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The Rev. Michael Sullivan The Rev. Michael Sullivan
The Rev. Michael Sullivan is rector of Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church in Atlanta, GA, and the author of two books.

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The Episcopal Church

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Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA


An Out-of-Order Lesson Calling Us to a New Day

John 17:1-11

7th Sunday of Easter/ Ascension Sunday - Year A

June 05, 2011

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

For those of us who celebrate the liturgical year, this week brings us the seventh Sunday of Easter. During these Great Fifty Days, we've been celebrating the risen Lord taking Christ's light to the world and extending his kingdom through resurrected hope.

So, why this lesson from John's Gospel today? It's out of order. Jesus is praying the High Priestly Prayer, before his crucifixion. There's not a single reference to the resurrection here. Not one.

So is this just a kind of lectionary amnesia, scriptural memory lapse, or is something deeper at play here?

The point of this out-of-order Gospel? Well, the point is that Jesus was serious when he called you and me. We know that call is paramount to discipleship; we fill our churches with all kinds of programs and curricula to help us identify, understand, and respond to God's call.

But over the last 14 years of my life in the church, the conversation about call has changed. And the conversation most of us are having is not pretty. This less than attractive discussion begins with a survey of the American religious landscape. Statistics from the Pew Charitable Trust, Gallup Poll, or Hartford Seminary tell us many things about the Church, things we don't want to hear. For these think tanks tell us that the call is no longer experienced by a majority of Americans. 

Fewer and fewer people have any affiliation with a community of faith, and mainline denominations are shrinking at a rate that calls the future of these churches into question, all of them accounting for less than 20% of the population.

Worse yet, these gurus tell us no one is getting it right. Evangelicals bring people in the doors in record numbers only to watch them leave in record numbers, faster than their mainline counterparts. The stats are hard to hear. The picture they paint is not affirming.

But what these studies actually tell us is less about the death of the church and more about the future of it.

I'm sure when the disciples heard the High Priestly prayer they turned to one another thinking this is not what we signed up for, this is not why I left my nets upon the shore, this is not why I have left my family. Hearing Jesus' words, accepting that the difficult hour had come, those were not words of comfort but words of change, accompanied by the fearful unknown.

The beauty of this out-of -order Gospel proclaiming the cross in the midst of our season of resurrection, the beauty comes raging right back into our lives, right back into our calls when we hear Christ's words once again.

If we merely heard this prayer before Good Friday, we might mistakenly hear it for that day alone, for that appointed time. But on this side of the prayer, on this after-Easter day when we go back and listen once again, we hear the whole prayer and realize that what starts as Christ's obedience to change ushers in our obedience to change.

The point of Jesus' plea today is not his obedience to the past; the point is Jesus' obedience for our future. This is not merely a prayer that Jesus throws up into the heavens so that his work on the cross might be fulfilled. No, this prayer, heard on this side of Easter, is a prayer for you and me, for the Church, that we might realize the faith Christ has in us, the faith Christ has in our call.

We may have faltered. We may have made every conceivable mistake at being one as Jesus and the Father are one.  We may have so messed up that indeed the world begins to see us only as a hierarchical assembly of dressed up, religiously educated out-of-touch holy rollers. We may indeed be just as the news describes us.

OR

In this moment, that is seemingly out of order, we might hear the Pew Charitable Trust, the Gallup Poll, Hartford Seminary, and any other study out there for what they really say about us, and in that moment also hear Christ's praying for us. 

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

The disciples, indeed, had no idea what was really happening when Jesus prayed this prayer the first time. But brothers and sisters, we do. We know the whole the story, and we get to hear Christ's hope, Christ's call, Christ's obedience to us on this side of the cross and the empty tomb.

Thanks be to God for this out-of-order prayer. Thanks be to God that Jesus is still praying for us. And thanks be to God for those who hold us accountable. May we hear all their voices, and once again, accept our call.

Let us pray. Gracious and loving God, through your Son Jesus Christ you still pray for us. Help us to hear that prayer, and in all that we do and all that we say, may your Church begin to live a life based in your prayer for us that being formed in your image we may continue to be the people you called us to be from the foundations of the earth. Amen.


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