St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Church, Manchester on 4th May 2008
John 17:1-11, Acts 1:6-14
I wonder what Ken Livingstone is thinking these days.
Ken was just defeated after years in power as the mayor of London.
I don't know London politics well enough to be sure –
But if he is anything like a human being he is
Probably feeling what you might imagine – regret, anger, perhaps some satisfaction;
He will be thinking about what we now call a leader's "legacy," what he or she leaves behind.
Political leaders generally want to engineer their own leaving, to have their own person in power so that their ideas can continue;
So Blair is able to leave Gordon Brown in power;
Robert Mugabe demands (before he said more recently that he actually didn't lose the election)
that he will step down only if he will not be prosecuted.
Even after death ordinary people want to have their way through wills or other means –
Often in ways that can be quite painful for their families.
Legacy – especially what comes next – is important.
In the gospel and Acts readings we are concerned with Jesus' "legacy" –
What he will leave behind as he returns to glory in God.
The time of his resurrection appearances has finished, and next week we come to Pentecost, the gift of the spirit that Jesus promised.
So this morning we hear of the risen Jesus' last words on earth.
In Gospel of John this morning we have Jesus' "legacy."
Chapter 17 records his last words before his death;
These chapters in John are known as the farewell discourses because he is saying farewell to the disciples.
The disciples have shared the last supper together in the upper room;
Judas has left to betray Jesus; Jesus has revealed that peter will betray him.
After Jesus' prayer in chapter 17 he and the disciples leave the upper room and cross the valley where the troops led by Judas will arrest him.
This speech is John's equivalent of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane in the other gospels.
So what about Jesus' legacy as he leaves the earth to an existence in glory with God?
If you were in his shoes you might want to appoint your Gordon Brown at this point –
your right-hand man who will continue your vision.
But look what Jesus does:
He leaves not one person in charge
But a group, a community, a fellowship.
"they have kept your word, now they know that everything you have given me is from you. . . and they have believed that you sent me. . . All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. Holy father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one."
I have been glorified in them! Jesus writes;
Not in an individual successor, or in a doctrine or teaching or school of thought – whether New Labour or Compassionate Conservative,
But I have been glorified in them –
Not in a group of people
But in the relationships of giving and loving and speaking the truth that bind them together,
As we know elsewhere in John: in love they show for each other, the love that shows his followers are one even as Jesus and the father are one
And that actually is the glory of Jesus Christ continuing in the world.
I have been glorified in them:
This is Jesus' "legacy" as he prepares to leave the earth to ascend to God.
The Acts reading shows the same legacy that Jesus wants to leave.
the first thing the disciples do after these final words of Jesus is to go back to the room where they were staying and pray together
And have a kind of church council meeting where they elect someone to replace Judas.
They restore the unity first of all.
Just as in John, where Jesus' return to glory, his ascension, his absence, is mentioned,
immediately the unity and equality of Jesus' followers – men and women – is what follows.
And next week we are going to hear just how radical that unity is when the spirit is poured out on young and old, slave and free, people from every nation.
A dream of unity is Jesus' legacy – unity and prayer before God in whom rests all hope for Jesus' followers.
II. And what a legacy it is.
Peter is going to betray him; Judas already has and in just a few verses he will lead the party who is going to arrest Jesus.
We know that Thomas isn't going to understand much at all: Unless I see the mark of the nails... I will never believe.
This is the group that will lock itself in a room after the crucifixion out of fear.
What a legacy for Jesus to leave in the world: a human beings gripped in betrayal, desertion, doubt, fear, cowardice.
Yet this community, this set of relationships, that is already falling apart is what Jesus says will bear his glory in the world.
In Acts these disciples who are given this immense commission
Are the same ones who before Jesus' death
were betrayers and deserters.
When Jesus sees them again, risen from the tomb,
When he is with them, breaking bread: he knows what they did and he forgives them.
And when the disciples see him,
They realize what they have done,
and they realize that the bonds of God's love are so great that they can't be broken by their own actions.
And in receiving Jesus' forgiveness
They forgive themselves,
and they accept themselves,
and they forgive and accept each other.
They know that they are loved by God
and that they are ready.
This chequered past of failure and loss and betrayal and self-centeredness
is the ground of hope for the world, the platform for renewal that God chooses.
So when the disciples hear this commission in Acts,
They actually accept a new past, a forgiven past
as well as a new future.
Rowan Williams writes that forgiveness and vocation always come together in Christ.
We are never forgiven without being commissioned for some service to God,
and we are never given a calling or a task by God without forgiveness –
without every aspect of our past life being cradled
by a loving and forgiving God.
Forgiveness and vocation always come together in Christ,
in the same way that the glory of Christ that he returns to on his ascension
is the same glory he had in God's presence before the world existed, as we heard in John 17:
Past and future,
Beginning and end,
Creation and the Kingdom
You and me
are all held afresh, together, in the hands the risen Christ exalted to right hand of the Father.
There is a story about a Polish comic at the end of the Cold War.
He had a line that he used in a show that went like this:
The Russians are our brothers.
And one day a heckler in the audience stood up and shouted:
Brothers?! Brothers is too strong;
The Russians are our friends
And the comic replied,
Ah, but you can change your friends.
The church, too, is made up of siblings whom we can't swap:
Sisters and brothers
For whom Jesus prays
Sisters and brothers
Who fail, who wound each other, who forgive each other,
Sisters and brothers
Whom Jesus sends out to the ends of the earth – together.
And I have been glorified in them!
What a legacy.