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“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

We are in a peculiar space in terms of the Gospel narrative. We have just celebrated the Ascension this past Thursday, yet it is still Easter tide for another week. We have a kind of Schrödinger’s Jesus: he’s here, and he’s not here.

I love the great fifty days of the Easter season when the risen Jesus is here with us, appearing, sometimes vanishing, and then reappearing. In their despondent grief, the disciples do not know him at first when they encounter him. What does it take for him to be recognized? It is the breaking of bread in the Upper Room behind locked doors; it is in the sharing of broiled fish on a lakes hore; it is Jesus calling us by name.

I think of the story of the Road to Emmaus. Jesus walks beside two disciples who are still digesting the trauma of the Crucifixion. Jesus’ opening the Scriptures to them on the way doesn’t seem to remind them of anyone. It is understandable. When we are scared and distracted, what may be near us in the form of grace is too hard to grasp—maybe even impossible. It is after the disciples offer hospitality, inviting Jesus to share a meal—and a haven—that they finally recognize him.

I think of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus in the garden after the resurrection. At first, she does not know him, mistaking him for the gardener. He speaks her name: “Mary.” Then she recognizes Jesus. I can imagine her reaching out to her beloved Teacher, almost without realizing what she is doing. Jesus tells her not to hang on to him. I do not take this as a rejection, or that she must learn to live without him. In a homily about her I heard once, I received this insight: Jesus had healed her from demons, what we might interpret today as a chronic, debilitating mental illness. She may have feared a relapse.

How often we want to hang onto what appears to be our help in the moment, not knowing that what we really need is transformation. Her relationship with Jesus will change; he is not dead but risen. Augustine said that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Mary Magdalene will carry that reality with her: she is given the inspiration to become the apostle to the apostles. Beautifully, her story becomes our story.

Today’s Gospel comes from the section of John’s Gospel known as the “Farewell Discourse” in chapters 14-17. Jesus sums up all those things Jesus wants the disciples to know and remember before he faces his death. Over and over again he tells them—and us—to love one another. The last two Sundays Jesus told us how we are to abide in his love as if we are branches on a living grapevine. We are alive, we are sustained, we are loved in this connected place. Our psalm today echoes that truth. We are to be like: “…trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” (Psalm 1:3)

Today we hear what is known as Jesus’ “High priestly prayer.” This prayer comes, not after the Ascension, but before the Crucifixion. Still, its placement in our lectionary makes sense. In his death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus is going to God. Seemingly, he will no longer be embodied.

It is a wonderful thing to hear Jesus praying for the disciples. Because, by extension, Jesus is praying for us. What are his hopes, his concerns? First, he affirms to God that he has made God’s name known to those who were given to him. There are echoes here of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We have been given to Jesus as his flock; we belong to him; we are known. In Jewish tradition God’s name is not spoken. God is the great “I am.” Yet inside that sacred “beingness” flows the connective love that binds us to God and to each other. Jesus shows us the essence of God’s name—and its power—in his many acts of loving compassion. When Jesus is baptized God’s voice is heard naming Jesus as God’s child, as God’s beloved. We have been given those names too. We are children of God. We are beloved.

Then Jesus speaks of the words he has been given. He affirms that they have come from God, and that the people have received them as having come from God. The idea of the Word is powerful in the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Jesus himself is equated with the Word. I think back to Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel when she learns that she will become Jesus’ mother. She courageously consents to this, saying, “Let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) There are two different Greek words for “word” used in today’s passage. One is familiar to us: logos. On one level it can simply be a statement or an utterance. In Scripture it often means a divine saying or decree. The other is: rhéma. It has the sense of a word that is spoken by a living voice. The words Jesus has given us are not empty rhetoric. They are living words, keeping us connected, inspiring love.

Then Jesus prays the disciples entrusted to his care will be protected in order that they will be one. This is a oneness that Jesus says he shares with God. It is a living, reciprocal connection that draws us in and enfolds us in love. We celebrate and renew this connection week by week when we break bread together. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1Corinthians 10:16-17)

Above all, Jesus prays that our joy will be complete as his is complete. Yet there is a niggling protest at the back pf my mind. Jesus, all of this is glorious, but how will I experience this connectedness when I cannot currently see you face to face? God knows our longing to be connected. This time is not about making do with less, or about some kind of bare-knuckled hanging on—or having to accept estrangement. The dark night of the soul, the seeming absence of God is real for many. I do not want to gloss over that. Still, through grace, it is possible to come out the other side with a deeper knowledge of God’s presence.

I think I have come to know the reality of this, the truth of this, at times I have suffered loss. I am thankful that I was able to be at my father’s bedside during his last days being cared for in a skilled nursing unit. He was in his early nineties, so his imminent death was not sudden or unexpected. A couple of days before he died a chaplain came by to sit with me for a while. She was a native of North Carolina with what was—to me—that beautiful, comforting accent. I learned that she was a Methodist minister, but had studied at Sewanee, an Episcopal seminary in Tennessee. She came to love the Episcopal liturgy. She told me she sometimes worshipped at an Episcopal church when she had a Sunday off. I was a postulant at the time, still slogging away at seminary part time. We became friends during that conversation. As she was about to leave to visit someone else, she said, “I just feel like we are sisters in the Lord.”

Two days later my father died early in the morning. I had returned to my hotel to rest and received the phone call from one of the nurses. When I reached the doors of the facility this same chaplain came walking towards me at the exact same moment. She walked side by side with me down the hall to my father’s room. There is no question in my mind that God—and perhaps my father too—had prepared the way, making tis connection for me so that I would not be alone. I was given the strength and support I needed precisely when I needed them. May it be so for you.