Where Jesus Is

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on John 17:20-26.

Yesterday I was in Knoxville, TN, attending a conference called “Joining God in the Neighborhood.” It was offered for the congregations of the Diocese of East Tennessee, to introduce them to  a project of training and coaching that will help them learn how to make little experiments, how to take baby steps, in getting to know their neighbors in new ways and living out the Gospel with them in new expressions. We are going to do that conference here in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia in August – and I invite you to be thinking about whether you might be interested in going to that conference to represent Trinity!

One of the things we did at this conference was to get out of the hall where we were meeting and go walk around the neighborhood. We were invited to look at buildings and streets and parks and people. We were trying to notice things that sparked our imaginations, or seemed to tell a story, or made us want to ask questions. Noticing these things in the neighborhood was a first step in starting to discern where we might recognize God at work, where we might see the Spirit moving, where we might know that Jesus was with us, there on the streets in the community.  

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus prays for his disciples, “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” Jesus prays that we, his disciples today, might be with him where he is.

And that immediately makes us ask where is Jesus, so that we may indeed be with him there.

One way of answering that is that Jesus is in heaven. We might think that Jesus is praying that God will take his disciples up into heaven after they die.  We could interpret that this prayer is all about the promise that those who believe in Jesus may ascend into the heavenly realms where Jesus is enthroned in glory at the right hand of God and reign with him there forever and ever.

And there are lots of cues in our liturgy today that point precisely toward that way of  understanding Jesus’ prayer. Just last Thursday we observed the Feast of the Ascension, when Jesus ascended from the earth and disappeared from his disciples’ sight – and that makes today is “Ascension Sunday,” and that certainly points our understanding toward the idea of heaven. In our Collect today we pray about how God has “exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven,” and then we ask God to “exalt us unto the same place whither our Savior Christ is gone before” – and that’s all about going to heaven. Our second reading today, from Revelation, comes from the climax of that book, and is full of images from John’s great vision of the fulfillment of all things in the union of earth and heaven. Our liturgy today is full of cues that point us in the direction of thinking of heaven when we think of being where Jesus is and being in his glory.

And there is truth in that. The promise that beyond this life there is something more – something that will take up all the broken pieces of our experience, something that will gather all the fragments of our failure, something that will make good the times we tried to be loving and just and trustworthy and faithful and courageous, all the times we tried and all the times we failed – the promise that beyond this life there is something that will take us up and make us whole is one of the great gifts of Christian faith, one of the things that helps us keep on going, keep on striving, even when we know we’ll never be perfect in this world. The prayer that we may be with Jesus where he is in heaven, to share in the glory of his whole and perfect love, is given to us to be a source of strength.

But one of the great things about John’s Gospel is that it always means more than one thing at a time. It is one of the defining characteristics of John’s Gospel that it is always inviting us to understand things on multiple levels – and to realize that the real meaning lies not just on any one level but in the relationships between the different levels. So it is in this verse: Jesus prays that we may be where he is to see his glory: and we are invited to realize that Jesus may be in many places and his glory revealed in many ways. That’s part of what we learned on our walk through the neighborhood. This verse calls us to be where Jesus is, not just in heaven, but in this world too, and to see his glory in this world’s acts of mission and ministry and love.

We can be with Jesus where he is and see his glory with the poor and the outcast and the suffering. When Jesus was about to raise Lazarus, he said to Martha “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” – and his bringing life to the spent and broken body of Lazarus was the glory that everybody there could see. And if we want to be where Jesus is, then we must be with the poor and the outcast and the suffering, we must be in ministry with those who grieve and weep and struggle just to get by. And we will see Jesus’ glory in the comfort and courage and strength and new life that such compassion creates.

We can be with Jesus where he is and see his glory with those who celebrate, in those moments when unexpected joy bursts out to transform everything. When Jesus changed the water into wine so that everyone could enjoy the wedding at Cana, John says “he revealed his glory” – glory witnessed in the joy that all could share. And if we want to be where Jesus is, then we must be present to moments of joy and celebration and richness of experience, we must give what we have to build up shared good and mutual well-being. And we will see Jesus’ glory in the renewed life and the resounding hope that grows from such shared joy.

We can be with Jesus where he is and see his glory in the simplest actions of love and connection and being together as one. In his prayer Jesus says, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one” – and that means every time we reach out to each other for unity, every time we overcome an obstacle to relationship, every time we look past differences of opinion or politics or persuasions or class or race or sexuality in order to see each other as we are – every time we connect, we are seeing Jesus’ glory, we are placing ourselves with Jesus where he is, we are living our way into Jesus’ prayer for us.

Jesus prayed for his disciples – Jesus prays for you – that you might be with him where he is to see his glory. That prayer is for us a promise of eternal life in the unimaginable glories of heaven – and at the same time it is a promise that our eyes may be opened to see the heavenly dimension of our life and mission here on this earth. Let us join with Jesus this day, and make it our prayer that we may be with him where he is, in this world and the next, and that his glory may shine through us for all to see.