This passage is the gospel assigned for the 7th Sunday of Easter. In this excerpt, the writer offers us a word for word transcript of a prayer that he has somehow overheard Jesus praying. Jesus is here talking to His Heavenly Father, quite intimately reflecting on his mission. You might say that he is offering God a kind of exit interview. He explains that he understands his mission as that of making God's name known to these few who have been pulled out from the rest of the world. These are the few who would "get it." Oh right, and there was that one who was destined to be lost--speaking of Judas. The rest--well Jesus is asking the Holy Father to guard them from the Evil One and protect them--set them aside-- keep them untainted.
Now, let me confess that I have been wrestling with this passage of scripture for 40 years and it won't let me go! This is the view of Jesus' followers that I grew up with as a conservative Lutheran. I remember memorizing this whole prayer of Jesus' in the King James translation. I said these phrases over and over until they started to stick--they felt like a commissioning that I wanted to receive from God, personally. I was eager to be able to report to God that I'd done exactly as God had asked of me--secretly hoping to be a pastor as good as my father was. Finally, I got it--I could recite this whole prayer, word for word and with conviction. I mean, it felt like I was carrying my mission around in my heart --ready always to give a reason for the ministry hope that lay within me. Right. I also felt that memorizing this prayer of John's was somehow like hanging a sacred amulet around my neck. It would keep me safe from heresy. It would set me apart from those not so holy--I meant the heretics and Catholics and Episcopalians and the like! I felt like my purity of intention would earn me a place as one of God's holy ones. Surely, I would earn God's pronouncement--"This is my Beloved Thomas with whom I am well pleased."
Then, ten years later, a really disturbing thing happened to me. It tore at this confidence-- this sure calling that I felt in my heart. It subverted all of this exactness and these absolutes --it turned them upside down. Like startling awake from a nightmare, this disturbance forced me to reconsider this passage and my smugness. What was that disturbing moment in my life? What could so easily turn this passage upside down for me, especially after I'd memorized it--bound it on my forehead, so to say, and burned it into my consciousness for weeks on end? Here it is: I read the books of Luke and Acts from beginning to end in one day. What?! (You're asking) . . . what are you saying? That's it?! You're kidding us! Right? No. You heard me right--I read from Luke chapter 1 through Acts 28 in one sitting. In fact, after the first time, I had to do it twice more and in the same day! I'd never explored both books as a two-volume record, but in this reading, Jesus' life and ministry came through so differently than John's very digested perspective. This record of Jesus' ministry felt like the story of a different person and even the start of a very different church than I'd grown up with!
From my first readings, Luke seemed to describe a wobbly sect of Judaism that tried its best to follow this upstart Rabbi--or at least they tried to follow the spirit of what he was saying and doing while he was with them. They waited for Jesus' return because he said he was coming back, right? Then, when it was the Spirit instead--the "Breath"--that came upon them, they adjusted their plans and even their worldview! That same story reads ever so differently, especially when both books are linked end to end.
For example, in the record of Acts--actually by chapter 9--one of those from what John calls a "hateful world" is converted. I mean, you thought Judas was bad--a follower who took a wrong turn--this one called Saul of Tarsus was decimating the early Jesus movement! Here is a man so evil that John might well have had Jesus praying for the church's protection from him alone. But! This one, so feared and despised, is eventually accepted as a second generation apostle and given the name, "Paul."
And then by Chapter 10, the Spirit is publicly twisting the Jewish sensibilities by baptizing Gentiles--you heard me--Outcasts in the Jewish Tradition--those who were not considered to be people of God. Prior to this, a Jewish leper was afforded more privilege and respect than a Gentile--a heathen--an unclean one. OK, now we're talking. This whole venture seems to be going off track! In fact, by the end of Acts, in Chapter 28, we even have the Apostle Paul telling his Jewish peers that the Good News of the Reign of God was to be given away to the Gentiles--the unclean ones!
Today's Gospel reading is a view of Jesus' ministry that stands in sharp contrast to the Luke-Acts record, in a particular way. John is portraying Jesus' true followers as being the ones who both know Jesus' name and keep his words. They are vulnerable in their particular other worldliness, especially as they are sent into a world that hates them.
