Christians are already-but-not-yet people.
We know all things work together for good for those who love God, but yet we live in a world fraught with sin and death, burdened with disease and grief. Life isn’t always easy, yet we celebrate Jesus’ victory over everything that would stand in the way of God’s promise of full and abundant life for us as he first envisioned it at the moment of creation all those æons ago. We know the powers that defy God lie vanquished under Jesus’ feet, and yet when we look around us, we often ask ourselves, “Lord, how long?!” We’ve had a foretaste of the glorious reign of God in fullness, and we long for that day when Jesus comes again to bring heaven to earth, but we also know there is trouble in the world. We are already-but-not-yet people…We know the “rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey might say, but we don’t know how long the story will go on to til the final period is written. We’re blessed to know that goodness is stronger than evil, that light is stronger than darkness, that life is stronger than death, and that love is stronger than hate, but we simultaneously are left longing for God who is love to return and make all things new—where mourning and crying and pain will be no more, where every tear will be wiped away, where death will be no more.
This time between Jesus’ ascension back to heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit is one where we can once again reexamine what it means to be people who know and believe that nothing can stand in the way of God’s good relationship with us, even as we live in a world of pain and sorrow. How do we make sense of it all? How do we make meaning out of things that, at face value, and perhaps even when we go deeper, just don’t seem to add up? What’s our role in all this? What’s God’s role? Think on these things as we go into the sermon today, and as an added challenge, think how you’d talk about it with someone if they’d ask what you’re doing as you wait for Jesus to return. And if I might be so bold, I challenge this week to actually talk to someone, just one person, about it. Be that witness that Jesus tells us we are at his Ascension!
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
We are in a transitional time right now, it’s safe to say, in the course of human history. A lot of has happened in the past year. In some ways, we’re on a threshold. It’s like we’re standing in a doorway, with a lot behind us, and even more in front of us. We can see what’s in front of us, but we remember what we’ve gone through, what we’ve been through. As we look out the doorway, we can anticipate what things will be like once we step off doorsill, but we haven’t yet taken that step. We’re on the threshold of a transition. We’re in what we call a liminal space, a space that occupies both the past and the future, right now—in the present.
Today’s gospel text comes to us from John 17. It’s a prayer that we, and Jesus’s first-century disciples, allegedly get to eavesdrop in on as Jesus prays to God the Father. Jesus prays this prayer right before he’s betrayed, tortured, crucified, died, and buried. This is his last act before his passion. Jesus is in a transitional, liminal space, and we can hear that in his prayer—particularly as he says, only verses before today’s text, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your son so that the Son may glorify you.” The time has come, and yet it’s not fully here. Jesus knows what is about to happen, and still it hasn’t happened yet. He’s in a transitional, liminal space.
And what’s he do? He prays. He prays for his disciples…He prays for their protection, for their resolve in the face of disappointment, for their faithfulness, and their unity. And ultimately, he prays for their sanctification—their continual growth as his disciples, even as he prays to God, “I am coming to you.”
Jesus’ hour to transition is upon both him and his disciples, and in the midst of this time of transition, he prays. He has a conversation with God, with his Father. It’s remarkable, in a lot of ways, that Jesus chooses to do this in the face of all that he knows is about to happen. He intentionally steps back and directs his attention not at what has happened, not at what is going on, not at what might or will happen, but rather on the will of God. Instead of getting caught up in worldly distractions, Jesus centers himself in prayer at this critical, transitional, liminal moment.
Living in transitional, liminal spaces can be interesting—but that’s not always a good thing. I’m always reminded of the ancient Chinese curse that goes: “May you live in interesting times.” When things are boring, there’s most definitely nothing tricky or scary happening. But interesting times can also be times of new beginnings in the aftermath of upheaval, distress, or other trouble.
The disciples have just experienced a tremendous life-altering few years with Jesus—and they’re about to experience even more than they could’ve ever imagined, from their Lord’s crucifixion to seeing him raised up again from death three days later. And as if that’s not enough, things are shaken up again for the disciples again just forty days after resurrection when Jesus ascends to heaven, having promised them that the Holy Spirit would come to them in just a few days. They find themselves on a threshold, in a transitional, liminal space.
