May 8, 2016

Those Who Will Believe in Me Through Their Word

Passage: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-21, John 17:20-26
Service Type:

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.

Easter seems a long time ago to us now, does it not? Recall all that energy focussed on Holy week with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter worship; too soon it seems a distant memory. Today is the seventh Sunday in the Church calendar season called Easter—the church seems able to pull out all the stops for Easter day; it is, admittedly, hard to sustain that momentum throughout the entire season of Easter. Like Christmas, Easter is highpoint, a spiritual mountain-top and we know that we can’t remain there endlessly.

I also realize that our lives are typically focused on other seasons of nature and cultural; spring has us preparing gardens, baseball season has us keeping stats, and of course the blessed season of NHL playoff hockey has many of us sleepy as west-coast game broadcasts cut into sleep time in the east. I know that church seasons are poor cousins to these other season in how they shape our lives but let us take these moments to draw aside and focus on this season called Easter.

1. The season of Easter marks the time between our Lord’s resurrection and the day of Pentecost (next Sunday) that is marked as the birthday of the church when the Spirit of God will descend on those praying disciples and the good news of Jesus will be heard by people from many places in world in their native language such that 3000 joined the company of the disciples (church). In this time between Easter day and Pentecost Jesus has been making appearances to his disciples opening the scriptures to them helping them understand “thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” He also has been preparing them for their role in what is next in our Lord’s agenda. Our Lord encapsulates their mission saying, “You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-48)

Our gospel reading takes us back to the upper room where we are overhearing a prayer that our Lord offered on that night before he gave up his life for us. He prayed first for the Father’s help as he faces what is to come, he prays next for the disciples, and then, in the portion of the prayer we read today, he prays for us. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

It is an uplifting moment to hear someone pray for you; it is glory to hear our Lord pray for us. In essence he can foresee you and me as he prays for “those who will believe in me through their word.” We have come to believe through the apostolic witness proclaimed in our hearing as our Lord owns that witness and proclamation making it his own such that we hear him.

Keeping in mind that this prayer is on our Lord’s lips, consider what God says about his word through the Isaiah prophet; “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

In this little sentence—those who will believe in me through their word—our Lord’s agenda for calling a people to himself is spoken in summary form. What Luke details in the story that is the book of Acts our Lord speaks into existence in this upper room prayer. When God speaks it is never just chatter; his word is never just words. God’s word is living and active sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” (Hebrews 4:12) At the beginning of the world things come into existence because God speaks. In this prayer Jesus speaks our faith into existence.

Furthermore, John tells us that Jesus is the living word of God, God’s self-utterance and self-giving. If John had said that this Word became words, human speech, or speeches then Jesus is like any other religious teacher. But John never says that the word became words, speeches, chatter. John insists that the Word has become flesh in the one man Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus said to Philip earlier at this dinner “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) It makes all the difference that it is our Lord who has prayed for us to believe. He is praying into actuality things that are yet to come.

Reflect for a moment on this idea that our Lord prayed for us to believe. Our embracing of faith may have taken many twists and turns to the point where we are today, but it wasn’t merely something we discovered, or figured out, rather faith is this story individualized in us of this Word of God, Jesus of Nazareth, who came and found us and made us his own. There can be, in our believing experience, moments of discouragement and maybe even doubt—just know that our Lord has anticipated all of those in his prayer. His word will fulfill its purpose to bring you all the way home. Our believing ever needs renewing and recommitment on our part. Our Lord’s commitment, however, is certain as the cross will show us. Jesus prays this prayer and then proceeds to Gethsemane and Golgotha; the place where he secures our destiny with him.

2. As you know, our Lord did not write any books for us. He takes up this enterprise of calling a people for himself through witnesses. Witness who testified to what God said to them—a witness that eventually is written that our Lord owns as his own. This can be said for older testament prophet and new testament apostle. The word of these witnesses will be very special part of this business of believing. We can hear this in this prayer, “those who will believe in me through their word.” This is why the church has confessed the Apostles’ Creed and were careful to assert in the later Nicene Creed, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” How it is that God takes their word as his own is in the mystery of inspiration; that God owns such word is known in that this word resonates in our hearts for believing.

I invite you to reflect with me for a few moments on these first followers of Jesus whose word becomes this witness; Jesus prayed that their word would be a fruitful vehicle for believing. If I were to ask you to name some of these witnesses, we readily think about Peter and John, about Mark and Matthew, and about the Apostle Paul. But let us think a little outside the familiar and consider the witness of our Lord’s mother Mary. Her word and actions witness volumes.

I know that it might make sense to go first to the manger; instead let us begin at the cross because the cross is the prism through which everything else is understood. It is the shadow of our Lord’s cross that is cast over Bethlehem’s manger not vice versa.

