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The Sunday after Ascension Day

May 23, 2020, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Last week we heard a passage taken from Jesus’ “farewell discourse”, which comes toward the end of the account of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. Today we hear a part of what has come to be known as Jesus “High Priestly Prayer”, which immediately follows the “farewell discourse”, and precedes Jesus’ arrest.

I have to admit that I am finding it a little frustrating having to preach on these little disjointed snippets of John’s gospel. It would be a lot easier to preach on continuous passages on successive Sundays. I’ve tried to give some sense of how today’s gospel fits into the broader picture, but if you have some time on your hands you might read from John chapter 13 right the way through to the first verse of John 18 to get a sense of how John’s depiction of the Last Supper – from the washing of feet, through the Parable of the Vine, the promise of the Holy Spirit, and the commandment to “love one another”, culminating in the “High Priestly Prayer” we hear a part of today – if you read from chapter 13 to the beginning of chapter 18 you will get a much better sense of how all of that fits together.

And if you’re really keen you could sit down and read the whole gospel; it’s short enough to read in one afternoon!

The “High Priestly Prayer” is the longest recorded prayer of Jesus. We only heard half of it today. It has certain connections with the accounts of the deaths of the patriarchs in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly with the death of Jacob, who gathers his twelve sons around him and blesses them. It has a close connection with the ritual actions of the High Priest of Israel on the Day of Atonement, as described in Exodus and Leviticus. Some have suggested connections with the “Suffering Servant” songs of the prophecy of Isaiah. It is a rich text which rewards study and meditation.

On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered the Temple to make atonement through animal sacrifices for himself, for his house – in other words for the priestly clan – and for the whole community. In Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prays for Himself, for the apostles with whom He is gathered, and in verse 20, which isn’t in the portion we have heard this morning, He prays for those who will come to believe through the apostles’ preaching – in other words, He prays for us. The structure of Jesus’ prayer thus corresponds clearly to the structure of the ritual of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. In this prayer, and on the Cross, Jesus is revealed as the High Priest of the Day of Atonement for the whole world.

In this prayer, Jesus prays for sanctification – for Himself, for the apostles, and for the Church that is to come through their preaching and teaching. He prays that they may be sanctified, consecrated, made holy. What is meant by this? Holiness is ultimately something which belongs to God alone; it expresses the nature of divine being. But things set apart for the service of God are spoken of as being consecrated, as being holy, and so consecration or sanctification means handing something over to God, setting something aside for God, taking something out of ordinary use and devoting it to God’s service. There is a strong sense here of setting apart, and we see that in other aspects of Jesus’ prayer, for example in His striking and unsettling phrase “I am not asking on behalf of the world”. There is a sense of separation, a sense of demarcation.

And yet there is another sense of sanctification which on the face of it seems opposed to this sense of setting apart, but is actually deeply related to it. To be holy, to be sanctified, is not only to be given over to the service of God, but it is also to exist for others, to exist for the world. And despite that sense of demarcation from the world that we find in Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, we find too that sense of existing for the world. Jesus prays that the disciples may be “one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me”.

Jesus’ prayer for the sanctification of the Apostles and the coming Church finds its answer in the gift of the Holy Spirit. And as during these days between the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost we pray for the renewal of the Church in the power of the Spirit, there are important lessons for the Church in the words of Jesus’ prayer.

The Church is called to be holy. We should not be afraid of the word holy. The church is called to holiness. We are called to holiness. Holiness comes from God, only God can make us holy, and it is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that holiness is imparted to the Church and to all believers.

That holiness has two aspects.

The first is being set apart. This is perhaps a difficult idea, perhaps an unfashionable idea, and it is one that presents certain challenges for an established church that sometimes appears to think of itself as a sort of spiritual arm of the British government. We are called to be holy, we are called to be set apart, and so we should not be afraid of being different, we should not be afraid of not always fitting in, we should not be afraid of standing out.

The Church has ways of doing things – in its worship, in its order, even in its administration – that may look strange from the outside. That is nothing to be afraid of. Or at least, it is not necessarily anything to be afraid of. Sadly there are sometimes strange practices within the Church that have nothing to do with holiness. But as S. Paul puts it in his epistle to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”.

But the second part of being holy is existing for others. That setting apart, that sense of separateness, that sense of being different, is not a separateness rooted in self-indulgence; it is not about self-expression or a desire to gain attention or stand out from the crowd or being different for the sake of being different. The Church exists not merely for its own sake but for the sake of the world. Consecration and mission are directly linked. We see this in the life of Jesus Himself – Jesus expresses both total unity with the Father and total existence for the world – and we see it too in the life of the Church.

The Church of England faces many and great challenges. There will be difficult decisions to be made at every level – parish, diocesan, and national – in the coming months and years. So in these days approaching Pentecost, let’s pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit, that we may be renewed in our vocation to be holy, that we may be renewed in our vocation to be set apart for the sake of others, that the world may believe.