But this Luke-Acts continuum is really the story about the ways of the Spirit, now isn't it?! And surely the Spirit knows the rules--I mean, the early followers of Jesus knew that this was a Rabbi--the one they called Lord. They understood this to be a Jewish movement--certainly not a Gentile-friendly initiative. Jesus did offer appropriate charity, though as far as they could tell, he wasn't about to make this a Gentile movement. And yet ... the Spirit keeps going out ahead and healing in the Luke-Acts record, restoring and inspiring non-Jews--even the unorthodox and unclean ones--certainly not what John seems to describe in our reading for this morning! In this record of the Spirit's initiatives, there seems to be little of John's concern for the faith once delivered to their saints--a faith concerned with its sources, its purity and its orthodoxy.
Instead, the pattern seemed to go something like this. One of this motley crew--I mean Jesus' post-resurrection followers--would have had a dream or some kind of breakthrough revelation. They'd come together to follow the clues and they'd come across a person or a gathering that has just witnessed a miracle or had some kind of conversion experience. These new folks were often quite unlike the Jesus Followers, but they'd inevitably come to respect what was going on. They had to honor the love, joy, the peace and patience and kindness, the generosity, the faithfulness, the gentleness, and self-control that they found present because, well, we've always known those could only come from God. I mean, that's an Evidence List you just can't fake, right? They'd be working through all the logical criteria--"Did they get this faith through an acceptable source?" "Were they using Jesus' name appropriately?" "Were they baptized by one with authority to baptize?" "Did they demonstrate a proper respect for the traditions?" You know the questions. Right? But they weren't getting anywhere following that line.
Eventually, after muddling around with these logical questions, they'd just have to give in to the evidence that their hearts already knew, what Paul later refers to as the "Fruits of the Spirit" in Galatians 5. In other words, they were asked to leave behind their "faith once delivered" for these re-appropriations of that faith that Spirit was out front leading.
Soooo, what was their pattern for engaging emerging evidence of God's Presence and Activity? What was this Lukan record asking me to notice?
I think it would go something like this. They'd see a roughly-formed expression of God's new life emerging. They'd approach it with apprehension. They'd compare this new thing with what they'd come to know as their "sacred." They'd necessarily move into a space of chaos and uncertainty. They'd struggle publicly and privately with questions like, "Can this be of God? Is this in keeping with what we hold dear? Would our soon-returning leader approve of even this?"
And then with all the appropriate befuddledness, they'd see the pieces of Evidence that convinced them, once again, that the Spirit had bent the rules to surprise them in new ways. They'd try wiggling out of the bind, but eventually they'd have to admit that it was the Spirit's work they were witnessing and they'd learn to embrace it. Embracing it, they'd have their hearts enlarged to welcome this new expression of God's presence. And then, as they embraced these new birthings, they'd be transformed themselves. This transformation would allow them to see what Jesus had been up to, from the very beginning, there on the streets of Palestine.
I have to tell you that this reading from Luke 1 through Acts 28 was radicalizing my faith. I was being asked to look for the Spirit in all the wrong places. I was being asked to move from the life of strict theologies I'd inherited to a life of curiosity about where God might show up next! Instead of sniffing out the newcomer for their orthodoxy, I was learning to ask them for their stories of the heart--stories of God surprising them with unconditional love and affection.
Pretty soon, believe it or not, I didn't fit in, in the church I was leading. I wasn't concerned enough about right belief and theological pedigrees. I wasn't trying hard enough to look and sound holy, anymore. I'd found a new sense of mischievousness that wouldn't--no, let's make that--doesn't let me take myself too seriously.
I now wanted the Jesus of this passage to pray for me as well--maybe to keep me pure from religious communities that act like evil ones in the name of God. I wanted this Jesus to keep me safe from the evil one that I can be when I forget whose I really am.
I remember one day waking up, just a few years ago, now a priest in the Episcopal Church and responsible for a congregation in the throes of decline. I remember reading this passage because it was assigned for us that Sunday, as well. I remember standing up front in my alb and stole--cross hanging at my chest, holding the Gospel Book out front--almost shielding me from the decline pressing in. I remember, in that moment, realizing that I could finally, finally, come back to Jesus' prayer as recorded by John. It was one of those bare soul moments. All time seemed to stand still around me.
