7th Sunday of Easter

May 4, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 68:12-10, 32-35
Reading 3: 
1 Peter 4:12-24, 5:6-11 or Acts 1:6-14
Reading 4: 
John 17:1-11
By Barry A. Woodbridge

Acts 1: 6-14
Empowerment of the Community Minus One

God’s reign will continue post-Jesus’ earthly ministry and pre-culmination of God’s universal plan. The mission of the church is the interim vehicle continuing Jesus presence and work among us. Luke’s Ascension narrative insures there are no insiders who have a gnosis of special eschatological occurrences and time tables.

What is important is that by drawing together for empowerment, the community of the faithful then has what it takes to engage in its global mission. The enumeration of the apostles as one short in verse 13 acknowledges both the real loss of one who fell away, sets the stage for the election of a replacement for Judas, and allows for the acknowledgement of the role of the women as instrumental and functional in the total community of followers in verse 14.

The mission continues as more are added to those who gather and rehearse what Jesus has meant for their mission. What about the missing one who “turned aside to go to his own place” (v. 25)?

Musicians often rehearse with “minus one” CD’s. Those are tracks of accompaniment minus the one soloist, vocal or instrumental, so they can practice their part while hearing the rest of the full arrangement.

 The contemporary church has been called to task in two different ways about “the missing ones.” Sometimes that is to insure that they remain in missing status and at other times that is to ask pastorally “What is our responsibility to them?” For instance, in his papal visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI focused repeatedly on his reassurances that those who had erred morally in their calling would not be tolerated in any way and that measures had been taken to exclude those with unhealthy tendencies from ordination as clergy. Most of us could agree that such measures are necessary to protect the church from predatory malpractice.

The other question is: what is the ministry to a Judas? …to those who began the good work and undertook the good fight for legitimate faith but fell prey to one form or another of sidetracking moral disintegration? We recruit to make up their numbers, but what is to be said of the redemptive work of their church toward the missing ones? Is that not also a part of the global, redemptive work of the church? Perhaps in dealing with today’s Ascension narrative and the formation/mission/empowerment of Christian community is a good time to ask these kinds of questions.

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
The Psalter may be heard today as assurance for the promises in the each of the other three lections. Life lived in radical dependence on God will be cause for joy in the face of enemies, evil, and other circumstances in which our calling seems to be outnumbered or overpowered. If in 1 Peter 5, we are to resist evil, Yahweh has already been actively and successfully engaged in that, driving away opposition by protecting the weaker and disempowered (v. 5). Yahweh redefines sufficiency and sovereignty as protective power who leads us out of the wastelands where evil would otherwise overwhelm us. To recognize this sovereignty and live in dependence on it provides “power and strength” (v. 35) sufficient to live against overwhelming odds.

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11|
Training for Elders: How Do We Prepare for Evil, Personally and Systemically?

The epistle lection comes in the context of an exhortation to the elders from 1 Peter 4:1 ff. Exhorted in advance warnings that nothing like a “fiery ordeal” should be considered strange in the times in which the church lives, elders are encouraged to transform sufferings with rejoicing and shouting for glory.

Although the eschatological reference has different possible antecedents, one may also recall the more original fiery ordeal of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. They were accompanied, protected, and comforted by another strange presence with them (Daniel 3:25). In this text, there is similar consolation for those who are tried and tortured for their faith.

I recall at an early age hearing from a friend’s mother that “the Bible teaches the whole world will be burnt up.” I had never read such scripture and was quite anxious at the prospect of this. As I recall, she read this and other apocalyptic texts as proof texts that everything would be consumed by fire. Even in my theological infancy, I was skeptical because I think I already sensed that such holocaust would contradict what was spoken of the goodness of creation!

In 1 Peter 5: 6-8, there is an exhortation to humility, discipline, and resistance of evil. Here the form of oppression is no longer fire but a roaring lion. The lion has a rich life in biblical imagery, from the fierce, protective power of Yahweh as a lion of Judah to a the contained threat to Daniel in the den of lions (Daniel 6:16,22).

