The Seventh Sunday of Easter 2021: A Sermon

Lessons

In eight days we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, and already today’s readings are setting us up for it. The reading from Acts picks up from Thursday’s Ascension Day reading, and brings us to the end of the 1st chapter; chapter 2 opens on the Day of Pentecost. The Gospel narrates the heart of Jesus’ prayer for the disciples: Protect them! Sanctify them (Make them holy)! And the Father’s response to that prayer is chiefly in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

To appreciate what’s going on in Jesus’ prayer, recall the scene toward the start of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers in which Gandalf the wizard and Pippin the hobbit are in conversation: “Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for, the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth” (1965, 34).

“[A] great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.” Something like that same combination of care, sorrow, and joy is present, I suspect, in Jesus’ face and certainly in his words. Here he is, hours away from Judas’ betrayal and the tender mercies of the Roman garrison, talking about “my joy made complete in themselves.”

The joy is intimately connected to God’s Name: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” Now that’s odd: they didn’t know God’s name? What’s going on here? It turns out that Jesus making God’s name known is multi-dimensional, each dimension inviting us to joy.

The fundamental revelation of God’s Name up to this point occurred when God through Moses brought Israel out of slavery. In that first conversation at the burning bush, God has announced his intention to deliver Israel from Egypt, and we get this interchange:
—If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?
—I AM WHO I AM.… Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’

“I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” The most frequent form of the name was probably pronounced “Yahweh” (in some older translations, “Jehovah”). In its abbreviated form it’s the ‘Jah’ in ‘Hallelujah’. Whatever the form, the Israelites learn the meaning of this Name in God’s actions for their liberation. They start out slaves; they end up free; that’s what ‘I am’ means. And periodically in the Old Testament we encounter this I AM again, particularly in the Greek translation with which Jesus and the NT writers —specifically John— would have been familiar:

  • See now that I AM. There is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39; my translation)
  • You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I AM. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. (Isaiah 43:10; my translation)

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus takes up this name “I AM” in a whole series of statements:

  • Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (6:35)
  • Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (8:12)
  • So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” (10:7)
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (10:11)
  • Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…” (11:25)
  • Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6)
  • “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” (15:1)

And in case we’re thinking “well, talk is cheap,” recall that Jesus says “I am the bread of life” after the feeding of the 5,000, “I am the light of the world” after giving sight to the blind, and “I am the resurrection and the life” just before calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

Nor did “I AM” always come with a predicate. Recall Jesus’ “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” (John 8:58 NAB). Again, when the disciples in a small boat in the middle of a big storm cry out in fear as they see Jesus walking towards them over the sea, Jesus responds, “I AM; do not be afraid” (John 6:20 my translation).

Yes, Jesus has made the Name known to the disciples. Jesus’ actions, Jesus’ words, Jesus’ very being have taken that divine name revealed to Moses to a whole new level. The Israelites were filled with joy when finally out of the Egyptian army’s clutches; as we remember the liberation God has accomplished for us through Jesus, a greater joy can be ours.

There is a second dimension to this “I have made your name known.” The first is the presence and power of “I AM;” the second is Jesus’ distinctive use of “Abba,” the Aramaic word children typically used to address their fathers. We have no evidence of Jesus’ contemporaries using the word to address God; it probably would have seemed far too intimate. Most of the time the Gospels translate it into Greek. Its one appearance in the Gospels during Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane —“Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mk 14.36)— is a window on Jesus’ customary usage. And the intimacy with God Jesus experienced —evident also through today’s Gospel text—is offered to the disciples. Here are the other two appearances in the New Testament:

  • For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15 NAB)
  • And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6 NRSV)

So Jesus making God’s Name known to the disciples isn’t simply about giving them —us— information, but about inviting us to participate ever more deeply in God, God our Abba, God the “I AM” who can bring out of any situation life, freedom, and joy.

There is a third dimension to this “I have made your name known.” Jesus sends us out into the world to baptize in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. By the end of the New Testament, that is clearly the Name of God that Jesus has made known to the disciples. Our God, not a monolithic unity, but a community of love and joy into which we are invited to enter. Who is the God in whose presence we live? A loving Father, whose two arms, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, are constantly extended to strengthen, guide, embrace us. “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

You see, today’s Gospel text is pretty dense. I have tried to go for the core, the many ways Jesus has been revealing God’s Name —God’s reality, God’s character— to the disciples. Grasp this, and the rest falls into place: the deep gratitude in Jesus’ words, the awareness that all that he has is gift, Jesus’ trust in his Father’s continued care for the disciples, and the sense of passing the baton: You sent me into the world; I am sending them into the world. The world —the many ways we organize ourselves to shut out God— will do its worst, but will not succeed, any more than closing your eyes real tight, clenching your fists, and wishing real hard will keep the sun from coming up.

But all that falls into place only if we start with God. “I have made your name known…” Jesus said. Do not settle for anything less here. Do not get sidetracked. Life is too short to settle for anything less than “great joy, a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing.”

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