Today’s gospel reading takes place right after the Last Supper and Jesus knows that he will die on the cross very soon. He seems to feel despair, knowing he is leaving his beloved friends to their dangerous task of spreading his word. The group shares one last meal where Jesus asks them to remember him in the future whenever they break bread and drink wine. After dinner everyone settles down and he begins to speak. He just goes on and on and on. He tries to tell them everything they might need to know after he is gone.
Finally, he turns to God and begins to pray for them. Just as he prays for his followers in the room, I believe his prayer applies to future followers, to people like us. He prays: “Protect them, O God, protect them as I have protected them, so that they do not fall away in the face of this challenge. Protect them and guard their faith so that they can love as I have loved, so they can welcome as I have welcomed, so they can abide in you and abide with others as I have.”
There is such tenderness to this moment. I imagine the eyes of Jesus shining with tears as he looks over the faces of his friends. He prays to his Father with such earnestness. Can’t you imagine his worry and love for them? He knows their task will be difficult, He knows they will face huge challenges. How powerful it must be for the apostles to feel the great love Jesus has for them as they listen to him pray!
Soon, Jesus will be separated from his friends. I love this quote by George Eliot; “Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.” This parting of Jesus and the apostles is not Shakespeare’s “sweet sorrow”. His upcoming suffering and death bring such acute awareness to the love he has for these friends.
Christ dies, Christ is resurrected, then Christ ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of God. Now this past Thursday was Ascension Day. The biblical references to Christ’s ascension are quite brief: he pretty much tells his followers to take his message out into the world then he rises into the sky, as if on an escalator.
There are many paintings of this moment. Often, Jesus is depicted as he floats upward on a cloud, surrounded by cute little baby angels, with his right hand extended as he blesses his friends stuck on earth. In other images Jesus looks like he is hiking up a very steep mountain to heaven. My favorite images are when the only part of Jesus we can see are his feet hanging beneath a cloud high in the sky.
This time, when Jesus ascends to heaven, he knows he won’t be resurrected to walk alongside them again. He seems a lot less worried, because he knows that very quickly, the Holy Spirit will descend upon them (on Pentecost) and they will be well cared for. As Jesus ascends, he isn’t leaving his friends, he is just entering into a new relationship with them.
“Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.” We have all experienced a lot of separation this year, a lot of parting from friends and family. Over 3 million people have died worldwide of COVID-19 so far. My sister had a very serious cancer scare this past year and I was unable to be by her side, unable to go to doctor visits with her. She is also extremely vulnerable to COVID so this was a terrifying, frustrating time for our family. Thank God, she is OK now. But the genuine fear of losing her, has made it so clear, how much I love and cherish her. I’m betting a lot of you have had similar experiences over this past year.
God only knows when each of us will die. This year I’ve learned that we’d better express our love for one another now. We’d better forgive one another now. We’d better make up with one another now. I have a refrigerator magnet that says: “The trouble is, you think you have time.” Yep, that’s the trouble … thinking we have time to make things right before it’s too late.
Jesus prays that God will protect us and guard our faith so that we can be strong enough to love as he loved, to welcome as he welcomed. As we will celebrate Pentecost next week, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to watch over us, to guide us every day. Jesus could say goodbye to his followers with confidence because he knew they would not be alone. We know that we have the Holy Spirit present in our lives and I pray that we heed the guidance of that Spirit as we move in the world to love and serve the Lord.