Sunday, May 20, 2012

Jesus' Prayer

Sermon based on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 and John 17:6-19
May 20, 2012

Our gospel lesson today is a bit different from usual. It  is neither a story from Jesus’ life nor is it one of his teachings. There is no miracle,  no parable or sermon, no explanation of a previous teaching or prophesy about the future. Today's reading is simply a prayer. Jesus is praying to God on behalf of his disciples. This takes place right before Jesus goes to the garden and is betrayed by Judas.

In his prayer, Jesus asks God to protect his disciples. Jesus knows that he will be leaving soon and he wants to make sure that his disciples will be protected. Jesus also prays that God would make his disciples one just as he and the Father are one. 

Jesus did not pray that things would be easy for the disciples, he did not pray that the disciples would all live to an old age, and he did not pray to God to take the disciples out of the world. Instead, Jesus wanted the disciples to stay in the world so that they might go out into the world and spread the good news. Jesus prays for protection for his disciples,that they might be able to live into their mission and teach and baptize others.

Jesus knew that he was about to leave his earthly ministry and return back to God. Very soon, Jesus would be crucified and then  resurrected. Although Jesus would be resurrected, Jesus would ascend to heaven and would no longer be present in the same way that he had been before. Jesus returned to the Father.

After the Ascension, the disciples now have to make decisions that they didn't have to before. Jesus used to call all the shots. Jesus decided who was a part of the 12 inner circle of disciples. Our Acts lesson today tells the quandary that the disciples find themselves in after the ascension. They are now only a group of 11. Judas betrayed Jesus and then killed himself. Jesus did not replace Judas with someone else, and the disciples wanted to complete the symbolic 12. There were many disciples or followers of Christ, Acts tells us that there were about 120 believers present on this one occasion. But the 11 wanted the inner circle to be 12 again. 

The requirement for a new apostle was that they had been a follower of Jesus and  also present from the day of his baptism by John until the ascension.  Two men were nominated that fulfilled that requirement, and then they cast lots and Matthias was chosen to be the 12th apostle.

Matthias was never mentioned again in the book of Acts. He might have had a powerful ministry and spread the gospel far and wide, but we do not know. The person that we know of who really lived into being an apostle was not the one that the 11 chose but one that the Holy Spirit chose: Paul. God chose Paul to be an apostle

This choice of Paul teaches us several things. First of all, it shows that God was still at work in the world. Even though the apostles were making important decisions about the direction the early church would go in, God was making some decisions and choices apart from what the apostles were doing. Jesus may have ascended to be with the Father, but Jesus was still issuing invitations to follow him.

Secondly, this choice of Paul shows that God works with different standards than our own. Paul did not fit the disciples' requirements for a new apostle. First of all, he wasn't even a believer at the time that they were choosing a 12th.  He was not present for any of Jesus' earthly ministry. Paul became a believer only after having a post-resurrection experience of the risen Christ. Yet, Paul was chosen by God to be an apostle.

Thirdly, God's choice of Paul shows us that God works to include and bring together. The disciples wanted to unify and strengthen the core group of the 12, and that was fine. However, the 12 were not the most diverse group. They did come from different backgrounds, such as fishermen and tax-collector, but they were still all Jewish men. Paul was also a Jewish man, but he also had a foot in the Hellenistic world. Paul was a Roman citizen, and focused much of his ministry on  converting Gentiles. The direction towards including non-Jews as followers of Christ started during Jesus’ own ministry, but it really took off during Paul’s ministry.

Jesus prayed that his disciples might be one. What does Jesus mean by this oneness? The disciples went to different places and founded various churches. And today, with all of our denominations and divisions it seems fairly obvious that we are not one.

What Jesus meant by oneness for the disciples is directly linked to how the Father and Jesus are one. Jesus said, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17: 11)

So, how are Jesus and the Father one? This ties into the nature of the Triune God. We believe that God is One. There is only one God, not three. God is one.

However, Jesus is not asking that all people be made into one person, that all differences be lost. I’m not going to delve deeply into the theology of the Trinity, otherwise we’d be here all day. In fact, two Sundays from now is supposed to be Trinity Sunday (so prepare to stay late then). Suffice it to say that God is not monotonous but diverse, being three persons in one God.

Paul often uses the imagery of the body to describe how members of the church are all one yet individual. We are all members of one body. Separately we are different, just as a hand and a liver are different. Yet, in the same way that all our different organs and body parts make up one body. all the different members of the church make up a single church.

Yes, there are many different denominations and many different church communities so it doesn’t look like we are one church.

Paul wrote in Ephesians 4: 4-6, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

Christians worship the same God, share in one baptism, and have the same hope of salvation through Jesus Christ. This makes us one, even though we may have other differences.

Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one, but that prayer wasn't just for the 11 or 12. 1 verse after our reading ends we find out that Jesus is not only praying for his disciples but also for those who will believe through their message. Jesus was praying for us! We believe because those first apostles shared the good news.

What Jesus prayed for those first disciples is also a prayer for us today. Jesus does not pray that we separate ourselves from the world, but instead prays for our protection as we are called to share the good news in the world. Jesus prays that we might be one, just as he and the Father are one. Jesus does not pray that we all may be the same, but that we will be one with other Christians in our faith and mission. We are one with other Christians when we share one faith and hope in God. We are one with other Christians when we live into the two commandments to love God and to love neighbor. We can be encouraged by the fact that God is still working in the world, in ways that would surprise us and through people that would not have been our first choice, or second choice, or third. God can and does work through us all when we accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him.


New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.