And while reading, I heard these words as spoken in some unintelligible language--what I'd imagine Aramaic might sound like out across hot desert sand where the wind dervishes snatch away pieces of it and leave some behind still spinning and how this rugged little man was praying for me, for us, head bowed and protective over the tenderness of heart that Spirit so deftly uncovers. I felt like those words, once so harsh and divisive as John records them, these were now words of longing and restoration for all my own years of struggle and tearing at the air, my longing for easy divides. I was left there on the chancel steps so aware that I wanted that Rabbi we call Jesus to think of me when he prayed these words ... what did he say?
"While I was with them, I protected them ... I guarded them ... and (now) I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete."
Finally, I wanted to know that I am finally set apart from the institutional urges that divide us and make us suspicious of each other--that I'm set apart by the Truth that Jesus embodied. I wanted to be one of those in whom others spot the Evidence List: that love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control that only the Spirit can produce in me.
So there, still bumbling, now ready to be surprised and not so obsessed with being right-- here we are. Here we are, still following, still searching through the ways our stories show up in Luke and Acts, longing ... that our joy may be made complete. Same prayer--same care--same longings I am powerless to achieve on my own--these are our bread--so open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us as well as in the world within us.
FINAL THOUGHTS COMMENTARY
Over the last three years of working as the Episcopal Church's Missioner for New and Revitalizing ministries, I've noticed a fresh sense of compassion emerging in me. Many of the church leaders with whom I was initially impatient are now friends and co-workers of mine, and I have a renewed sense of appreciation for the uniqueness of these times in which we live.
Together, many of us have discerned that this death and dying all around is part of a process which for years we've tried to inhibit. You might think of it as a kind of molting--a casting off of the old shell or shells that once defined us. In order to live into the future that God is birthing in our times, it's absolutely imperative that we stop hallowing the old shells and, instead, start reappropriating the liveliness that once formed and filled those shells. Historically, as a denomination, we've been kind of shy about making such a bold move. Even today we have very bright educated leaders fighting tooth and nail to keep us in shells that we've already outlived and outgrown. We are tempted to build sacred halls of old shells where, filled with veneration for what was, we delay that incredibly vulnerable act of emerging into that in-between space of "no shell." The old shell no longer fits us and the new shell is still pink--we are, in that place, most dependent on God's provision, individually and denominationally.
But here is the Good News. In that in-between place, in that "not yet" way of being in the world--in that space between "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!" and "Into your hands I commend my Spirit!" it's in that space where we catch glimpses of God's dreams being birthed. The old language and symbols and rituals no longer suffice. The new ones haven't yet come to us. You might imagine that we're caught between the 4th floor and the 5th floor and we can't get out, on either!
It's in that Kairos moment--a moment of God's unique intervention--that we need a new kind of leader! We are in need of leaders that are compassionate with those still wedded to the old shell--you see them standing over there wringing their hands that we no longer look Episcopalian enough or Presbyterian or Lutheran enough. And those leaders, they also know that, compassion's third face is that of Holy mischief-making, a teasing us out of the boat of our worn-out traditions and into the deep of the uncertain call of God still emerging.
What is the good news that I live into and support in my work? Those leaders are emerging all around us! They are ready to prophesy, to lead, to companion and to mentor us into new ways of midwifing, midwifing the Spirit's new life emerging among us. They are okay with not quite fitting in. They are not waiting for permission. Most of them are not even waiting for ecclesiastical support or funding and here's the fun part . . . I am called to support them, via relational networks, through hosting collaborative Communities of Practice and through lending courage and inspiration.
It feels to me like this is the moment to be alive! The ball has dropped; the ship has hit the iceberg; we've seen the depths of depravity to which we as a species can sink and now, as we emerge from those old shells--still in that vulnerable stage of in-betweenness, it's there that God is calling to us, "Is there a wise one among you? Wisdom crieth in the streets!"
I could spend the rest of the day telling you stories about these new leaders, opening their hearts in new ways to lead us compassionately and yet provocatively into the "Yes's" that matter for our times. You may be one of those--this ministry Day1 is certainly one of those. I believe that it is for a time such as this that we were born! That fills me with hope and longing and excitement, but especially with gratitude!