Easter VII, The Sunday after the Ascension Acts 1:6-14, John 17:1-11

So that they may be one, as we are one

The Gospel this morning has taken us back to the Garden of Gethsemane, where in the seventeenth Chapter of John’s Gospel , after celebrating the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus goes out to spend time in prayer. It can seem strange to suddenly look back to Maundy Thursday seven weeks after we have celebrated Jesus’ resurrection, but there is a very good reason to do such a thing. The prayer we have just heard is a conversation between God the Son and God the Father. It is a moment of intimacy, a private moment which shows us their relationship, something extraordinary, something wonderful, we don’t often think of prayer in these terms, but currently there is a world-wide initiative, started by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ which calls upon Christians everywhere to do something wonderful together. Between the Ascension and Pentecost there is a period of ten days when we are asked to be like the Apostles in the first chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, just like they did, and for us all to do this together.

Prayer is a funny old thing, and most people probably think of it as asking God for things: please watch over my parents as they travel, please help me pass this examination, hopefully in our language of prayer we can also find time to say thank you for all the good things, and to say sorry for when we’ve not been good enough, and also time to say ‘I love you’ the prayer of adoration that we may be drawn closer to God. It’s a powerful thing, and a wonderful thing, and yet quite ordinary, yet able to do amazing things:

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (PL VII 34 col. 901)

A brother asked an old man, ‘What shall I do, father, for I am not acting like a monk at all, but I eat, drink and sleep, carelessly, and I have evil thoughts, and I am in great trouble, passing from one work to another, and from that work to the next.’ The old man said, ‘Sit in your cell and do the little you can, untroubled. For I think that the little you can do now is of equal value to the great deeds which abba Antony accomplished on the mountain and I believe that by remaining in your cell for the name of God and guarding your conscience you also will find where abba Antony is.’

It can be all to easy in life to think that what God wants is something big and difficult, when actually the opposite is what is required. The monk in the story needs to stay put and pray and that is all, why should we think that we are any different? The key to it all is humility: knowing your need of God. Those who are poor in Spirit, those who are humble can be filled with God’s Spirit, because they rely upon him, they know their need of him.

There it is plain and simple: prayer, it can change the world, and for the last two thousand years it has been changing the church and the world, one soul at a time, the wonderful revolution of God’s love at work in the world. In his prayer before his Passion, Jesus prays that we may be one, as he and the Father are one. He prays for unity, it is Jesus’ will for the church, and it is clear that the first apostles did what Jesus wanted them to do.

‘And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.’ (Acts 1:13-14 ESV)

Here is unity, unity of will and purpose, and we share that here and now, While the church is not as united as we would like it to be, or as God would like it to be, we can at least say that we are trying to do God’s will, and it is something that we can all try and do together. So let’s do it. Let’s pray for unity, and the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, to fill the Church with love, with grace, with forgiveness, with reconciliation, that we can heal the wounds of the past, and be drawn into unity and love, by the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing our need of God, and our reliance upon Him.

So as we stay put, and wait and pray with the Apostles for the gift of the Holy Spirit let us pray that God may be at work in us, that he will fill us with his love, and transform our lives, building us up, and giving us strength to live his life and to proclaim his truth, to offer the world that which it most earnestly desires, a peace, a joy and a freedom which pass human understanding, and the gift of eternal life in Christ. Let us pray that we are strengthened so that we can proclaim in word and deed what wonderful things God has done through his Son, Our Saviour Jesus Christ. That all that we are and do may confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father, and that the world may be filled with his love so that all may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Easter VI – John 14:15-21

I once asked a nun who had been professed many years what she found most difficult about the religious life. The answer I received was a surprising one: ‘Obedience’. She could cope with poverty and chastity, with stability, and the ongoing change of character, but she found it hard to do what she was told, to be obedient.

It is not for nothing that the opening words of the Rule of St Benedict are: ‘Listen my son to the words of the Master’. I, like her, struggle with obedience. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, all of us do too. We like to have our own way, to do what we want, when we want, and how we want to do it. We are wilful, and proud, we want to have our own way, we don’t want to listen to someone else: a spouse, a parent, a priest, or God. Such is the nature of the human condition. This is the reason why God was born as a man, preached the Good News, and taught a new way to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. For this he suffered, and died.

And for us as the church, the first thing we need to do is to listen to Jesus, to do what he tells us, to be obedient to him. If we love him we will keep his commandments, we will love God and each other with the same costly self-giving love that Jesus shows on the Cross.It’s quite a big ask, following in his footsteps, dying to self and living for God. It does however lie at the heart of it all. When Jesus says, ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you’ in the Upper Room with His disciples, on the night before he dies, He is looking to the Cross and beyond, as the demonstration of real costly self-giving love. The agony of brutal torture awaits him, a painful death for the love of humanity, to save us and heal us. As St Isaac the Syrian says:

‘The sum of all is that God the Lord of all, out of fervent love for his creation, handed over his own Son to death on the cross. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son for its sake.” This was not because he could not have saved us in another way, but so that he might thereby the better indicate to us his surpassing love, so that, by the death of his only-begotten Son, he might bring us close to himself. Yes, if he had had anything more precious he would have given it to us so that our race might thereby have recovered. Because of his great love, he did not want to use compulsion on our freedom, although he would have been able to do so; but instead he chose that we should draw near to him freely, by our own mind’s love.’

God dies for us, and freely offers us the gift of new life in Him. If we listen to him, then Jesus promises us the Holy Spirit, to strengthen us, to encourage us: a generous gift from a generous God., so that we can experience the fulness of new life in him. A gift so wonderful that Jesus ascends to his Father before giving it to the church, a sign of God’s love and trust, given to strengthen and encourage, to build us up. Such is the power of obedience, where we recognise power greater than ourselves, needs greater than our own, when we turn from love of self to love of God and others The world around will never quite understand this, it simply cannot listen to Jesus or trust him, and so misses out on the fulness of God’s love, which awaits us in heaven. So we pray that we might be obedient, that we might listen to what Jesus says, and do it, and that God would pour out his Holy Spirit upon us, to strengthen and encourage us, to build us up in his love. By listening to what God says we find ourselves becoming more free than we could have been before

This is not some future event, but right here and right now; we thirst for this love, and only it can satisfy our deepest desires, so let us come, and drink of that living water, let us feast on him who is the living bread and the true vine, the shepherd of our souls, who loves us so much that he died for us, and let us love him and one another so that all the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever

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