We live our lives much with the same sense as the disciples’ lives were lived between the Ascension and Pentecost, in between. But in this meantime, our truth is that Jesus is with us in the Spirit, even while praying for us to God.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Seventh Sunday of Easter, year C; texts: John 17:20-26; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Now what do we do? What do we do now that Jesus is gone again?
Our celebration of Jesus’ ascension was Thursday, and now it’s Sunday, and Jesus is gone. Also, in these 18 days we’ll celebrate half of the Church’s six major festivals, but this Sunday isn’t one of them. Pentecost and Holy Trinity are the next two weeks, not today. So today we’re between festivals, Jesus is gone, and this is the last Sunday of Easter this year, the last day of Easter paraments, the last day we conclude our liturgy with “Christ is risen, indeed, Alleluia!” When this run is over, it’s back to normal. And what are we supposed to do?
Of course, we’re aware that even though we celebrated Easter six weeks and seven Sundays ago, Jesus really wasn’t raised again, that happened long ago. But that’s the funny thing about the Church Year. By celebrating each year the events of Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection, we almost forget that it happened 2,000 years ago and we live as if it were still happening. In fact, our liturgical life is meant to help us live these events anew each year. So on Christmas we’re filled with joy, we’re taken back in time and find ourselves wondering at the side of a manger and a little baby. And even though we know what happens on Easter, living the liturgies of Holy Week does bring us through the pain and sadness of our Lord and of the disciples, if even second-hand. So when we sing Alleluia for the first time at the Easter Vigil, there is a very real sense that it is as if we are hearing the good news for the first time: he is risen! He is risen, indeed!
And that makes this Sunday in many ways a hard Sunday for us, just as it must have been for the disciples. Having Jesus back after his terrible death was thrilling for them, but now 40 days later they had to say goodbye again. On this Sunday 2,000 years ago he had been gone for three days, and they were still a week from Pentecost. Just as we are.
It’s funny that the times we can easily identify with the feelings of the disciples are the difficult times, such as in the times they were dealing with the absence of Jesus. Their reality after the Ascension is our reality every day of our lives: Christ Jesus is in heaven with the Father, and we wonder what we’re to do, how we’re to live, how we’re to know what Jesus would say to us. Or if he is there at all.
A major issue in our lives is what do we do when we feel that God is absent.
It’s a struggle people often have with great tragedies or disasters. Where is God here? Why isn’t God doing something?
But the truth is that we struggle so often with knowing where God is even in our daily lives. I can stand up here and say, “God is with you always,” and you might believe it. Sometimes. But in the dark night of the soul, in the pain of everyday living, in the sadness of depression, in the fear of a frightening world, in the struggle of poverty, in the emptiness of modern materialism, it is awfully hard sometimes to know where God is. Too many times for too many of us there is just an empty wall we face in prayer and then the wondering begins: Is God really there? Is Christ Jesus, who is supposed to be God-with-us, real for me, or just wishful thinking?
So again, what do we do now? How do we go on in this time of Christ’s apparent absence?
Well, we have a gift from John the evangelist. John’s Gospel, more than the others, spends a lot of time on the goodbyes Jesus gives the disciples.
We’ve been hearing from some of these in the Gospel readings for this Easter season. For five chapters, from 13 to 17, Jesus is saying goodbye to the disciples. All these words take place in John’s Gospel the night of Jesus’ betrayal, before his death. But for we who are Easter people (and this is likely why these words were assigned to our Easter weeks), we hear these words most helpfully as we deal with his absence after he ascended to the Father.
And what Jesus tells the disciples and us is that he is going away, but that he will still be with us. And that we have work to do in the meantime.
So on Second Easter he gave us the gift of peace, and said “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)
On the Third Sunday of Easter he said, “If you love me, feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17)
Then on Fourth Easter we heard him say that all who are his sheep know his voice, and none can be taken from his hand. (John 10:27-28)
On the Fifth Sunday of Easter he told us that while he will be with us only a little longer, he is giving us a new commandment, that we love one another as he loved us. (John 13:33-34)
And then in words spoken in the chapters between that word and today’s Gospel, he promises several things: “I’m going to prepare a place for you,” he says, “in my Father’s house.” (John 14:1, 3) “I won’t leave you orphaned, I am coming to you,” he says. (John 14:18) “I will send you an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to teach you and be with you and give you peace,” he says. (John 14:25-27) And he tells us it is to our advantage that he leaves us, otherwise the Advocate, the Spirit, will not be able to come to us. (John 16:11)
In all these last words, these farewells, Jesus is saying some very important things about his absence. First, that he is not leaving us alone: he is sending the Spirit of God to us to be with us and guide us and strengthen us. Second, that we are sent as he was sent, to be the love of God in the world. And third, that he is coming again at the end of all days to take us with him. We also heard that from the Revelation today: Jesus said, “Surely I am coming soon!”
So this is where we are on this day between days, in our lives lived in the meantime: we are not alone, and we have much to do.
The promise of the Advocate, the Spirit actually is better than we could have hoped. Christ Jesus leaves because he has things to do for us and the world: a place to prepare for us, sheep that are not of this flock that he has to find. And as for us, one resurrected man could not be with all people at all times, but the Holy Spirit can fill each of our hearts and be with us.
And even better for us, today Jesus prays to the Father for us, and Scripture tells us that Christ’s prayer continues for us even now. Christ Jesus returns to the Father so he can continue to speak for us. He prays continually that we become one as his children. Prays that we do not feel alone. Prays that we stay in faith and continue to love each other. Prays that we share an intimacy with the Father that he has. He knows the pain we feel, the sense that we sometimes don’t know where God is. He’s been there with us. And so he prays for us.
And all this is to strengthen us for the mission we are given, to be the anointed ones of God bringing Christ’s resurrection love to the world. Sometimes it’s like we don’t really pay attention when Jesus says things like, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Or when we hear, as we will in a week, Luke tell us that the same Spirit which filled Jesus for his ministry now fills the Church to overpouring? We have the love of Christ to share, the forgiveness of Jesus to offer, and the work of God’s healing of the nations to undergo. We are not alone, and we are given this gift of the Spirit so that we can become who we were meant to be.
And as we say farewell to this season of Easter, we welcome the new life in the Spirit that the season of Pentecost will show us.
So, in the meantime, what are we to do now?
Well, we can live in love with each other and God as Jesus asked. We can realize that we are sent to do the work of God in the world and we can pray that the Spirit give us the strength to do this.
When we eat and drink the Meal of his body and blood we are united with our Lord in the deepest way. When we gather as the body of Christ we see our Lord in the most profound way we can. And when together the Spirit sends us out to be Christ in the world, we are the presence of God in a world that desperately wonders where God is.
It turns out that for Jesus, goodbye is only for a very short time. He is here, for he is risen, just as he said. And he will be with us and the world always, until the end of the age, until this resurrection life fills all God’s creation.
In the name of Jesus. Amen