Dear Working Preacher,
One of the most profound promises of all of Scripture is hidden in this text. It has the power to transform the way we understand the very point of our faith and the very meaning of our lives. But, I'll warn you, it's easy to miss. You have to dig a little, but if you're willing to work you'll not only walk on holy ground but strike a holy pay dirt.
This passage, part of the larger farewell discourses and the opening of the "high priestly prayer" is so theologically dense that it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. All the relational talk about "I am in you and you in me" or "all mine are yours and yours are mine" feels a bit of kilter with our everyday conversational talk. (Frankly, it sounds closer to the Beatle's "I Am the Walrus" than it does the sacred Scriptures.) But, in fact, it is everyday conversation for Jesus. Because the relationship Jesus shares with the Father is so intimate, so interpenetrating, that the the conversation it elicits is, indeed, foreign to us. Jesus shares in God's very being and existence. What's amazing is that this is precisely what he's inviting us to share as well. Jesus, that is, invites us to know and be known by the God who no one has seen (John 1:18).
And that's not even the half it!
Jump down to verse 11, where Jesus says that he is departing. Preachers familiar with John with recognize two things: 1) Unlike in the Synoptics, Jesus' cross in John's Gospel is not humiliation but exaltation -- it is why he came into the world. 2) Incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension are not separate events in John's gospel but rather one complete and inter-related salvific work. Jesus goes through all of this -- born of the flesh, crucified on the cross, raised on the third day, and return to the Father -- so that we may know God (17:3) and -- are you ready for this? -- so that we may do the Father's work on earth. That's right. Jesus leaves, but we stay. Why? To continue the work God first entrusted to Jesus. (That becomes clearer later in the chapter 17; see particularly 16-19.)
Jesus leaves, but we stay. As it turns out, this is the ultimate "left behind" story, but according to Jesus, being left behind is neither a sign of imperfect faith nor a chance to prove your self worthy. Rather, being left behind is an honor, an invitation to participate in the glory of the Father, a commissioning, in fact, into the work of the Son. Eternal life, glory, relationship with God -- in John's Gospel these aren't things waiting out there somewhere but instead are all around us. Where, we may naturally ask? In doing what Jesus does. Healing, feeding, caring, listening, sharing, making manifest the grace and mercy of the God "who so loved the world" (3:16).
Clearly this links up with a lot of the tasks often associated with the church -- caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, and so forth. And that is worth celebrating. But can we help our people imagine that all of the ordinary tasks of everyday life -- work, play, family life, civic involvement, volunteer opportunities -- that all of these ordinary and mundane things, are also work that honors the Father? Because they are. Any honest work can, indeed, help care for this world and people God loves so much and thereby participate in the glory Jesus talks about.
Why does this matter? Because the average Christian in your congregation has little to no idea that what they do matters to God and the church. Not sure? Ask them. You'll be amazed, I think, to discover that day in and day out most everyday Christians have a hard time identifying anything they do on a daily basis that "counts" as God's work. Now think about it: if we don't remedy this situation -- namely, the utter disconnect between the one hour they spend in church and the 167 hours they spend everywhere else -- while will the continue giving over that hour. At the same time, if that one hour can be seen as supporting, informing, and nurturing those 167 hours, how much more valuable will church be for them. And here's our chance to do just that.
So here's my zany idea this week, Working Preacher. It may take a little more nerve than we usually feel is called for in the pulpit, but I think it's worth it. What if after explaining that Jesus has left us behind for the good of the world, we invite people to write down on pieces of paper places in their ordinary lives where they can help care for God's world and people? What if we then collected them and read them aloud, celebrating all the places God is at work in us and through us, and celebrating all the disciples in this congregation to whom Jesus has entrusted this work? If your congregation is larger, perhaps people could gather in groups of 3 or 4 and talk about what they've written down and then have a few of the groups share what they have discovered. The whole service could end with a commissioning of those left behind for the sake of the world.
Some Christians believe this life is simply practice for the next one. Others believe it is some kind of trial, something to be endured until a future glory. Still others think of this life as a test, a time and place to prove ourselves worthy of heaven. Not us, Working Preacher. Yes, there are trials. Yes, things can be difficult, confusing, sometimes down right discouraging. But in this passage we have the two-fold promise that 1) God is with us to help us not merely persevere but also to flourish (that's what the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is!) and 2) that God intends us to be committed to this world, this people, this place, here and now. Glory, eternity, relationship with God -- these things are always in the present tense in John's Gospel, and we are commissioned and blessed to participate in this work and to share this amazing promise.
Thank you for your part in all of this, Working Preacher, for your role of promoting, heralding, announcing, and sharing God's amazing promises has never been more important.
Blessings on your week, work, and proclamation.
Yours in Christ,