Sermon preached for Easter 7B, the Sunday after the Ascension, on Sunday, May 13, 2018.
In a world in which religion is like icing upon a cake, it is both optional and extra. So some people are religious and some are not – it does not really change who you are but is merely an expression of what you find meaningful or what you want. In other words, religion, like the choice of soda you drink or the team you follow, is merely a preference. You remain somewhat distant from your choices and you always have the freedom to change those choices when and if you want. Religion is not a matter of who you are but of what you like.
How strange that thinking is in comparison to the words of Jesus in His High Priestly prayer of John 17. Our Lord begins His prayer to the Father by asking Him to keep in His name those whom the Father has given Him. Wow. We belong to somebody? Is that what Paul was extrapolating when he wrote, “you are not your own; you were bought with a price, you belong to the Lord.” We think of God being ours more than we think of us belonging to the Lord.
Jesus prays for our unity, the same unity that Jesus manifested with His disciples by teaching them and living with them before the Father in worship and before the world in holiness of life. He speaks of us as being weak and vulnerable. We must be guarded and protected or we will be lost. So strong are our enemies and so great are the many temptations we face that if we are left to our own devices we will be lost to God.
Why must Jesus pray the Father on behalf of you and me? Because He is ascending to the Father and His joy will be fulfilled in His own not by a man who walks beside us but by the Word that speaks with His voice into our ears, the absolution that addresses us with the grace of forgiveness, the water that cleanses us from sin and connects us to Him, and the bread and wine that feed us His flesh and blood to sustain us to everlasting life.
He has given us His Word, not as a substitute for His presence but as the very means of that presence. Now there is something to think about. The Word of Christ is not a pale imitation of Christ’s presence but His very real presence with us so that we hear Him speak to us and in that hearing we believe and in that believing are justified and in that justification are being sanctified or kept holy for when He will come again and we meet Him face to face.
Then comes the kicker. They are not of the world. He is speaking of you and me. We are not from the world; we are from God and we are now citizens of heaven and not of this world. We may live here but our real home and our everlasting allegiance is to the eternal Lord and to the dwelling place He has prepared for you and for me. This life and this world are a temporary address for a people whose permanent home is with the Lord. Does that surprise you? We too often act as if heaven is a retirement home and this is the life we want most of all. Jesus is saying the opposite. The life we have with Him is the most real life of all.
The most real life you have to live is not the life you live now. For this life is brief, seventy years or eighty, as the Psalmist says, but the life we have in Christ is forever. If you are renting a house, you do not invest all your money there because it is merely a rental. The day will come when you will move. Why then do we tend to treat this life as the most important life, as the place where we invest most of our energy and passion, and treat God’s life given us in baptism as if it were a hobby or a vacation home?
You are not of the world. Everyone who comes into our house gets the sniff test from our dog. He knows you by smell. He knows if you belong or if you don’t. He is not going to eat you if you don’t belong but neither is he going to look to you for food or to be let out. The world has its sniff test and it instinctively know we are aliens and strangers. We do not belong here. My dog may not attack you but the world will. The world hates you not because of what you have done but because you do not belong. The world hates you in the same way it hated Christ, who was not of the world, even though the world was made through Him and by Him. As John reminds us, the world knew Him not. And the world knows us not, except to seek to expel us, persecute us, and kill us. Even if it may not kill our bodies, it works to kill our souls. It wants us to sin, it teaches us to give into our whims, it lies to us about the consequences, and it loves to gloat when we succumb to its powers.
You might think that Jesus would want us to be removed from the threats of the world and from the great temptations that lay all around us. But that is not His prayer. He prays that we be kept from the evil one, sanctified in the truth of His Word, and sent forth with that Word into the world. In other words, our Lord is saying, keep the people for whom I lived and died close to you by keeping them close to the Word, both the audible Word of Scripture and the visible Word of the Sacraments. Let me put it another way. We are kept the Lord’s not by magic or by feelings or even by sincerity by remaining in closed proximity to the House of the Lord where His Word speaks, absolution forgives, and Communion feeds us. Do I need to be more blunt. Jesus is praying that we not blend into the world but remain distinctive as His people by going to Church on Sunday morning, reading Scripture, passing on the faith to our children, and living the new life Jesus gave us in our baptism.
Somehow or other, this has become a radical thought. The whole idea that we belong to the Lord instead of the Lord belonging to us. . . the whole idea that Church is not optional but the key means through which we abide in Christ and He in us. . . the whole idea that Christ is still present with us through the means of grace, the Word preached and taught and the Sacraments administer just as Christ instituted them. It is radical to us but it is thoroughly normal to Jesus.
You are not who you were. You do not belong to yourself or to the world. You belong to Christ. He paid for you with His blood on the cross. You were joined to Him in baptism and you live in Him by faith. In His Word He addresses you and in His absolution He restores you and in His Supper He feeds you to everlasting life.
We are kept in His Name. The same Name where two or three are gathered and Christ is in their midst. The same name placed upon us in our baptism. The only name under heaven and on earth by which any and all will be saved. The name that sets apart bread to be the body of Christ and wine to be His blood. That name. Not a name to sit in our minds or even our hearts but THE name that marks the Word of God and His Sacraments and through which He works in us, for us, and through us.
The means of grace are the tools of the Good Shepherd who knows His own and whose own know Him, who defends His sheep against their enemies, and who leads them to green pastures, still waters, and cups overflowing. Where is Jesus? He is not in heaven looking down on us, He is among us by His Word and Sacraments, doing for us what He has promised, keeping us as the Father has willed now and even to everlasting life.
In but not of the world. That is who we are. We are the Lord’s, the first claim upon us is the one written in the blood of Christ. The identifying mark of who we are is the name of Jesus placed upon us in our baptism. The source of our life is His own life given for us and offered to us in this holy Supper.
If we are salt and light, we must be in but not of the world. If we are to be the good leaven that changes the lump, we must be in but not of the world. If we are to endure temptation and trial, we must be in but not of the world. If we are to keep the faith and not lose it, we must be in but not of the world. We do this not in some magical way but simply by the means of the Word preached and taught and the Sacraments administered to us in Christ’s name.
On TV I watched a report on how important the bond between mother and child is -- especially over the first years. We can be thankful that a mother's love shapes and directs us to build in us confidence and security during those pivotal years. As a child ages, this motherly care has a profound impact upon his or her future. Certainly this gift of a mother's love is a gift from God and for our great benefit. But if a mother's watchful care is so important to us as children, is not the presence of our Lord important to the establishment and maturation of our faith? And Christ is here, near to us, through His Word and Sacraments to that we might grow in faith in the knowledge of His grace and in the security of His gracious presence. He keeps us in His grasp while the world seeks to undo what His mercy has done in us and for us.
The world values self-preservation above all, any compromise to preserve us. But we know the way of Christ is the way of the cross, letting go of our death grip on today so that we may hold onto eternity. We do not fear because we are not in this alone. We are following Him whose self-emptying on the cross has won us for all eternity. Because He has overcome the world, we do not doubt or fear. With man it is impossible but with God all things are possible. His investment in us is great. His commitment to us is unlimited. So we rejoice for this world will pass away and we shall endure or we shall pass away but we shall still endure. We belong to the Lord. Nothing can separate us from the power of His love.
Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Risen, Ascended, and Glorified! Alleluia!