A Sermon Preached on Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after the Ascension, May 8, 2016
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Acts 16:16-34; John 17:20-26
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”
May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus: crucified, risen, and ascended on high. Amen.
Why are you here today?
I’m sure there are as many answers to that question as there are people in this cathedral. Some of you are here because you are always here—you keep this place running, and it’s woven into the fabric of your life. Some of you are here because you know you want to be or feel you ought to be, even if you can’t really say why. Some of you are here because you’re hungry and you hope to be fed. Some of you are here because you’re hurting and need to be soothed. Some of you are here because your mother makes you come to church, and on this day above all days, that is a perfectly good reason.
(Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the mother who went to wake her son for church on Sunday morning. “I don’t want to go to church,” her son shouted back through the door. “Why not?” his mother asked. “I’ll give you two good reasons,” said the son, “They don’t like me, and I don’t like them.” The mother thought about it for a moment, then said, “Ok, but I’ll give you two good reasons why you WILL go to church: you’re forty-seven years old and you’re the preacher!”)
But none of these answers get to the heart of the question I’m asking, because I’m asking it not in terms of our own personal reasons, but in the context of this morning’s Scripture.
Why are you here today?
This morning’s readings make very clear something that we do not always see: we are here, all of us–you and me and everyone who has ever walked through these doors–because of the living Word of God. We are here because two-thousand years ago the first Apostles were obedient to the command of Jesus. We are here because they faithfully, fervently, tirelessly, obeyed the prayer of Jesus that we heard this morning, and they received his promise. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” When Jesus spoke those words, he was speaking about us. And that is why we are here today.
All of us. Whether you are committed, certain, firm in your belief, or whether your faith today hangs by the thinnest thread, in our passage this morning Jesus is praying for you. Whether you have dwelt long in the close embrace of God and rejoice in the intimate community of the Holy Trinity, or whether you are new to and uncertain about all this talk of “love before the foundation of the world”, Jesus is praying for you. Whoever you are, however you got to this place, we are all of us here for one reason: the fruitful prayer of Jesus, working through the proclamation—the announcement—that those first followers of Jesus made.
That is not as inevitable as it may seem. You will recall way back on Easter Sunday how the disciples went away from the empty tomb and hid themselves in fear and trembling. One would not have guessed that those men would go forth with a powerful proclamation. But they did not stay hidden for long.
Next week we will celebrate Pentecost. We will remember the day when the Church broke forth out of hiding, impelled out into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. And what did the Apostles do when they had received power from on high? They proclaimed, in languages that they had not studied, in tongues that they did not know, the everlasting Word of salvation: the mighty announcement that Jesus Christ was crucified and is now Risen.
We see the power of that Word today in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and Silas are being pestered by a little slave girl who is possessed by a demon. She follows along, loudly announcing their identity and intention. She is a slave not only to the human masters who exploit her for their gain, but to the seeing spirit that possesses her.
And so Paul, annoyed by the prattling demon, turns upon the little girl and commands: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And the girl was made free of her demonic possession.
There is the power of the Apostolic Word, the proclamation rooted and founded in Jesus Christ! Of course, that Word come not only with power but with a price. It gets Paul and Silas into a great deal of trouble. They are denounced, and beaten, and locked-up.
Yet even when shackled in a prison cell, they cannot abandon the Word they have been given. At midnight, they sing songs and hymns, and shout the praises of God as they lie in the darkest depths, bound in chains and iron. And even there in the depths of the prison, God demonstrates in them his power to save through their Word. When the trembling jailer falls before them and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” they speak the Word of the Lord to him and his household, and they believe.
From those humble beginnings, from those earliest announcements, the mighty Word spread. The heirs of the Apostles made their way across seas and mountains to proclaim the Word in new lands, to new peoples. The power of the Spirit of God could not be contained. In times of persecution, the Word was whispered and spoken in secret. It still is in many parts of the world today. In times of faith and confidence, the Word was proclaimed from great pulpits to thronging congregations, eager to hear the news again .
And through servants known and unknown, by means obvious and paths untraceable, the Word has come to us, just as Jesus prayed that it would.
Yet here we must pause. The way I have told this story, we might be led to look on Trinity Cathedral in 2016 as the fullest flowering of the Apostolic Word. Being time-bound creatures, we have a tendency to favor the present moment. C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery.” For us, right now is the only true reality: the past is a fading photograph of things that have been; the future is an unknown, uncertain prospect, full of doom or hope, depending on your point of view.
But we must remember that God’s perspective is not like ours. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, nor your ways, my ways.” “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”
Jesus does not privilege the present when he prays for his followers in our Gospel today–either the present moment of his original context or our present moment today. When he speaks of “those who will believe in me through their word,” he surely speaks of us. But he also speaks to us—and speaks through us—to the generations who will come to believe because of the Word that we proclaim.
Jesus’ words in Scripture today are to us a benediction and a call to battle. They are both our blessing and our marching orders.
For today, Christians, the prayer of Jesus allows us to look backwards and realize that we stand at the head of a great, triumphant procession. With the eyes of faith, we see the Church as God sees it: rank upon rank of saints standing in an unbroken line down through the ages. We hear the Word—sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted—always calling, constituting, and commissioning the Church from that first Apostolic band right down even to our day.
And not to us, only. For Jesus’ prayer also bids us turn, Christians, from gazing upon the happy victors of the Church Triumphant—those blessed ones who rest from their labors, those giants on whose mighty shoulders we stand–and to look upon the Church Militant, still struggling and striving here on earth. And with the eyes of your soul perfected by the timeless sight of your Savior, behold the Church as she shall yet be! Behold the conquering ranks of the generations to come who will be called, constituted, and commissioned through your faithful proclamation of the triumphant Word, preached in your every word and deed!
Today, Jesus speaks of us and Jesus speaks to us. Today Jesus shows that the power of his Word is what draws us ever deeper into the everlasting love between the eternal Father and the Incarnate Son, within the bond of the Holy Spirit. And today, Jesus give us the glorious task of proclaiming that Apostolic Word anew and inviting others into his unending life of love. Today, Jesus calls us—all of us—to take up the Apostles’ mission, to hand on the Apostles’ message, to proclaim the everlasting Gospel of salvation, so that a people yet unborn may know the mighty deeds of the Lord.
So rise up, O Church, and faint not before the brutality and the beatings and the cruel indifference of this world to the Gospel of salvation! Rise up, O Church, and go forth to proclaim the Word, in the power and presence of God! Rise up, O Church, and be what your Lord shall make of you!
For that is why we are here today.