A Sermon for Easter 7 on John 17:6-19 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas on May 13, 2018
It was January of 2012. My mom had been chronically ill for about three years and had lived longer than the doctors expected, in part, because my Dad took such good care of her. But that month, she got an infection that was antibiotic-resistant, and her body did not have the resources to fight it off. She was transferred to the ICU at Baylor Hospital in Grapevine as I flew in from St. Louis, my sister, Pam from Wisconsin, and my brother, Doug from California to join us for what would be our last visit with Mom.
The disciples are gathered with Jesus for their last meal together before he is arrested. For three years, Jesus’ disciples have followed him, watching him teach, heal, and love people. This time of sharing all that he could with the disciples was coming to close. So, Jesus uses this time to instruct, to finish his teaching and to pray with his disciples during their last evening together. In his prayer, Jesus reminds the disciples that he is leaving; he prays to God and says, “But now I am coming to you”—Now I am no longer in the world,” and “I do not belong to the world.” We are not privy to the disciple’s reactions to Jesus’ departure and impending death; we don’t hear Peter say, “surely Lord this will not happen to you!” But we can imagine them clutching their chests, wondering what they will do, what their life will be like, and how they will continue without Jesus physically present with them. They wanted to fight for his survival.
The first few days we were with my mom in the ICU, we couldn’t believe it was the end. We encouraged her, told her to fight, talked about how strong she was, how much she had already been through. We read her Scripture passages for strength and healing and hope. “Surely, Mom, this can’t be happening to you, this cannot be the end,” we thought. We were wondering what we would do without her, what our life would be like, how we would continue without her physically in our lives. We were all fighting for her survival.
What’s so unusual about Jesus’ prayer in John, is that Jesus offers it to God aloud in the presence of his disciples—it’s not a moment where Jesus goes off by himself to pray; it’s not a moment where the disciples fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prays aloud, so that his followers can hear everything he asks of God for them: “They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word…I am asking on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. Holy Father protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name, I guarded them.”
My Mom couldn’t talk because of the ventilator, but she could nod, she knew we were there, and she could hear us. One afternoon I started to recite Psalm 121—“I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come?” and through the ventilator with amazing force and clarity, she said, “The Lord!” My mom couldn’t say her prayers aloud, but I imagine that she was praying something like, “This family of mine is yours, God, and you gave them to me. I am asking that you protect them and keep them and guide them; help them stay together and remain one, when I leave to be with you. Keep them together, help them to love and support each other. While I was them I did everything I could for them, to protect, guard and pray for them, and now I ask you to protect them guard them and keep them safe after I am gone.”
Jesus’ prayer for the disciples continued: “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; I have given them your word.” Jesus did everything he could to teach, empower, prepare, educate and bless his disciples throughout their time together. He showed them how to heal, how to teach, how to love, how to welcome the lost, how to pray, how to abide in his Word and trust that his love and Word are true. Jesus gave his disciples everything they needed to continue the mission of God’s love, forgiveness and salvation for the world while abiding in his love and prayers for them.
By the third day in the ICU, the doctors made it clear that Mom was not going to make it. Telling stories helped us accept this. We told her all the things she had given us, thanking her for all she had done. We talked about what a great cook she was and how much we loved her cookbook; how generous she was and loved giving gifts; how she volunteered at church and the hospital, and helped so many people; how she led our girl scout troops, sewed us clothes, and read us stories. As adults, she and dad always traveled to see us, she always sent cards in the mail, and she helped take care of my family and me during my cancer treatment. We talked about how she was the best Nana her grandkids could ask for, how much she loved and taught us, her tremendous gift of hospitality and welcome, and that even when we had disagreements, we trusted that her love was true. As a mom, she had given us what we needed to continue the mission of our life—abiding in her love and trusting that she always prayed for us.
Jesus’ prayer for the disciples continued: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” The disciples needed Jesus’ words of assurance because the world into which Jesus was sending them was going to be a difficult one. Jesus is not just referring to the devil as a single being who is against God, but all the forces, thoughts, attitudes and actions that are contrary to God’s kingdom—both within the disciples—their egos, their selfishness and fears, and those outside of them—hatred, violence, greed, injustice and the oppression of the Roman Empire. Jesus knew that hardships for his community of believers were coming. His disciples needed to know that Jesus was with them and praying for them in their struggles in a hostile world.
As we shared stories and relived all that Mom had received from God and gave to us, it reminded us that she had given us all we needed to continue on with our lives. When she was no longer going to be a part of this world, we would be. She was sending us from that ICU room out into the world—a world that is often contrary to the values she taught us—a world of selfishness and greed and injustice. I imagine that at that moment, she prayed the prayer every mother prays the first day of kindergarten, the first week of summer camp, the first prom, the first day of college, the first job, the first child, and the last good-bye: “I am not asking you to take them out of all these experiences of life, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” I have no doubt that as she died, my mom was praying for our protection, our guidance, and our faithfulness, as we continued to live in the world without her.
Jesus concludes his prayer by asking God’s favor upon them: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” When Jesus says “sanctify”, he means it in the same way he did when he taught his disciples the Lord’s prayer—“Our father who art in heaven, hallowed or sanctified be thy name”— hallowed, sanctified, holy. For Jesus, sanctity is not an abstract idea, some godly status of being set a part. Jesus sanctifies himself by laying down his life on the cross and taking it up again in his resurrection---so that we might see that the Truth and the Word and the Power of God in him is ultimate and final and will never be defeated. So, Jesus sends the disciples into the world being made holy, being sanctified by God’s love in Jesus, and with his power to overcome evil with good, trusting that God will never be defeated.
About four hours before Mom died, her Pastor—Phil Heinze, who preached at my Installation Service—came to the hospital. We gathered around her bed and sang her favorite hymns—like Beautiful Savior and Amazing Grace. Pastor Phil lead us in the Prayers for the Commendation of the Dying with the forgiveness of sins. We said The Lord’s Prayer and as we affirmed that God’s name be kept holy, we prayed the same for her, “Lord Jesus Christ, deliver your servant, from all evil and set her free from every bond, that she may join all your saints in the eternal courts of heaven…” These prayers assured us that we all live within the Truth of God’s Word, and that Jesus, who laid down his life on the cross and took it up again in the resurrection, sanctifies my Mom and us with God’s eternal and ultimate love. We are made holy through Christ—not as an abstract idea, or to be set apart, but to be sent into the world to overcome evil with good, trusting that God will never be defeated.
As my mom took her last breath, we were all still being held by our mother’s love, through Jesus, who loves us like a mother. On this mothers’ day when I miss my mom so much, I know I am held by Jesus who loves me and all of us, embracing us with the tenderness of a mother’s love and the fierceness of a mother’s prayers. No matter what kind of mother we have or had, Jesus holds us in his safe and protective arms, he prays for us, and he laid down his life for us. Jesus sanctifies us, fills us with his power, and sends us into the world to overcome evil with good, trusting that God will never be defeated. Jesus our mother, prays fervently for us as we go—every step of the way, every milestone, every moment. And then, at the last, when we take our final breath, he will embrace us and say, “welcome home.”
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