Scripture: John 17:1-11
Have you ever really taken the time to think about why we have churches? I ask this in honesty because we live in a time and place where we could get spiritual guidance just about anywhere. We can cruise around town listening to nonstop sermons if we wanted to, or we can turn on the TV and watch uplifting programming at any time of the day. We can log onto our computers read or stream the latest spiritual encouragement from our favorite authors or speakers from the comfort of our home. Yet still we have churches. We live in an era where the Gospel can be spread quickly through various electronic devices yet still we have churches. Would it be more economical to simply shut down all these buildings and just give simple encouragement to those around us?
This is a very serious question, and one that we really must consider because the answer to this question could affect the very future of what we know as church. It may very well change what we perceive as being holy. But before you begin to think that I am saying something I am not, I want us to consider what church means. There is a difference between church and ministry even though they are very much connected. What is church?
The short answer is that the church is an assembly. It is a gathering of people for various purposes, more specifically the church is an assembly of people gathered together to promote and encourage one another into a deeper relationship with God. The church is a gathering but the activity of the church is ministry. When a church closes the reason is because they no longer provide ministry. They no longer promote and encourage people into a deeper relationship with God. That is a very sad and serious thing. But it is something to consider. This meetinghouse is not the church, our financial standing is not the effectiveness of the church; these are only tools that the church can use to promote various ministries to encourage people to deepen their relationships with God. But is the gathering of people important?
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Christ. This is a very important event because without this singular event what we know as church never would have happened. Our Friend Michael Jay wrote recently on his blog, “Reading Acts, I realize that Christ’s physical presence was in a real way a block to the followers of Christ. As long as there was a physical Lord who could be a physical King of the Jews, and physically raise up an army to remove the Romans from Judea, they were not going to understand anything about the kingdom that was not of this world.” The ascension of Jesus is important because it forces those that became disciples to either live the reality out or move on to something else. Michael Jay goes as far as saying that the Ascension is the birth of the church not Pentecost.
I agree with Michael. As long as there is a physical form to direct the attention those disciples of Jesus do not have to take up the ministry themselves and the church would not have ministry. So this time between the ascension which was celebrated on Thursday and Pentecost, which is next Sunday is somewhat a time of unknown, a time when we are left in shock and have yet to find our voice. It is a critical time, a time that we either thrive or are still born. It is like the moments just after a baby is born and when you hear the first cry, we are sitting in nervous anticipation until that moment.
In today’s passage, though it is not directly related to the actual ascension of Jesus but is instead part of the prayer that Jesus gave just prior to his crucifixion, we hear Jesus speak words that are preparing us for this time of uncertainty. In this prayer he also give us some indication as to what the role of the church actually is. This is one of the few times in the Gospels we actually hear words that Jesus spoke when he withdrew to those isolated and desolate places to pray. He begins, “Father, the hour has come…” This phrase is intriguing because it is pregnant with meaning. It is filled with the anticipation of the beginning of something totally different then before. He continues, “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you…” To glorify is to attribute a high status or rank or to speak the praises of something. What Jesus is implying is that the time has come for the climatic event for him to occur so that something different can emerge.
There is a sense of progression in this passage, as if a mantle or a relay baton is being passed from one to the other. Jesus came to the world for a specific reason for a specific purpose and that is nearly complete. “I glorified you…” Jesus says, “on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” What exactly is this work that Jesus had come to earth to do?
Many of us have been trained to believe that the work of Jesus was to die, but that is an oversimplification of the work that Jesus came to do. If all Jesus had to do were die then why would he have spent so many years on earth? The work that Jesus came to do was the work of restoration. Jesus said, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” By speaking this statement Jesus is saying that a portion of his work was to inform mankind of the character of God, or to restore the reputation of God that had been distorted over the years. When reading scripture at times we can consider God to be a vengeful wrathful being out to destroy those that oppose him. The righteous then sought to rid the world of all sinfulness so that they could appease this violent deity. Jesus presented a different message. Instead of a God of violence Jesus presents a God of mercy, instead of wrath we see grace. Jesus came to restore the reputation of God, to being the God that would walk with Adam and Eve in the cool evenings in the Garden, the God that even though our first parents turned from Him provided them with clothing. The other portion of Jesus’ work was to bring eternal life. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Eternal life. That is the main focus of so many in the church. We believe that our mission is to save the lost so that they can live forever with God, and if they reject Him they will spend eternity apart from God. The term eternal is much deeper though; it is an unlimited duration from the beginning of all time and beyond. We often miss the proceeding era of time when we consider eternal and focus mainly on the future. Eternal life is life not only without end but life connected to the very creation of time. It is connection our lives with that that is everlasting, connecting us to all of creation and all of time. Yes, it is connecting us to the environment as well as progress, and knowing that does nothing for us because we do not have any way of fully understanding that connection, it is beyond our finite minds that are bound in the dimension of time that only travels in on direction. But Jesus tells us that eternal life is knowing God.
