“Listen, what do you hear?” It is what Jesus’ closest friends heard as He prayed in the olive grove before His arrest and trial and death by crucifixion. It is the prayer they committed to memory and then to parchment,
so that, centuries later, we, too, can hear Jesus praying,
“I am asking on their behalf;
I am not asking on behalf of the world,
but on behalf of those whom you gave me…”
Listen and think of what we are hearing. Jesus is praying for US when prayer doesn’t make it on our to-do list,
when it’s the farthest thought from our mind or our intention; when we are too busy to take time to pray.
Or, we’ve tried it and nothing happened; a crisis wasn’t averted, a personal problem wasn’t solved, a loved one’s
premature death wasn’t postponed; we’ve tried and our prayers seem to evaporate into emptiness and leave us feeling abandoned by the God to Whom we are talking.
Maybe it’s our fault; we don’t have the right combination of words; prayer is a foreign language we’ve never learned to speak.
Listen to today’s Gospel and hear JESUS “asking on OUR “behalf.” Jesus is asking what we do not have the words or the confidence or gumption or daring to direct to God.
He’s praying on behalf of us, saying of us,
“those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”
It’s that amazing claim which gave Zacharias Ursinus the confidence to start off the teaching tool called the Heidelberg Catechism with:
“What is your only comfort in life and in death?”
“That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death –not to myself but to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Listen and hear Jesus praying for every individual who confesses, “I belong – not to myself but to Jesus Christ.”
And the “I” expands to “all” as Jesus prays,
“All mine are yours, and yours are mine;
and I have been glorified in them.”
Listen, and note when it is that we are hearing Jesus’ prayer in the olive grove before His arrest and trial and death by crucifixion. It is being read after that Thursday night, after Good Friday’s cross, after Easter Sunday’s empty tomb, after the back-from-the dead Jesus talked and walked and ate with His closest friends.
It is the Easter Gospel for this Seventh Sunday that follows Thursday with its name: The Ascension of Our Lord,
40 days after Easter Sunday. It is the prayer we are hearing echoing through the sight His closest friends saw as they watched Him being lifted up into the heavens. As He disappeared from their sight, two men said He would come again; they would see Him coming down just as they had seen Him go up.
Some have taken that to mean Jesus was saying, “Goodbye, I’m up and away. I’m leaving you and I won’t be
back until that Big Bang Day when I will make a dramatic appearance and come to stay.” Jesus – ascended to be absent until further notice!
But that couldn’t be farther from the truth: that Jesus ascended – not to be absent but to be over all things in heaven and on earth; to put everything under His feet, to rule from above, and be Lord of all who call Him “Savior.”
The Ascended Jesus, praying for all from the dimension of cosmic space and time and with the power of divine authority, which gave the early church the reason to compose a hymn that turned the crucified Christ into the risen and exalted Christ, of Whom they sang: (Philippians 2: 9-11)
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Two of our members, Judy Fryer and Bruce Fryer, happened to be visiting our partner church in Germany on our behalf at this time last year and witnessed an Ascension Day baptism for adults who were confessing “I belong to Jesus Christ.”
The Ascension Day custom is to conduct the service in the local river. The day and the water were cold, but warmed with the joy of the newly baptized and the congregation who followed the service with a meal in the church. Together they witnessed to their response to the Cosmic Christ Who rules over all things and all people.
Ascension Day – meant to proclaim the risen Christ is now the ascended Christ – celebrated in a present-day song: "They nailed him to the cross by hands and feet, and they put him in the ground. Three days later everybody found out that you can't, no you can't...keep a good man down. No you can't, no you can't, no you can't keep a good man down." (“New Group” singers quoted by Rev. Dr. James B. Lemler, Day 1, 2008.)
Jesus, ascended to pull us to Himself in prayer, and being pulled to Him, turn to pray for one another.
That’s the experience of Jonathan Holston, an African American pastor, who traveled with his friend into the mountains in West Virginia – where our ASP teams have gone. There he met Mary, a white woman who had never had a Black man in her home which was filled with soot from the coal furnace that darkened the walls and gave a stench to the air. They talked together as Christians and as they were about to leave, his friend asked Mary if she wanted to pray.
Though quite elderly, she leapt to her feet and reached out to put her hand in the hand of her first-time Black visitor, wondering if he would touch her or pull away. Is the Christian faith real? Would he be one with her this day?
As he took her hand it was a new day for him and for her. He said, “We prayed for each other to receive God's abiding spirit. It was as if the Scripture came alive.”- (with the prayer of Jesus echoing into and through them). (The Reverend Jonathan Holston (United Methodist), Day 1, 2004.)
Listen, listen to Jesus praying for us, and in praying for us, feel the pull, first to sing the hymn: “Jesus shall reign”and then to pray for one another. Amen.