They have kept your word – will we?

A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Readings: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 6; John 17:1-11]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Last Thursday, we had the service in remembrance of the Ascension of Jesus – or as one wag has put it in the current COVID-19 context, the time when Jesus chose to work from home. Next Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost recalling when the promised Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus. That will then bring to an end this year’s Easter season which started on Ash Wednesday, continued through Palm Sunday and Holy Week including the Last Supper, followed by the Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus. Then, after the awesome silence of Holy Saturday, came the Resurrection and later the Ascension followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Which of these Paschal milestones is the climax for you each year in your reflections upon the Easter message? For me it has undoubtedly been the Resurrection, with Ascension and Pentecost, important though they are for our theology, nevertheless being somewhat anticlimactic. Three of the writers of the canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, seem to have been of the same view in terms of how much text they devoted to the Easter milestones.

Our Gospel reading from John today strongly suggests, however, that John had a somewhat different perspective. Not that he hadn’t appreciated the significance of the Resurrection; in fact, he devoted a similar number of verses to the period from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Resurrection as did both Mark and Luke, though less than Matthew. Today’s reading, however, is part of a segment of John’s narrative that is significantly different from the other three gospels. If we consider the time from the moment at the Last Supper when, as John put it:

After receiving the piece of bread, Judas immediately went out. And it was night. [13:30]

Until the end of the meal which concluded with hymn singing before they departed to the Garden of Gethsemane, we find something very interesting. This period of time had no  interest for Matthew, Mark or Luke; for each devoted only but a handful of verses to it. John, however, wrote at great length about this period – an amazing 124 verses – almost equal to his writing about all the events that followed up to the end of his gospel which, as we recall, ended with:

But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. [John 21:25]

Why did John ignore that vast corpus of Jesus’ deeds and yet pay so much attention to a period of time which could not have been more than a couple of hours? At the very least John’s emphatic treatment of those hours deserves our attention. His narrative starts, in chapters 14-16, with what has been called the Farewell Discourses, a kind of Valedictory speech by Jesus. The text then moves to chapter 17, of which we read the first ten verses today, which has been referred to variously as The Prayer of Jesus or, more grandly, the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. C H Dodd, in his book The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel,[1] said of this prayer that:

It is the climax of the thought of the whole gospel.

The reading starts:

After Jesus had spoken these words. [v1]

Those words being his assurance to the disciples that:

In the world you face persecution but take courage; I have conquered the world! [16:33]

Then, according to John, Jesus turned his attention away from the disciples and, given that it was only John who recorded what followed, it is possible that most of those present returned to talking amongst themselves – why else would it not be written about in the other gospels? Jesus turned to God and commenced a prayer, a monologue which John had chosen to overhear. His text, written many decades later, indicated that the moment must have struck him with great intensity for his record was no ordinary memory of the event; it was of the nature of those memories which emblazon themselves on us much more than the never-ending parade of ongoing, even if important, run of events that occur in our daily lives.

We all have such memories, those especial moments where for some reason every detail is recalled. Sometimes those moments arise from great beauty, such as when Goethe’s Faust said:

When, to the Moment then, I say: ‘Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!’

At other times, they arise from deep trauma becoming memories which haunt through flashbacks, frequently trawling back with vivid horror that which had taken place.

I imagine John’s recall of those two or so hours after the Last Supper started first from the trauma of what happened in the following twenty-four hours and then transcended to divine beauty after the Resurrection. Whatever the case, we can be so appreciative that John remembered Jesus’ prayer so well. Listen to these words that our Lord said:

Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you, Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. [v11]

Wonderfully reassuring words that the Resurrection brought hope to all humanity. However, CH Dodd read more into those words and the prayer from which they came; in his opinion the prayer was a:

… spiritual ascent to God which is the inward reality of all true prayer.[2]

In other words, there after the washing of the disciples’ feet and the celebration of the first Eucharist, Jesus had given his valedictory speech as God made man, and then had, in the words of this prayer, spiritually ascended to be one with the Father.

If we look at that moment in such a way, we may find something even more significant. In those couple of hours two thousand years ago, Jesus, as God made  man, had farewelled his disciples with whom he had been at one; and in a sacred moment with the Father, he had spiritually ascended to be at one with him. Then and there, Time and timeless Eternity met; a reminder that Eternity does not await us, it surrounds us and, in moments of transcendence, we can all be touched by it. Taking this view we may better understand Jesus’ words:

They were yours and you gave them to me and they have kept your word. [v6]

Think how those words must have seemed to John when he first heard them spoken. ‘Kept your word’? Past tense. How had John kept Jesus’ word up to that point? In a normal sense of time past, John could not have felt that he had kept Jesus’ word. Sure, he had followed Jesus for three years by then, done his bidding but that hardly amounted to a profound keeping of Jesus’ word. However, by the time John would be an old man, with all the faithfulness he would show after the Resurrection, he would come to understand what Jesus had meant that night – Jesus had made an observation beyond the tenses of time and already knew just how much John would ultimately keep Jesus’ word. 

That Easter season two millenia ago, John had seen the foundations of the old normal in which he had lived rocked to its core. He had grown up in a world seething in discontent and desperate for change; and along had come this unusual man who attracted followers. He had joined his movement and over the next three years saw its emotional force gain in strength and expectation. It had reached a crescendo of hosannas on that previous Sunday; but then the days following became deeply disturbing; nothing seemed quite to be working out as he might have expected. That very evening, Jesus had cast aside everything normal – he had washed their feet and then he had blasphemed the Passover meal by talking about them consuming his own body and blood. Left shell-shocked by all this, the disciples had talked amongst themselves but he, John, had listened; transfixed, he watched Jesus praying and he encountered a new normal, of which he would write again in Revelation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth … God himself will be with [his people] and will be their God. [Rev 21:1,3-4]

This, for us two thousand years later, becomes the real significance of Jesus’ prayer that night. We will always be separated in time from that evening in the Upper Room, but we are never apart from God who is beyond time, and so these words Jesus said that night offer reference as much to us as to his disciples:

They were yours and you gave them to me and they have kept your word. [v6]

How may we keep his word? We live in strange times, the old normal has proved so fragile yet we yearn for the return of the familiar. John Lennox, in his book Where is God in a coronavirus world? wrote:

Christians need to remember about eternity. The early Christians, living as they did in a dangerous world where they were surrounded by all kinds of threats and where life expectancy was relatively short, were given strength to live as sacrificially as they did, contributing so much to the well-being of others, by the fact that they had a real and living hope that went beyond the grave.[3]

As we tentatively think about coming from under the shadow of COVID-19, let’s not simply seek a return to an old normal but take the opportunity to consider how in the wake of all that the whole world has been going through in this pandemic, it may be said of us that we kept Jesus’ word.

[1] C H Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, Cambridge, 1953, p420.

[2] Op.cit. p.419

[3] JC Lennox, Where is God in a coronavirus world? The Goodbook Company, 2020, p58.