Texts: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
You may have noticed this single, unlit candle here today. This candle—the Paschal candle—represents the risen Christ. We light it in the gathering dark at the Vigil of Easter as a hopeful and anticipatory sign of the resurrection. We keep it lit throughout Easter as a reminder that Christ’s life triumphs over death, that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. We light it at baptisms and funerals as a sign that, in baptism, we are joined to that resurrected life and that at the moment of death we rest in the promise of that resurrection.
But, at the Feast of the Ascension (which we celebrated Thursday), we snuff the candle out. We extinguish the it because, even though Christ is risen, and even though Christ has promised that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” (Matt 18.20) Jesus isn’t here in the way we want him to be. This candle stands here unlit during these last 10 days of Easter as a silent witness to the feeling of loneliness that we sometimes feel at having been left here in the world.
In times of loneliness, we need to be reminded that, though Christ may be absent, he is not gone. This is one of the reasons we lift up prayer concerns at the beginning of each worship service; in the isolating grip of worry or pain, it is good to know that we are surrounded by people who love us and care for us, people who, though they may not be able to help us, can at least walk with us.
As we read the words of this prayer, millennia after they were supposed to have been prayed, we know that John is not just telling us about something that happened once. John is not interested in letting us eavesdrop on a private moment between Jesus and his disciples in that upper room so that we might know how dearly he loved those eleven men. As we read this prayer, John wants us to know that Jesus is praying this prayer—even now—for us. We are the ones whom Jesus loves, the ones for whom Jesus prays for protection and sanctification. Jesus wants his joy to be made complete in us; Jesus wants us to know that, though he may not be here beside us in the way he would like, he is with us, and he is praying with us.
The Ascension is a funny holiday because it is both a feast and a fast, both a celebration and a lament. We grieve that our Lord and friend has been taken from us, but at the same time, we also rejoice in Jesus’ entry into heaven to be seated at God’s right hand. The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as a great high priest, one who enters fully into God’s presence and intercedes eternally on our behalf; in other words, who sits next to God and constantly prays for us. Although he can’t be fully here with us, his heart is with us as he offers up this eternal prayer for us, for our protection and wellbeing.
Martin Luther wrote of prayer, “Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone; rather think that the whole of Christendom—all devout Christians—are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well. God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.’ That is what Amen means.” This prayer of Jesus’ reassures us that not only is the whole Church joining with us when we pray, so is Jesus himself.
At Holy Communion, we ask that God would “gather our prayers with those of the apostles, prophets, martyrs, and all the faithful who have gone before us, and unite them with the unceasing prayer of Jesus Christ…” Just as we are united when we pray for one another, our prayers also join us together with all Christians in every time and place and with Jesus himself, seated at God’s right hand and praying even now for us. We see this prayer answered as our bodies are united with his at this table: we take his body and blood into us, and we become his Body ourselves, broken to feed the world. Seeing his prayer answered in this way, we trust that in the same way, our prayers are united with his and with all the prayers of every Christian.
In this truth, Christ hopes that we may find God’s support and encouragement in whatever is happening in our lives. Through good or ill, through celebration or sorrow, God’s heart is with us, God’s Spirit is among us, God’s Son is praying for us. If we trust in Jesus’ love for us and believe in God’s ability and desire to answer our prayers, then we have the assurance that we never pray alone.
This is an important message of encouragement as we go out from this place. We remain in the world, sent out by our friend and Lord to continue his work of revealing God’s love to a love-starved world. I don’t need to tell you about the darkness into which we are sent: mass shootings, racism, oppression, violence, addiction, poverty, climate change—all of it the result of the corrupting stain of human sin on God’s good creation. Jesus has sent us out into that darkness to be bearers of hope, the messengers of good news, but this task is not easy in a world that is so often wary of that hope and dismissive of that good news. Jesus does not pray for us that our work will be easy, but he prays that we will endure, and that as we continue that work, God will be with us and protect us.
This is the eternal life that we share with Christ: even in his absence, we are joined to him by the divine love that he shares with God and with us, the love that he enables us to share with one another. When we share that love with one another—when we pray together, when we are vulnerable with each other, when we serve one another and accept each other without judgement or fear—we experience that eternal life. When we step out boldly into the darkness to live out our baptismal calling—to love and serve all people following the example of Jesus and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth—we experience that eternal life. To have that eternal life is to know resurrection borne of the divine love that Jesus shares with us.
Today, Jesus invites us again to dine with him in preparation to step once more out into the darkness to share the light of eternal life with the world. Just as on that night in which he was betrayed, he asks us to come to this table with him, to recline with him and lay our heads upon his breast. Just as on that night, he prays for us.
This is what it means to be one in Christ—not that we all think or act or believe the same, but that wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we are, we are the ones whom Jesus loves. In that love, we are one: one with each other, one with Jesus, and one with God. Because God has made us one, we are never alone.