church to cast aside its fear and to set its eyes on salvation, to focus so exclusively on obtaining the resurrection that the experiences of earthly life almost don’t matter. “Be holy so that you can be saved. Do not hide in green pastures that will wither & fade anyway. Do not worry about the needs of the flesh, do not struggle against injustice or authority; even if you are beaten,” says 1 Peter, “let God have the glory.” The early Church of 1 Peter believed that the end of the world was quickly coming, too quickly to spend much time on worldly cares. Faithful behavior was expected of the early Church – hospitality, grace and love, support – as a way of passing the time well until the world ended. Any chaos and suffering were seen as inevitabilities of evil that should not be resisted since salvation was so near.
Like the early Church of 1 Peter, sometimes the 21st century Church has its eyes only set on heaven, not interested in embodying God’s kingdom on earth.
What is the 21st century Church called to be, called to do, called to look like?
If not a Church of fear that hides in green pastures, then who might we be? If not a Church of disengagement that only cares about heaven, then what might we look like?
And, of course, that ever-present question: Depending on how we are the Church, will it change our Constitution & Bylaws?
More accurately, will being the Church change our constitution? Will it change our being, our makeup? Are we – in our essence – any different because we are part of this body, because we are part of Christ’s body, because the work of Christ’s body in the world becomes our work, because the good news of Christ’s being is the good news at the heart of our beings?
I ask because the Church – and I mean the whole, global, ecumenical Body of Christ, with a capital C, which includes Christ Church but isn’t only Christ Church – the Church can be a Church of fear and still do the Acts 2 work of meeting one another’s needs. The Church of fear can say, “We’ll send meals when you’re sick, but we won’t advocate for your health insurance.” The Church of fear can be a Church that feeds people, but it will wring its hands over every penny and it will buy the cheap bread instead of the hearty artisan bread.
And the Church can be a disengaged kind of Church that sets its eyes so much on the prize of resurrection that it tells people just to endure and be good, and still the disengaged Church might know how to proclaim #BlackLivesMatter (although it will be an inconsistent ally at best). When a Black 15-year-old straight-A student athlete named Jordan Edwards is killed by a police officer, the disengaged Church knows how to lament. But when a Black 18-year-old boy on probation named Malik Carey is killed by a police officer, the disengaged Church only shakes its head and mourns that Malik didn’t behave better.
The 21st century Church can do well and still have a constitution of fear. The Church can love strongly and still hold its nose at the work of injustice. Who we are and will be as the Church is a matter of constitution – of being – of the faith that defines our core and becomes our every expression.
And so we strengthen and nurture our constitution with that familiar articulation of faith, the psalm that perhaps we whisper when all other words fail, and we let these images settle at our core and become our being:
The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
The LORD is my green pasture;
I shall not roam endlessly in search of something better.
The LORD is my oasis of still water;
I shall not be discontent.
The LORD is my portion at the table;
I shall not be selfish.
The LORD is my deepest sigh;
I shall not cry alone.
The LORD is my soul’s restoration;
I shall not be discouraged.
The LORD is my calling;
I am not my own.
We are not our own. We are part of the Body of Christ, and the being of Christ is the essence of us. So let us be constituted, let us be comprised of the knowledge that goodness is the character of God and mercy is the call of the Church. All day long, all the days of our lives, goodness and mercy are our confidence, our actions, and our being, as the Church together for the glory of God.