... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Easter 7 Year B, Message May 20th, 2012

The Pattern for True Discipleship

Text: John 17:6-19

Having just celebrated the principal feast day of the Ascension of our Lord we find the lectionary readings start to focus on what it means to be disciples as part of a Christian Community set apart from the world in a new kingdom, but yet still firmly grounded in the present world. From the accounts of Matthias’ election to take the place of Judas Iscariot to Jesus’ high-priestly prayer concerning the welfare of the small band of apostles, the readings begin to shape what it means to be a follower of Christ in the post resurrection and post ascension era.

While Matthias’ being numbered among the apostles seems to be the object of Luke’s story the real impact comes from the description of the qualifications – a devout follower, one who knew Jesus and one who would faithfully witness to the resurrection. Two qualified men were proposed, Justus and Matthias, but only one could be chosen. The chosen was Matthias. Yet in history both have become immortalized: the process of election having become the validation of those chosen for leadership roles within the Church.

The Psalm presents an overview of the entire Psalter and functions to direct our reflections as to the proper manner concerning true and faithful praise to God, unreserved acceptance of God’s love toward us and our response through an admonition to living life according to the moral design which God has intended for the world.

Whereas the closing of John’s first letter concerns the importance of credibility and the criteria which must be used to weigh which words and deeds are true over against which are false, the Gospel reading is a general directive of what it is to be part of the new world order and yet still grounded and present in the old. Jesus’ prayer is situated in the Last Supper section of John’s Gospel and even though it is a prayer directed to the Father it is spoken in the presence of his disciples. As such it marks the transition of leadership and responsibility for God’s mission in the world from Jesus to his disciples and by extension to the Church in every generation. In this respect Jesus has four petitions for the new community’s life: protection, unity, peace and mission.

The primary petition for which Jesus prays so fervently is that the community be protected from the evil one. He acknowledges that this small band of followers is no longer of the world but must still live in it. Despite the gnostic genre of the passage, Jesus’ prayer concerns the life and lifestyle of the people. The world or rather the communities of the world are corrupt due to the evil which pervades it. Despite this generalized sea of corruption there exists a small band of followers whom Jesus has taught and for whom he wishes protection as they are left behind to carry on the world. They have become a unique enclave and are at risk from the forces which would incline them to the following of what the rest consider to be the ideal way.

As we contemplate this first petition there indeed strikes as the allure of being apart from the rest of the world: of being separated from the cares of the day, from being bombarded with the ongoing necessities of life. Indeed we all wish at times to escape to have the world stop so that we might get off for a while. Throughout history faith filled people have experienced the same feelings and many have sought escape through such arrangements as monasteries, convents, reform movements retreat centers and so on. Yet that is not what Jesus wished. This new community of disciples was to be in the world doing God’s work even while being bombarded with the pressures of the world. Jesus even asked God that they not be taken out of the world. It was for their protection that he prayed: Protection and Strength.

The second plea Jesus offers up is one directly leading from the former: In order for Protection and Strength to be of any value to the Christian community they had to be unified in their approach to the new life and mission. Fragmentation, disputes, squabbles; division would, are and always will be the way to defeat and failure. Jesus knew this and he knew that if the disciples were to have any measure of success in their mission, they would need the unity of purpose. Time and time again history has witnessed to the truism – divide and conquer. The only defense to this is a solid unity of purpose and direction. It was true for Peter James John and the others. It was true for those who faced the persecutions, the inquisitions, the reformers. And it is true for the Church today. And in many ways it is probably more important today than in previous times as the world confronts us not with open opposition but rather with seductive entities and allures. Such is the manner of what the modern Church faces in the world. It is no longer an attack from without but rather subversion from within. Discipleship calls us to be unified and in the like mind of Christ in God’s mission. The problem of determining this is in many ways the same problem addressed by the author of 1 John. Herein was the dilemma: to ascertain that which is the true word from that which is the fake.

Jesus’ third request is actually quite astounding. Having asked for the community’s protection and source of strength in unity, he now asks that his own joy be fulfilled within the community. What was his joy and what exactly was it that he wished of the community? Perhaps the best understanding of this joy is to be explained in Jesus’ ardent desire that the disciples be in the same relationship one to another and with himself as he experienced with the Father. Joy is no longer the happy smiles and warm hugs of our English envisioning of the Word. Instead the ‘joy’ to which Jesus refers becomes the peace and serenity amidst the strife and turmoil which Jesus would experience in his Passion and which many of the Saints would find in their lives. It is the joy which comes from the knowledge and assurance of God’s power and God’s mission being fulfilled. It is the peace which quietens the mind and body of the ravages of anxiety and fear. It is the harmony which enables one to be a witness to God in and through Christ Jesus. The way to this joy was often spoken of by Jesus. However in today’s lectionary it is most interestingly attested to by Psalm 1, the introduction to the whole Psalter. It is a song of praise which provides an avenue for our pondering God’s gifts to us for expressing our acceptance of God’s love and for living life according to the moral designs that God has always intended for the world.

Unfortunately many have taken the Psalm as a literalist interpretation of how to live life. The problem with this is that it too often leads to strict codes wherein the relationship with God is the end result rather than the starting point.

It is only when the relationship with God is seen as the starting point that Jesus’ fourth request can be fulfilled. That wish was for the community to fulfill God’s mission in the world. As the community was to be distinct from the world and yet still in it – the mission was to be the counter; the conscience; the alternative; to the present world order. The mission of the Church has always been and will ever be the voice of correction to all that tends to corrupt all that evolves to evil and all that takes us away from God.

May Jesus’ prayer to the father be fulfilled in us as individuals as Church and as Community.