Sunday, May 16, 2021
Being defined by God
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Today’s passage along with the passages for the past several weeks are from what is called the Final Discourse of John. In John the last supper is very different from the Synoptic Gospels. There is no institution of the Eucharist, but he does the foot washing and gives them a final commandment, to love each other as he has loved them. It is the night before the Passover, rather than the night of the Passover.
The most important distinction to remember is that John’s gospel is more theology than narrative. As the last gospel written about 75 years after Jesus was crucified and resurrected John is focusing on the developing theology of the early church around the year 100 to 110 AD. Unlike the situation surrounding the writing of the other earlier gospels, Christianity is now clearly separating from Judaism and headed in a completely different direction. This gives what John writes a very different priority and focus. The divinity of Jesus is of prime importance and a lot of our theology about the divinity of Jesus comes from John.
What is happening here then? After the foot washing John’s account has Jesus go into an extended teaching and revelation about who he is and his relationship with the Father. He also then includes how the disciple’s relationship with him is also related to this relationship with the father. In a complex Greek rhetorical style, he lays this out over several chapters. Now I truly suspect Jesus did not give the boys a full theology lecture that evening, but remember John is not interested in historical accuracy. John is all about Jesus’ divinity. In today’s portion what we have is what many commentators call the high priestly prayer.
The priestly prayer marks a move away from teaching the disciples to a conversation with God that the disciples hear. In this prayer he asks that the Father to care for and protect the disciples as Jesus has done. He knows and acknowledges that when he departs evil forces will confront the disciples.
John has Jesus speak several times about the world. When John is writing of the world, he is speaking of the world that doesn’t believe and will oppose the work of the disciples. This can be the Jewish world which has rejected the members of the early church and it is also the Roman world with their pantheon of gods and the emperor who was considered a god. John’s community is writing this, 75 years after the crucifixion and is very well aware of the perils that the young church is facing. They have already been experiencing the trials and tribulations. The world is hostile and under the influence of the evil one. I think it interesting that John has Jesus praying for just his followers and not for the whole world. I suspect that this passage would bring great comfort to the disciples.
I also think that this passage should bring great comfort to us as well. In the grammatical and rhetoric style of the passage this is being said not only to the disciples but to those who will come in the future. There are characteristics of Greek verb tenses which imply action both in the past continuing into the future and we see that in this passage. John is writing to the future church including us, as well as for the disciples.
Jesus asks that we be protected but not taken out of the world. He is sending them into a dangerous world to spread the gospel not to hide somewhere safe and keep the Good News to themselves. There is an important lesson here for us today. What goes on inside these four walls is important, but the greater mission is outside these walls. This is why I use the post-Communion prayer on page 366. This prayer says “and now send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” That is absolutely critical. That is why I also say, “This service has ended, your service is just beginning as part of the dissmissal.” One of these days I’m going to order signs for both exits that I saw at another friend’s church. They say, “You are now entering the mission field.” This is important and is critical to the future growth of our parish. As Jesus said, “The harvest is plenty, but the workers are few.” That is just as true today as in the first century.
Once we are out in this world there is an important question to consider. This came up during the Tuesday morning bible study. A problem to consider is how does the “world” in the sense John is using define you, define us? Are we viewed as an exclusive club or a home for sinners. The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber started a Lutheran parish that was aimed at the unchurched. She called it House for all Sinners and Saints and really focused on the sinners. Those who most churches didn’t want. She defined herself and her parish as one that welcomed the unwelcome. It grew and she became quite famous as did her parish. As their fame grew more people started attending but they were more in the saint category and she said in an interview, “All these normal people who looked like my parents were messing up my weird.” (Maybe she should have had a church in Austin) Then I realized that I had to welcome everyone, even the normal people who were attracted to my message of welcome, inclusion and forgiveness.”
You see even those of us working for inclusion can fall on our faces and end up excluding some. That is a very important lesson for all of us to remember.
The questions though to consider is will we let the world define us or will we let God define us? I remember being in a family therapy program for people in an addictive family. The first thing we were asked at the opening session was to say are names and who we are, but we could not say what we did for a living. I’ve never seen so many panicked people in my life and that included me. You see when we let what we do define who we are that is allowing the world to define us and misses what God has given us and who God has created us to be. Before we can face the world, we must find out who we are in God’s eyes, then we can take on the “world.”
Finally one of the things that defines who we are is our relationship to the Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit. I think the most powerful symbol of who we are and where we are in the Trinity and where John sees us in relationship to the Father and Jesus is best shown in the famous Rublev Trinity Icon. I’ve had Jennifer add it to your bulletin.
Now originally this was Abraham and the two angels who visit him to tell him that he will become the father of the Jewish people. But over the years it has come to symbolize the Trinity. You will notice how each of the men are looking at each other, which represents the circle of love that defines the relationship of the Trinity. What many didn’t know is there is something missing from this icon. Several years ago, the curators at the museum in Russia where this icon is displayed noticed something odd. They noticed that on the table just below the cup was what looked like some sort of rough residue. Intrigued the carefully scrapped off just a small sample and when analyzed they made an amazing discovery. It was glue! They now believe that when this icon was created Rublev had glued a small mirror onto the icon. This meant when you looked at the icon you found yourself at the table inside the circle of the Trinity. That is what Jesus is talking about throughout the entire final discourse. That our place is in that eternal circle of love that is the Trinity. And that fact really tells us who we are and it is not what the world thinks.
I want you to take some time this week, maybe go online and find a picture of this icon, it’s an easy Google search. Sit and look at it, ponder your place at the table with the Trinity and see what God has to say to you. It will be worth your time.