It is in John’s gospel that we read of this very touching scene. “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” (John 19:25-27)

It is hard for any mother to imagine witnessing the crucifixion of her son. We must remember that crucifixion as a method of execution was so despised that it was not talked about in polite company of Roman society. Roman law prohibited Roman citizens from being crucified. It was a method used to dominate occupied peoples, the great underclasses of the Roman world; it was reserved for the lowest of the low. As Jesus goes to the cross, he is denied even the last scrap of charity. We don’t grasp this easily. Reflect on it for a moment. He is not permitted a mask, or clothing, or a final meal, or the prayers of a chaplain. Crucifixion was specifically designed to strip away every shred of decency, privacy, or humanity. None of this is an accident. It is all connected to the depravity of the human condition that lies just under the surface.

And Mary is there as a witness. Perhaps it is that call in a parent’s heart that says you can’t not be there. Still she is there. If you were in Jerusalem to walk the Stations of the Cross, the fourth station marks the place were tradition tells us that Jesus met his mother. Now while we do not have a Biblical text that tells of this meeting we do have text that tells us she was at the cross. That being the case it is not hard to imagine that Mary was also on that road witnessing as her son carried the cross beam of the cross to Golgotha.

As we revisit this scene at the cross it is the Apostle John that tradition identifies as “the disciple Jesus loved.” It is a moving scene that even on the cross Jesus takes care of his mother. Jesus brief words to his mother and John are more like a testamentary disposition, the language is reminiscent of adoption practises. “A crucified man has the right to make testamentary dispositions, (think last will and testament) even from the cross. Jesus now makes use of this right, and with the official formula of the old Jewish family law he places his mother under the protection of the apostle John; “Woman, here is your son!” “Son, here is your mother.” In this action our Lord sanctifies the relationship of mother and child (and parent and child, for that matter). AS the oldest son Jesus has responsibility for his mother; in obedience to the law he honours his mother. Mary is forever his mother.

But I believe that Mary’s action witnesses to her profound faith in Jesus. There is more here than only a mother’s sense of responsibility to be here because he is her son. Her faith in Jesus was on display that day at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. When Mary discovered that the wine had run out she went to Jesus and told the servants “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) Note her deep and abiding faith in this her son. And her word of witness recorded in John’s gospel isn’t just for these servants at the wedding feast. It is a word she would commend for us all to heed; “Do whatever he tells you.”

Luke is the gospel writer who gives us much detail about the birth of Jesus. As he tells us these stories he repeats this phrase in regard to Mary about the things that happened and the things that were said; she “treasured all these things in her heart.” Now how does Luke come to have these birth narrative stories that are in large part absent in the other gospels? Tradition has it that Luke met with Mary and conducted a personal interview. This tradition is consistent with this note of how Mary treasured these things. I can’t help but think that as she stands at the cross on that horrible day the words of the angle so many years ago came to mind—“you will name him Jesus.” She has to be wondering what to make of the promise—“and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33) I would almost be certain that the words of Simeon spoken at the temple on the day of the dedication on infant Jesus are now in her mind—“and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:35)

But Mary stays the course with her son. Her witness both in word and action are powerful. Her contribution to this word about Jesus has been used of the Lord throughout the ages so people would believe. Among all his disciples who knew Jesus better than his mother? And she is here at the end. Her witness powerfully tells me that there was something about Jesus that is like no one else.

Being a witness for our Lord isn’t limited to the first eye witnesses of Jesus. To be sure these first witness have an important apostolic role, because the church that followed takes up their witness with them. Their word about our Lord’s death and resurrection is the story that informs and norms our experience of the risen Saviour in our lives today. When families come to have their children baptized we talk about the commitment they will make as parents to raise their children in a Christian home so their child will come to know Christ as Saviour and Lord. I sometimes ask parents how they envision doing this—what will you do to make that happen. One of the most effective ways to do that is to grow in your own faith. Your witness that faith in Christ is important for life will witness volumes to your children.

4. One final note about the witness of our Lord’s mother. I recently read an article that began with this sentence: “Christians don’t talk enough about depression.” Emotional pain is hard to share. Despair can feel very physical to the sufferer but surface features can be easily overlooked. When depression finally lifts there are no scars on the skin to show how deep the wound was and how long the healing took.

While depression is a complex phenomenon with multi-causal roots few pains have such a visceral spiritual component. Christians suffering with depression sometimes also feel even more guilt because they think their faith lacks in some way. Someone gave this theological definition for depression: “When your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence.”

That definition succinctly describes the moment Mary finds herself in as she stands at cross watching her son die. Surely nothing makes any sense for her now. It is true that depressed people can find help looking outward in service of others and looking upward to God rather than obsessing over inward states of mind and heart. But that presumes ability to focus elsewhere. What about when we are utterly confused. Mary is simply overwhelmed—she is there but speechless. Numbed by horror and helplessness. Mary shows us that even in these moments God holds on to her—she does emerge from this moment to be able to bear witness; to be able to tell Luke about the birth of her Saviour and ours. The God who held her holds on to his people even in those moments when we feel we believe nothing.

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.