On Thursday of last week, the church celebrated the Ascension of Jesus. As the account was read from the Acts of the Apostles, we were there with the disciples at the moment Jesus finally left them. And he left them staring up into space. After Jesus himself had disappeared into the clouds, they were still gazing into the sky, until two men in white robes, who happened to be standing there interrupted them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” they asked.
Where else would they be looking? For three years they had cultivated the instinct of looking at Jesus. If he was teaching, or if he was laying his hands on people, or if he was disputing with Pharisees, whatever he was doing, you watched him. It is rather what being a disciple is all about. Until now.
What now? “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” – Is it because you want to be there with Jesus? Perfectly understandable. Is it because you think he may come back in a minute? Natural enough. But he won’t, not yet. Why do you stand looking into heaven, when you should be concentrating on things here on earth? Isn’t that the whole point of what Jesus had just been saying? You will be my witnesses – you have to be, because you are the ones who have witnessed my raising from the dead. If you don’t do it, no one can. And there is some ground to cover: you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. So, perhaps it is best not to be gazing into heaven.
And here we are, still on earth. And it is still no good gazing into heaven, and wishing we were there. We are here, in the world, and this is where we have our life, and our work. A few years ago, the national youth group meeting for their rally asked for the Bible Study to be on the theme of “Christian resistance in occupied territory”. It is saying something about the world as they know it. The thing they find challenging, as it was reported to me, is being a Christian in a school, or a workplace, or sometimes even in a family which does not share the values, the attitudes, or generally the faith that we have. And, of course, those of us who are not youth can relate to that too. Theirs is not the only generation to feel that they don’t quite fit, that they are swimming against a tide, or just that it can be a bit uncomfortable sometimes, this world business. It is, quite simply the way things are. How did Jesus put it in our text? O righteous Father, the world has not known thee. Jesus had quite a lot to say on the subject of the world in John’s Gospel. In fact, the world he describes is not so much a place, you know like a planet we happen to live on, because God made the world in that sense, and it is very good. Rather it is a realm, a kingdom around us. The ruler of this world? The devil. That is how Jesus refers to his arch enemy- as the ruler of this world. And that is why he can tell his friends and followers quite bluntly what they can expect: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
And for us stranded in this world, whose true home is with our Lord elsewhere, this text gives a few timely pointers.
The first one is that when we pray, we do not pray alone. You have only to look at the Gospel to see that it is, in fact, a prayer. It is Jesus praying to his Father. On the night before his death, in the company of his disciples, he offered what we have come to know as his high-priestly prayer. And for whom does he pray? “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word.” Not only, then, for those disciples who ate with him the Last Supper in the upper room, but also for those who believe in him through their word. But these men were the apostles. And their word is the New Testament, much of it written by them by the Spirit of God and in testimony of what they had witnessed with their own eyes. And by that testimony we believe. So we are indeed those who believe in him through their word. In other words, Jesus was praying for us, on the night before he died. As he went to the cross, it was for us, for people as yet unsaved, as yet unborn, who would come to faith through the gifts he entrusted to his apostles. This is truly a remarkable thought. And the more so because we know that the prayer of Jesus goes on. It began before the cross and the suffering and the humiliation and it continues beyond the ascension and the glory and the exaltation. The other great passage of the New Testament that speaks of Jesus as our high priest is in the book of Hebrews, where it assures us, “he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Somewhere, in the heavens to which he ascended, Jesus is praying for us. He is interceding for us. He is making an offering for us of his own life. And besides that great thought, the frustrations of living in a difficult world are put into perspective.
The second thought concerns what Jesus was praying for. He was praying for us, as we have seen, but what he was praying for was this: “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”
Jesus prayed for our unity, that we may be one. We might imagine, then, that Jesus is a great supporter of Christian unity. That certainly seemed to by St. Paul’s take on the situation, when he wrote to the Christians in Corinth that it had actually been reported to him that their were quarrels among them – dissensions, divisions. And he could hardly have been more outraged if it had been reported that there was a sudden outbreak of orgies among the Corinthians (which, incidentally turns out not to be a million miles from the truth either). He was scandalised by the fact that Christians formed themselves into groups and cliques, each belonging to a particular party. And before we leave Paul, I would just like to note in passing his objection: “Is Christ divided?” he asked. And we shall return to that thought. But meanwhile we were imagining that Jesus, being a lover of unity, would therefore want us to be less divided, and to somehow move closer to one another. Would this not be the answer to his prayer, that we might be one? But this is nonsensical. We cannot create oneness in the body of Christ by trying to get closer to one another. Imagine a little experiment to illustrate the point. A primary (or elementary) school teacher wants to get his class together from the chaos in the playground where they are spread out among the other children. He may tell them to get together with their class mates, and more chaos is guaranteed to ensue. Henry will move towards James, and Jenny will run three quarters of the length of the playground to be with Sally, because they’re best friends. But in so doing Jenny will be running away from James, who himself is moving towards Peter… To move closer to one, is to move away from another. And there you have two thousand years of ecumenical history in an instant. The experienced teacher, who had done this before, would not say “go to your class mates”, but rather, “come to me”. Inevitably, the whole class of children converging on this single target will bring them close to each other as well.
What does Jesus say? “..that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us”. Our oneness consists simply in this, that we are all in him, and in the Father. So surely, the responsibility of every Christian with respect to the unity of the church of Christ is entirely discharged in this – that we join in the prayer of Jesus for it, and that we keep ever faithful and ever close to him. If we all dedicated ourselves to that goal, we cannot but tend to converge with one another. It is not such an odd consequence of our unity, then, that Jesus adds: ”…that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.”
And the third thought from this text for exiles and aliens in a hostile world has to do with going home. The disciples who gazed longingly after the departing Jesus presumably wished he were staying with them. But a better option would be if they were going with him. And such is the prayer of Jesus too. “Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world.”
A vital part of his going, was to prepare a place for them. The Bible is staggeringly short of details about that place – the many mansions in my Father’s house, as Jesus referred to it. Time enough there will be to explore that when we get there. But for the moment, that is not really the point. Just as we have thought about the world, not as a planet, but as a realm. So too, heaven is not just a place, a locality, but also a realm, or a kingdom, as Jesus introduced it. Obviously it is under the kingship of God. But in this life we also can live in the kingship of God. And there we are at home, eternally at home. It is where we belong. As the kingdom of God’s grace extends to us, there we find ourselves. And here we rejoice to be a part of our Lord’s priestly prayer. Amen.
- 1 John 17:20 - 26