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Monday, June 13, 2011

Sermon from June 5, 2011 + The Seventh Sunday of Easter (A)

“Life In-Between”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Minneapolis

Texts: 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11; Acts 1:6-14

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of preaching on the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Easter is a week of weeks – seven Sundays celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord – and that is well and good. But there’s something odd to me about the seventh of these Sundays.

In the first place, as the Gospel reading each of the three years we get different parts of what we’ve come to call Jesus’ “high priestly prayer,” a prayer in John 17 which follows his final discourses to the disciples on the night of his betrayal. This is a complex prayer theologically, and hard to follow even if one has the text to read. Of all the Church Year, the Gospel readings for Seventh Easter are in my opinion the hardest to understand and track just by hearing. So this preacher tends to think most are going to hear me announce at the conclusion, “The Gospel of the Lord,” and are going to think, “what did Jesus just say anyway?”

The second difficulty with this day is that we’re finished with the Ascension but have a week to wait to celebrate Pentecost, so this Sunday has an unsettled, unfinished feel, a sense of waiting while nothing is happening. At least it often does to me. I tend to want to overlook this Sunday and get to the next festival, the good stuff, Pentecost.

But the author of First Peter got me thinking differently this week, and I’m not sure why it took so long for me to get to this. What Peter seems to suggest is that we are living our whole lives in fact in an in-between time, in an unsettled, unfinished time, between the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and the conclusion of God’s plan for this world. And Peter doesn’t seem terribly surprised or even concerned about this (in fact, he says we ought to expect this), except to give good advice to believers about how to live in such times. And that connected for me this week with Jesus’ words in the third verse of John 17 today – he suggests that eternal life is not something for which we need wait, but something we can actually experience now, here, in the in-between times in which we live.

So we start with Jesus before we hear from Peter. And Jesus tells us the truth about eternal life.

This might be the thing Christians get confused about the most. Our confusion wasn’t helped when English translators used to translate this phrase as “everlasting” life. That’s certainly one aspect of its meaning, but “everlasting” tends to get us thinking about life after death, life in the presence of God which never ends. Again, that’s part of the promise of this term. But it’s not what John’s Gospel understands the real gift of Jesus is.

For John, again and again he talks of Jesus’ gift of “life” to us and the world. And often he uses the phrase “eternal life.” But if you read carefully, eternal life is not just about life after death. In fact, the quality of eternal life seems the really important thing, not the length. For John, Jesus offers us a new existence, an authentic, real life – abundant life Jesus calls it once – lived in the love of God the Father, made known to us by God the Son, and anchored in the coming of God the Spirit.

So Jesus today says, in prayer to the Father: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” John follows the Old Testament writers in understanding knowledge (“to know God”) as relationship, not intellectual assent to something.

So living in eternal life is living in a relationship of love with the Triune God, as Jesus has carefully delineated in the previous three chapters of John, a life of abiding in the vine that is God, of being in love with God and each other. So eternal life isn’t about our time, chronological time, extended infinitely. It is about beginning to live in God’s time, in God’s life, in this relationship Jesus makes possible.

This is so important, because if we can end our confusion about what is meant by eternal life, we can begin to understand how God intends to help us live in it. With this deeper understanding of eternal life we don’t risk assuming that salvation only means life after death. In other words, we are not only filled with hope for those who have died and gone before us. We also find powerful meaning to the life we are living here.

It may be in-between times, and it may be unsettled. But Jesus intends it, this life, to be filled with the richness of God in spite of our circumstances, and in every way that matters not only a foretaste of the life to come, but that very life itself.

And in this context, Peter makes his presence known.

For he gives us four things to do in the in-between times, which, when we combine them with the activity of the first believers in Acts today, give us a shape of how this eternal life can be.

The first thing he urges us to do is to humble ourselves before God.

To know the only true God, as Jesus says, is to begin to remember our proper place in the world – we are creatures, not God, and therefore our lives are not our own. There’s actually a sense of peace and comfort in this – we don’t need all the answers to life because life is not ours to control. If we live a life in God – in whom we live and move and have our being, as Paul reminded us last week – we find relief in remembering that God is in charge and in control. But it’s also an honesty that helps us experience life as God intended it – living with an awareness and a joy in the reality that the God of the universe is, well, the God of the universe, and that we are merely creatures who live in God’s grace and love. Life cannot be full and rich if it is lived in a lie, if we think we are the beginning and end of all that is.

The second urging for Peter comes from this humility: cast all your anxieties on God, for he cares for you, we are told.

For believers, recognizing the lordship of God, humbling ourselves before God, is the only true way to live, but it also is helped by knowing that the God who raised Jesus from the dead loves us with a deathless love. We can, as Peter says, cast all our anxieties and fears on God and trust in God’s love and care because not even death can stop God’s love for us. Peter envisions for us a rich life where we not only admit that God is God, but we also trust God to be God, to take care of what really matters. Our lives are often riddled with anxieties, and here we learn we can trust God with them. The things which cause the anxieties might not go away, but the anxiety will, and that’s enough.

Third, we are urged to discipline ourselves, to keep alert.

This is the place of the life of faith – this is where we live our lives. We are disciples, followers of Jesus. And so we are invited to discipline – to order our lives by the way of Christ, to live as Jesus lived, love as Jesus loved. The eternal life Jesus has for us is this life: an authentic life lived in the discipline of faith and love. Even if there were no life after death, this life would be worth more than any we could live, because disciplined life in Christ is a life of grace, forgiveness, healing, hope. It’s real life.

But we also discipline ourselves because of the enemy, the fourth of Peter’s encouragements.

The biggest problem of these in-between times is that there are forces of evil, small and great, which work in the world and cause great suffering and pain. It’s not necessary that we embrace Peter’s imagery of the devil as a roaring lion seeking prey to acknowledge the reality of forces of evil which work in the institutions and structures of this world, the reality of the spiritual powers of evil as Paul himself describes which are active as well, and of the evil that works even within our own hearts. Luther’s famous trio – the devil, the world, and our sinful self – sum up concisely the reality that we need to be prepared to stand against evil wherever it is found. The discipline of the Christian life is part of our defense, as is our trust in a God who loves and cares for us and can deliver us from evil.

And then we have one more thing that Peter doesn’t mention here.

The believers, according to Luke in Acts, spent their in-between time in prayer, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” is what Luke actually says. And in this all four of Peter’s encouragements are found and brought together and eternal life is truly lived and known – we live lives of prayer in these in-between times because we acknowledge the dominion of the Triune God, we need to cast our anxieties into God’s hands, we seek the discipline of a life of faith, and we wish the strength to resist evil. Constantly living lives of prayer is constantly living with the awareness that our lives are lived in a relationship with the God who loves us. And that is eternal life, Jesus says.

So what I’m saying is, I think I’m making peace with the oddness of the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

Because in many ways it parallels our life experiences, and in stopping today before we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit next week we have the opportunity to consider our lives which in the main aren’t about festivals and celebrations. They are lives which are ordinary, sometimes unsettled, often unfinished, with a sense of waiting while nothing seems to happen.

But our joy is that eternal life – life lived knowing the only true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, life lived in full awareness of God’s love for us, life lived with purpose and meaning as we are part of God’s healing of the world – eternal life is ours now.

It may be the in-between times. But thanks be to God that we are already living in the life our Lord has won for us and gives us freely.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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