Sermon by Professor Matthew Ichihashi Potts, newly appointed Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, May 16, 2021.
Into a Waiting World
By Professor Matthew Ichihashi Potts
Newly appointed Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter, and the seventh Sunday of Easter is sort of an anomalous day in the calendar of the Church year. Last Thursday was the feast of the Ascension. According to the book of Acts, forty days after Easter – that would be last Thursday – Jesus is lifted up into the heavens. The disciples go to a mountain and Jesus is there on the mountain and then he is taken up in to heaven. The truth is, there’s not a lot of consistency across the gospels about this event. The person who authored Acts, for example, writes in his companion volume of Luke that the Ascension happens instead on Easter day itself. Mark and John don’t say much, and in Matthew there’s a mountain and a farewell but not every disciple even sees Jesus at all, let alone sees him floating up into the sky. But in the account we traditionally commemorate on Ascension day, the account from Acts, that’s what happens. Jesus says goodbye and then he’s gone.
So much for last Thursday. Next Sunday, meanwhile, is the feast of Pentecost, and Pentecost is the day we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit. Again, according to the book of Acts, on Pentecost the Holy Spirit, this companion Jesus has asked God to give to us, finally does arrive and join us in our lives and work. There’s not a lot of consistency across the gospels about this event, either, but in any case, in the account we will recall next week, we who were left behind by Jesus on Thursday will be joined next Sunday by a gracious comforter and new companion, the Holy Spirit.
So on Thursday Jesus departed. Next Sunday the Spirit will arrive. Which means today, alone out of every other Sunday of the church year, we are on our own. And we’re not sure quite what to do with ourselves, all alone as we are. In one of the traditional prayers for this day from my own denomination, we say to God: you’ve taken up your Son. Now please don’t leave us comfortless. We don't like being on our own. You can also hear some of this discomfort in the gospel lesson for this morning. Today’s lesson actually comes from all the way back before easter, from the last supper, and Jesus is telling his disciples, ‘Look, I’m going away, but when I’m gone, don’t panic. You’ll be on your own, but here’s what I need you to do while I’m gone, until the Holy Spirit eventually arrives.
So this is a between time, a complicated and confusing time of transition, a time between the comfort of old habits and the consolation of new horizons. As such, this singular seventh Sunday of Easter is also maybe an apt one for the complications and confusions of our present world. My family, for example, is packing up the life we’ve shared with friends and family on Cape Cod for the past twelve years while we plan for a new life in Cambridge and my new role as a minister in this church. And the church is in a similar position, as it gives thanks for Stephanie’s leadership these last two challenging years all the while anticipating my new ministry with you in the years to come. It’s the same with our graduating students at Harvard this spring, who are turning in their final assignments today while also turning their minds toward opportunities tomorrow. And perhaps most of all, it is true in many ways of our world. We have been forced by a pandemic, one that beggars our lives and livelihoods still, to abandon all sorts of old hopes and habits, but we are nonetheless poised this spring to break free of much of our isolation and contagion and to secure a cautious sort of normalcy once again. In every case, at every level, we feel ourselves caught between a past we must let go and a future beyond our grasp. In every case we’ve been left with neither the comforts of the familiar nor the confidence of the foreseeable. In every case, all we really know about the future is that it’s coming.
So how should we approach this bind? In fact, I think our gospel offers some useful answers. The 17th chapter of John, which constitutes Jesus’ farewell prayer for his disciples at the last supper, is a difficult passage to follow. The full chapter contains 26 verses, only 14 of which are assigned to us by the church for this Sunday. The verses we have are circular and repetitive and self-referential. The word ‘world’ is used thirteen times in fourteen verses. The verb ‘given’ is used nearly as much. But the verses at the beginning and ending of this prayer, the ones the lectionary leaves out, in fact I think are critical to understanding what’s going. At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus prays to God, You have sent me, now I send them. As then our passage this morning continues Jesus elaborates, You have glorified me, now I glorify them. You have given all things to me, Jesus says, now I give all things to them. And then in the final verses which conclude this prayer and this chapter, Jesus closes by saying, God, you have loved me, now I love them. So send them out to love others. And the love by which you love me and the love by which I love them and the love by which they love each other, let that love bind us all together as one.
Traditional interpretations of these verses tend to focus on Jesus’s and his disciples’ relationship to the world, this word that is repeated thirteen crucial times. And, to be fair, a lot of that repetition is negative or critical. I am not in the world, Jesus says, I don’t belong to the world, Jesus says, and these disciples of mine, they don’t belong to the world either, Jesus says. One of the classic aphorisms of Christian culture, that we are ‘in the world but not of the world,’ derives basically from this prayer. And it’s undeniable that Jesus is articulating some ambivalence is these lines, but the Greek here is hard to follow and hard to translate too. The danger is that we might read all these negations as a condemnation of the world, as a rejection and separateness. And indeed, this is often how these words have been read by Christians across the ages.
But to read these lines that way would undermine perhaps the most famous line in the whole gospel of John, the one we see cited on billboard and printed on signs at the Superbowl: John 3:16. God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son. God doesn’t reject the world. God loves it, loves it so much God sends his Son into it. That all is true. But it’s also only half the story. And what Jesus tells us today is the other half, that this Son the Father has sent also so loves the world, loves it so much that the Son has given us to it. Loves it so much that the Son has sent us into it. As you have glorified me, Jesus prays, now I glorify them. As you sanctified me, Jesus prays, now I sanctify them. As you have given to me, Jesus prays, now I give to them. As you have loved me, Jesus, now I love them. And as you has sent me in the world you love, Jesus prays, now I send them. Into the waiting world. Into the world God loves and into the world Jesus loves and into the world we are called upon, even in all our confusion and discomfort, to love with all our lives.
I said earlier that we don't know anything about the world to come except for the fact that it is coming. But we know one other thing about that world: We know that God loves it. The world that awaits us is a world God utterly, endlessly loves, and Christ now sends us into that waiting world as bearers and messengers of a love that can abide the tumult and trouble of any transition.
A changed world awaits us. We stand here, on the precipice of Pentecost, still longing for the fulfilment of God’s promise, already charged with the adventure of God’s love. May we, like our brother Jesus before us, enter boldly into the mystery of God’s future.