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Sermon: Waiting in Liminal Times

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, June 1, 2014.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A (RCL): Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10; 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

       On this Seventh Sunday of Easter, in the days between the Lord’s Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we remember the disciples gathering in the upper room, waiting for the Spirit to come and transform them and the church around the world.

         I wonder what it was like for the disciples. It’s hard for us to imagine because we have so few details. Yet let’s consider some things that might give us that sense of anticipation, where you know your life will be changed forever, but in ways you that can’t really ever imagine.

         Chrissie and I have seen this kind of anticipation among our family members awaiting their many (many!) births (for we have 13 nieces and nephews, and, so far, six great nieces and nephews. We’ve done aLOT of this kind of waiting!!). You know approximately when the event will happen and you know that things will never, EVER, be the same, but you cannot plan it all out completely because you are not in control.

         If you’ve never had children, maybe you remember a different kind of anticipation. Waiting for your first date! Or going on your first big trip to a faraway place. Looking for your first home. The point is, you must wait; we

all have to wait for some things, and sometimes we wait with great excitement, tinged with a little bit of fear and awe. The kind of waiting that can make your stomach churn. I think this is what the disciples experienced after Jesus ascended and said the Holy Spirit would come.

         Such liminal, or “in between times,” can be particularly daunting to some people, and this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost is a good case in point.

         Even today, there are those who find themselves somewhere between certainty and despair, between hope and fear, between the silence of a Jesus who seems gone and the words of eternal life from a conversant Lord. Yet, though physically gone, Jesus has not stopped speaking to us or caring about us. What he continues to say to us confirms what we know but sometimes have difficulty feeling; it’s what the disciples learned on Pentecost: God’s people are not left alone, a fact that needs to be preached, sung, tasted, and felt, repeatedly. It is powerful grace – grace that can be powerfully realized in the gathered liturgical assembly.       

In the closing words of this final discourse recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus makes it clear that His disciples will be scattered, leaving Him alone. But that He will not be alone. For He lives in constant communion with His Father. And His disciples will not be lost permanently. Jesus will have victory over the world, which they will share with Him, and they will return to be a continuing community of witnesses though which Jesus will be glorified.

         So between his teaching and his death, Jesus prays. He enters into holy work, offering Himself to His Father with all His people, those present and those to come, that glory may come to His Father.

         This is an intimate prayer. When Jesus lifts His eyes upward toward “home” to commune with the One who sent Him, he uses a tender personal greeting, “Father.” The whole prayer is spoken out of the living union which He has had with the Father throughout eternity.

         This is a word and a deed offered up at a particular time and place in the presence of His disciples, but it is also a continuing priestly intercession for all His people for all time.
In this final hour, an hour which has been anticipated throughout Jesus’ ministry, He will share in the glory of God.[1] That glory is always initiated from above. It moves from the Father through the obedience and love of the Son to those who believe in Him, that it may return to the Father. All through Jesus’ earthly ministry the world has seen that glory revealed through His teaching and signs.

         In His incarnation the Son of God has been given authority over all flesh. So He has touched and transformed the common and the earthy – water has been turned into wine, a stormy sea has been quieted, the eyes of a blind man have been opened, and Lazarus was raised from the dead. Through these signs, the acts of power in which the majesty of God has been revealed, the disciples have come to know and trust the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He sent. Verse Three holds a simple definition of faith in the midst of prayer: It is those who know that Jesus has come from God who receive eternal life. They are a gift from the Father to the Son.

         Jesus has finished this work through which the glory of the Father has been revealed. But often it has been seen partially and dimly because the glory has been hidden, veiled in flesh.

         So now Jesus makes a simple request – that the glory which He has had with the Father throughout all eternity might now be revealed in Him directly and openly; that in being broken open on the cross and being raised from the dead, the majesty and splendor of His Father might shine forth in power, not through signs, but in the reality of Himself! And this request is not made for His own sake, but that He might share this glory with His Father and manifest it among His disciples.

         Now these disciples who are with Jesus are drawn into His prayer. They are affirmed and blessed as a people in whom Jesus is glorified, because the Father has called them out of the world and given them to the Son. As Jesus has received and kept them, He has given them the Father’s name and revealed to them the nature of God.

         Jesus has held nothing back. All the things His Father has given Him, the Son has shared with the disciples. As they have received His word and known it is from God, they have believed He was sent by God. As they have come to know Jesus as “Bread from heaven” and “the Light of the world,” the “Water which springs everlasting” and “the Resurrection and the Life,” they have been given His name, “I AM,” Yahweh, the Lord himself!

It is through these men that God in Heaven has chosen to reveal His glory. And it is for the circle of believers, this cleansed and believing “little church,” that Jesus the Lord now prays.

         Jesus prays for himself and for his followers, but not for the world. He has accomplished all he set out to do during his lifetime. Jesus has passed God’s message on. He has made God known. Now there remains only death, and beyond it the glory He renounced to become human. But His followers will be left bereft in a hostile world. So He prays that God will protect them: that their lives may be shaped by the truth of God’s word; that they may display such unity among themselves that the world will be shaken out of its disbelief; and that they may, in the end, go to be with Him and see his glory for themselves.

         He closes his tender farewell by commending them to God, praying both for himself and for them, as he turns away to walk the Way of the Cross alone. Remembrance of his pre-human existence, and its “glory” (v.5), gave him courage. He prayed for his own (v.9), not for the world. He came to save the world, but his special interest--which is seen throughout all the writings attributed to John--was in those who were his and those who were not.

         Today we rejoice that we are Christ’s own, and today (at 9:15 a.m.) we celebrate the adoption of Hannah Theresa Compton into this company of believers. She will be washed with water and marked with the sign of the cross using holy oil to signify that she is baptized by the gift of the Holy Spirit and welcomed into the household of God. We invite Hannah to be forever part of this particular prayer Jesus offers for his own people.

         Today we live not in the same kind of anticipation the disciples did on this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost. We didn’t walk the earth with Jesus, so we don’t have the same sense of loss. Here in the United States, we are not persecuted or hunted as were the followers of Jesus. We don’t have to wonder about the Holy Spirit, whom we invoke regularly. We don’t know everything there is to know, but we do know this: God loves us so much that Jesus came in the world, lived among us, died for us, rose again and then ascended, sending the Holy Spirit so that we might be claimed, named and proclaimed as Christ’s own forever.

         May the purpose to which we all are called, and for the Triune God whom we serve, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, guide and direct us, and guard us and protect us, as we proclaim faith in the incarnation, life and ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension which are all part of the glory of Jesus Christ. Let us witness to that power and share that glory in this time, from this place, in our world.


[1] John 2:4; 4:21, 23; 5:25; 7:30; 8:20