Saturday, May 19, 2012

Our Place in This World

I am not asking You to take them out of the world, but I ask You to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. (John 17.15-17)

Where Does This Leave Us?

Sunday marks one of those strange partings, when liturgical congregations split according to which lectionary they follow—standard or revised. Some of us will focus on the Ascension (Acts 1.1-11; Luke 24.44-53), while others contemplate Jesus’s parting prayer for His disciples (John 17.6-19). And while each passage’s nuances will invite varying observations, I believe both lead to one question that the disciples surely wrestle with: “Where does this leave us?” For all practical purposes, Jesus has become their world and with Him gone, they have no idea where and how they fit. Once they absorb the blow of this sudden—though not unanticipated—goodbye, they must recalibrate their place in this world. It will be no easy task.

Approximating how the disciples feel is key to navigating these passages. Since none of us has experienced anything remotely like either event, we might compare them to the end of a concert. We’ve just spent an extended period of time in the presence of an artist whose words and music found us where we were, spoke to us in very real and meaningful ways, and challenged us to see ourselves differently. From the first note, the concert has steadily built to its climax—the most beloved song in the artist’s repertoire—followed by an encore that extends her/his stay. We’re grateful beyond measure for these extra few minutes, even though they’re filled with poignant awareness that all of this will end soon. The artist says goodnight, exits the stage, and the house lights come up. Our eyes remind us the outside world awaits us. It’s a hard thing, accepting it’s time to move on. But the artist is gone. Our time with him/her is passed. High-flown emotions are dissipating, replaced by implacable, workaday realities.

More than “Goodbye—we’ll meet again” is going on here. The disciples who overhear Jesus pray on their behalf and see Him ascend into Heaven have internalized His teachings. Every word He said is stamped in memory, not as text, but as spoken. As they relive their time with Jesus, they hear His voice—the tone, phrasing, and cadence of His actual speech. They associate certain statements with events that bring back all the emotions and personal significance. It’s every bit like the way that we tie songs and conversations to major moments in our lives. The disciples have relied on Jesus’s voice to enlighten, comfort, and guide them. His physical presence and the music of His speech have rooted their beings. Now Jesus is being taken from them. The silence must be crushing. More than that, their sudden sense of disconnectedness surely terrifies them. Where does this leave us?

Not Easy

Turning to Jesus’s prayer  in John 17, it’s all too evident that the Lord recognizes how jarring His departure will be. “Now I am no longer in the world,” He prays to God. “But they are in the world, and I am coming to You. Holy Father, protect them in Your name that You have given Me, so that they may be one, as We are one. While I was with them, I protected them... I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost [i.e., Judas Iscariot].” (v11-12) The concern that Jesus expresses is overwhelming. He’s keenly aware of how dependent the disciples are on Him. As He prays, He’s mindful of all the instances when their faithfulness to Him placed them in jeopardy—times when standing with Jesus exposed them to hostility and ridicule. “I protected them… I guarded them,” He reminds God. Yet, at the same time, Jesus is no fool. He knows that He’s leaving the disciples in a dicey spot and they’ll need God’s protection once He’s gone.

As David Lose points out in “The Other Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus knows that things haven’t been easy for the disciples. “The world has hated them because they do not belong to the world,” He says. His acknowledgment primes us to expect He’ll beseech God to fix things in their favor, to lighten their load—especially in the coming days, when dealing with His absence will be plenty to handle, let alone coping with His (and now their) enemies. But Jesus doesn’t ask God to lighten the disciples’ load. “What does He pray for?” Lose writes. “Not that it will be easy. He knows it won’t. This world is captive to a spirit alien to God’s spirit. It is animated by a sense of scarcity instead of abundance, fear instead of courage, and selfishness instead of sacrificial love…. So Jesus doesn’t pray that it will be easy, but rather that God will support the disciples amid their challenges and that they will be one in fellowship with each other and with Jesus and [God] through the Spirit.” Returning to our concert analogy, Jesus is all too aware He’s filled the disciples’ hearts and minds with unpopular music that puts them at odds with the world’s same old gimme-gimme song. Before He leaves, He’s going to charge them with singing His new song with all they’ve got. It’s a song the world most definitely does not want to hear.


Sunday’s reading stops short of the truly revelatory moment in all of this. In verses 20-21, Jesus expands His prayer, saying, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one.” Here Jesus confesses two amazing articles of faith. As He looks ahead, He sees you and me. He recognizes us as people who will sing His new song. He trusts we will be there. Furthermore, He believes that the disciples will withstand the hardships of their world to teach His new song to those of us who’ve not heard it first-hand. Finally, He prays that we “may all be one.”

Thus we find our place in this world—not as lonely outcasts sentenced to the fringes of society, or as dissonant voices in a culture that doesn’t like our music. We are called to be a harmonious, united band of believers whose song of love and hope magnifies Christ’s presence beyond our borders. After the Ascension, two angels appear beside Jesus’s followers and ask, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, Who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1.11) Jesus may have left the stage. The house lights may have come up. But the concert is not over. While we await Christ’s reappearance, our place in this world is out in the world—not hanging around, staring up at the stage, and wondering when Jesus will return. Christ has given us a new song to give the world. It’s not “Won’t You Stay Just a Little Bit Longer”. Not “Just You and I”. It’s “Takin’ It to the Streets”.

Jesus may have left the stage, but the concert’s not over. While we await His reappearance, we take His new song of love and hope to the world.

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Sherry Peyton said...

A powerful set of passages, and frankly the homily I heard yesterday did not really do it justice. I feel that in some ways I am like the disciples--embarking on a new adventure in a new church, undecided of where I belong, what version, what parish, and on and on. I am searching for guidance and frankly don't know who to trust with the direction of my spiritual life. My life is perhaps too hectic at the moment and perhaps I should just be patient. You summed things up so well here Tim. Thanks so much.,

Tim said...

Sherry, I and the rest of us who gather here will keep you in our prayers during this transition. I can relate to how you feel; it took me quite a while to find the right place and even longer to take my rest there. This is family work--finding one's place in community, getting acquainted with its strengths and weaknesses, learning where there are needs and opportunities that you can serve.

Let your soul be your pilot. You'll know it when you find it, and that knowing will sustain you while you adjust to this new place and faith family.

Meanwhile, know that you always have a place here and you're loved and valued always!

Many blessings,