Knowing God is not just having knowledge of God, it is having intimacy with God. Again this form of knowledge is not just wisdom but relational knowledge of deep intimacy. Intimacy is being fully exposed, totally vulnerable, and unashamed. Our culture does not do very well with intimacy, because we do not like being vulnerable and we like to wield shame like broadsword. Shame or disappointment is a sign of a lack of intimacy; it is a reaction we get when we fail to have empathy. We are ashamed when we bring disappointment to another but when we shame others we are putting ourselves above someone else and using them to meet our selfish desires. Intimacy or being unashamed means that there is total equality and mutual effort in satisfying the needs of others. This is the work of Jesus. Jesus came to earth so that we could have intimacy with God. This brings us to sin, which is anything that would hamper intimacy with God, or something that would alter the equal and mutual effort in bringing satisfaction to the relationship.
For eternal life to be established Jesus must first provide a means to bring balance back to the relationship, and for balance to be restored there must be a dual effort, because being fully exposed, totally vulnerable and unashamed means that truth must be established. That is why Jesus’ full life is so important, not just His death. He came to restore God’s reputation through his teaching and ministry, and also to restore intimacy through his selfless sacrifice. He brought God to mankind and lifts up mankind to God; Jesus is the greatest matchmaker of the universe.
So Jesus is praying just before the moment of his glorification and he says, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” The word Finish is also very important. Finish in this translation could also mean: make perfect, make genuine, complete or accomplish, succeed fully, or even initiate, make happen or attain. So in many ways Jesus not only finished the work but he initiates it, giving the sense that this work of restoring intimacy with God, was set in motion by Jesus. That through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension the path, process, or course was set but there is more yet to do. This is why the church is still and will always be important. This is why the gathering of the disciples is necessary. Because we are not just waiting for time to end but we are to be active participant in eternal life. Jesus set the course and then He prays to the Father, “…protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
So that they may be one… What is the church? What is the future of the church? We are the ones that are to continue down the path that Jesus has set before us, we are the ones to continue the process and to encourage each other along that course that Jesus initiated. Jesus brought God down to mankind and set the course for us to be lifted up to God. He made it possible for a restoration of intimacy with God, but intimacy is a two way street. We each are unique individuals with different preferences and desires; we all have different ideas and passions. Our culture recognizes that and questions this concept of one way to intimacy with God through Jesus because of this. They question this one way because often we like the ancient religious leaders throughout history have made interpretations about God that may or may not be true. We have tried to systematically understand and confine God so that we can easily control the relationship, only to find out that at times we in the attempt of righteousness, close doors of intimacy with God to others, as we demand conformity instead of intimacy. So that they may be one, does not mean we must all be the same, but that we exist and belong to the whole. We live connected to the eternal now and ever more. The church is involved in this process not to bring in shame, which is the opposite of intimacy, but to encourage deeper intimacy. We are called to walk along side others like Jesus walked with his disciples, accepting people where they are at that moment and then encouraging them to take a step closer to God. One step at a time, so that they like us can belong and find a place with God. This does not always look the same for all people. Some have different preferences in their expression of intimacy than others, some require music while others do not, some prefer the deepness of hymns while others like the passion of praise choruses, some desire art while others need simplicity in the worship space. As a church we should recognize that there are differences in the expressions and preferences of intimacy with God and celebrate those differences, letting our desires known while yielding also to the desires of others. But in all things honoring each other as being loved by God and encouraging each other do deepen that relationship.
Jesus finished the work the Father had for him. He was with the father before the world existed and has returned. He came to restore the reputation and intimacy between God and mankind. He brings God to us and set up and initiated the means for mankind to restore their relationship with God. This is through the Church, which was birthed the day that Jesus ascended into heaven. The church will always be needed, there will always be a need for the interpersonal connection between unique personalities because through that interaction we develop the intimacy of eternal life, which includes all creatures for all times. How those gathering happen and how they look is a totally different story because it changes with cultures and times. Some gatherings will rise and some will close according to the willingness they have in participating in this ongoing ministry that Jesus began. The ministry of Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the Love of Christ with others, through worship, prayer and service.
As we move into this time of open worship or centering prayer together let us meditate on this prayer of Jesus. Let us reflect on the work that He finished and initiated, let us consider the totality of eternal life, and let us be one as Jesus and the Father are one.