And so do we—right now, in our own lives. In the wake of 2020 and the start of 2021, we find ourselves transitioned into a world tormented and harangued by pandemic, racial injustices, tumultuous political events, and even wider economic disparities and injustices in healthcare. Here, at Emanuel, in this congregation, add to that the transition into a completely new sanctuary space—everything we’ve known about gathering in this place as God’s people violated by the caprice of fire now rising up again from the ashes, a new creation with its own history. We find ourselves, right now, in a transitional, liminal space. We have a history behind us—a storied history as the family of Emanuel, but also a history as individuals living this adventure we call life. We also have a future ahead of us—a future that we can see, but can’t fully discern. And so we are, simply are, in this in-between time—a time of transition, a time on the threshold of something new with a complex, rich, sometimes troubling past behind us.
And so, what are we, as faithful disciples to do while we wait, while we wait in this in-between, liminal time for the return of Jesus—for the return of some normalcy in our lives, both as the collective family of Emanuel and individuals who get up each new morning?
Faithful disciples do what Jesus tells them.
We come together, as much as we can, and gather around the Word proclaimed, and we take part in communion with God and one another with Jesus body and blood. We learn more about our relationship with God and one another by delving deeper into Scripture, by wrestling with God’s Word—allowing it to challenge us through one another in spirited, loving conversation. We embody our unshakeable conviction that nothing in all the universe can separate us from God’s love by reaching out with that same love the way that we have been loved already, not asking first how this impacts us, but rather how we can be instruments of God’s peace in our own little corner of creation. We offer up our whole selves as living sacrifices—of our time, our talents, and our treasures, all gifts first given us by God to be used to his greater glory.
But most fundamentally, we pray. Just as Jesus prayed. Jesus prayed and told us to pray. And we know that prayer is so much more than simply the words we say or thoughts that we direct reverently toward God—although those most definitely are prayers in their own right. Our entire lives, all that we do, when done with conscientious awareness of our relationship with God in Jesus Christ, are prayers made real, not only in word, but in action.
And in today’s gospel text, we see that the prayer that we say and the prayer that we live is one of a specific character. It’s a prayer of oneness, of unity. Jesus prays that we be one, just as he and the Father are one. Jesus isn’t at odds with God’s desires. His will and the Father’s will are harmoniously in balance with one another. And that’s Jesus’ prayer for us as well. That we be harmoniously in balance with God—and with one another. In our spoken and lived prayers, Jesus desires us for us to be one—one with him, one with God, and one with each other.
Jesus prays that we become the kind of vessel God can use to spread any and every kind blessing to those longing for fulfillment. Instead of seeking infantile indulgence, we who are one with one God in Jesus seek mature righteousness—relationship grounded in love and peace.
As we seek these things in our own lives, we share them. Disciples refuse to get involved in inane discussions, in stupid controversies that inevitably always end up in petty fights, skeptical misgiving, or dubious suspicion. Disciples of Jesus aren’t argumentative, but rather are gentle listeners who speak when prudent, working firmly but patiently with those who refuse to hear.
We must always be ready to give an account of the hope that is within us, to live the prayer of our lives, to show the oneness of our relationship with the God who didn’t regard divinity as something to great to sacrifice for our sake. And so we shouldn’t regard own pride, opinions, or agendas to too important to set aside for the sake of others. Because you never know how or when God might us as shining examples to someone else, to sober them up with a change of heart and enlighten them to the truth, enabling them to escape the devil’s trap, where they are caught and held captive. And in the same way, Jesus prays for our protection against the same trap, the cunning deception of the evil one—that we not lose courage or conviction in the face of an uphill climb.
This is what we do in the meantime. This is what we do while we wait in this transitional, liminal space. We live the words we pray. We pray in thought, word, and deed. We take all that we are—our history and our hopes—and we embrace the moment, giving our whole selves as a living sacrifice to God in obedient service of his love for the sake of those whom Jesus came to save. This is Jesus’ prayer for us. It’s his desire, his will for us, as it’s the desire and will of God the Father—that we be one with one another, and one with God who loves even the threshold of death itself.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.