This image appears as a statement of the seriousness of the power of evil. Here is a place process informed interpreters may be especially helpful in dealing with this text. Too many times in post-modern Christianity the power of evil is relegated to the myth of those who either anthropomorphize it, minimize it, or make personified evil into a near dualism with God.

We could do well to take this text seriously as a statement that evil does not disappear by redefining or ignoring it. The Christian is to take the efficacy of temptation and evil seriously enough to prepare to take a disciplined stand against it. Today this so often occurs in social justice issues against systemic evil. Is there a more personal side to the encounter with evil characterized as lurking, dangerous, and predatory? Process thought has emphasized more the former than the later, but there is cause to see evil as also a lure toward entropy and devaluing that can engage and weaken the will to respond to God’s initial aims. Then, one does not “become evil” as much as one acts on evil.

The epistle lesson cautions that the threat of evil requires advance disciplined preparation to identify and resist it, especially among the leadership of the church. What kinds of danger signals, of alert responses, of tactical preparation are significant for the church today? As a community of faith, do we define some of those and post them for general awareness? Humility seems to be the starting point. If a humble heart before God would help protect us, then a lack of humility may be the exposed area of personal and corporate integrity that invites and allows the growth of temptation that erodes our faith by the increasing influence by evil, be that in moral failure, in magical thinking about the invisibility of personal conduct lacking integrity, or in tendencies towards lavish grandiosity exempt from public scrutiny.

Practical Application:
This text may provide the opportunity to lift up and teach what sense it makes to acknowledge the massive destructiveness of evil that can transcend our limited categories of “personal” and “systemic.” Some may want to create a progressive Christian’s checklist of what to look for and what steps to take, not to embark on an equally dangerous witch hunt, but to be vigilant protectors for each other, ready to intervene with caring assistance whenever anyone can own their vulnerability to something so destructive of their wholeness.

(For an introductory exposition of evil in process theology, see selections in Cobb, John B. Jr., and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976. For more sustained treatments of evil in process theology, see Marjorie Suchocki, The End of Evil: Process Eschatology in Historical Context. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988 and  David Ray Griffin Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations. New York: NYSU, 1991.)

John 17:1-11
Jesus’ Farewell Prayer: Lessons in How to Pray and in Prayerful Demarcation

John’s gospel moves from the farewell meal (John 13) to Jesus’ farewell discourse (last week’s lection in John 14) to Jesus’ farewell prayer of blessing.

This prayer is not in the genre of the last prayer of a dying man. The entire prayer must be understood within John’s context of what time it is -- “the hour has come”(v. 1); yet, there is no sense of desperation.

Jesus adjusts his posture to announce a change of intent and audience. Whereas he has been speaking words of comfort and encouragement to the disciples (“take courage; I have overcome the world” 16:33), now he “looked up to heaven” and addressed God. Jesus intentionally refocuses on God as the one he will address.

Jesus’ farewell prayer models an intimacy with God characteristic of genuine Christian prayer. We, like the disciples and original readers, “overhear” Jesus’ prayer to God. It is not addressed to us. It is intimate communicating with God. Yet, there is trust in God combined with a love and abiding concern for the disciples and the future of that community that demonstrates deep intercessory prayer. Therefore, we would do well to listen closely, as we do to the Lord’s Prayer, as both blessed recipients and as those who would learn to pray.

We hear that the future of discipleship is not totally dependent on the actions of the community but on the efficacy of God. There is no intercession for right strategy, right planning, or right execution. There is instead a request for God’s protection (vv. 11 and15) and fulfillment of God’s purpose. God’s plan has led to the present hour, and God’s plan will continue to guide and direct the future work of the community.

Woven into this intense prayer, comes a disclaimer or a demarcation that should give us pause. The entire prayer has been surrounded by John’s sense of Jesus’ coming into the world (cosmos), the world knowing him not (from 1:10), and the disciplines being sent into the cosmos. Verse 9 receives different inflections in different translations:

“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world.” (NRSV)
“I pray for them, I am not praying for the world.” (NIV)

I always try to learn from the way the church’s leaders pray during worship. Recently, I heard a women offer a beautiful global intercessory prayer and seemingly recall toward the end that she had neglected to include “our enemies.” So she added something like “And please bring those who oppose peace to a change where they too will embrace peace.” But what she did NOT pray, nor have I heard anyone else ever pray, was a demarcation that “And by that I do not mean Hamas, Al-Qaeda, or other international terrorist groups.”

John’s having Jesus carefully demarcate “the world” as being specifically excluded from his intercession should sound like a disjunction from our belief that it is always a case of God and the world, not God or the world (see John B. Cobb, God and the World).

How should we preach this prayer in John’s gospel as a model for Christian prayer? Commentators have tried to lessen the abruptness of this phrase by suggesting that the “kosmos” in John’s vocabulary certainly does not mean “world” or “creation” but already means that which is at enmity with God and therefore it is precluded from the outset as the object of prayer (see Gail R. O’Day’s discussion of this in “The Gospel of John,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. X [Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995] 792).

None of those distinctions seem to mitigate the problem sufficiently from a process perspective. We could understand that Jesus focuses this particular intercession on the protection and empowerment specifically of those who have already responded to his call. That is a legitimate emphasis John can underscore. We also can see that Jesus’ prayer goes on to include those in the world who may yet come to believe God has sent him (v. 22). That is also a helpful perspective on verse 9.

The broader question is: Is there ever a time when some group or some aspect of reality should be purposely excluded from our prayers? Is there that which is beyond the hope of prayer? Certainly not. Teaching this about prayer could safe-guard us collectively from that kind of knee jerk reaction to terrorist events as unquestionably beyond negotiation or even conversation, let alone constructive prayer. (At the time of this writing former President Jimmy Carter is under attack in the press for acting on his conviction that sitting down to listen to Hamas leaders is an appropriate form of diplomacy. The argument against that is that there are simply those we do not acknowledge. Do we also not acknowledge them as a subject of God’s guidance and divine love?)

We do best then to offer John’s version of Jesus’ farewell prayer as a narrated prayer. That interlinear narration has already occurred in verse 3 where there is what appears to be a didactic editorial comment on what the phrase “eternal life” means. (“And this is what eternal life, that they may know you, the only eternal God.)  Did God actually require such definition in this intimate prayer, or was that interpretation added for those who held a later diversity about its meaning?

Practical Applications
1. Preaching this text, and sorting out the intimate connection with God and the heartfelt love and blessing on the community from the narration surrounding it, can be a time to clarify the meaning of prayer. Does God, as the intended recipient addressed in many of our public prayers, require all the narrated detail we often supply mainly as a way of communicating personal details to one another? Is it necessary for God’s benefit to include in prayer the name of the medical tests being performed on the person we are interceding for, or the length of days necessary to find the results?

2. Perhaps there is one other habit of prayer that may be addressed while dealing with Jesus’ prayer. John uses the familiar address of God as “Father,” no fewer than six times in this prayer. In those six occurrences, “Father” is either a noun of proper address or a noun of apposition. It is separated by lengthy and weighty matters of concern. What it is not is a comma. We might highlight this fact, because although every sincere prayer offered is absolutely better than no prayer at all, and we always want to encourage people to pray in whatever conversational language is natural to them, in some communities there seems to be an unspoken tradition that the greater the number of uses “Father” in verbal prayer, the more faithful or effectual the prayer! “Father” replaces the use of a comma as a brief pause before continuing. The same thing happens by interjecting the adverb “just”, as in “We just want to pray, Father, that if only he just can continue in your way, you will just make that clear to him.” Does “just” mean “only,” “simply,” “very,” “quite,” “barely,” or “immediately”? If we are using John 17 as a lesson in overhearing prayer, perhaps we could find some kindly pastoral manner of teaching that it is not necessary to repeat one word or phrase too often unless one is intentionally engaged in a mantra prayer.