Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 1:6-14+Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36+1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11+John 17:1-11

Every year on this Seventh Sunday of Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension, our lectionary gives us a portion of John 17 as our gospel. In this Year A, we start at the very beginning of the chapter known as Jesus’s high priestly prayer. It’s the last thing he has to offer them before his arrest and crucifixion. He has been at table with the eleven remaining disciples, after the foot-washing and Judas’s departure to betray him. He has been reminding them for three full chapters of all the things he has been saying to them for the past three years. Today’s reading starts out with Jesus saying that his hour had come, a bookend to the words “my hour has not yet come” (2:4) that he spoke to his mother way back in chapter two at the wedding in Cana. Don’t forget, he seems to be saying, all that happened between Cana so long ago and this Upper Room.

And now, Jesus is commending his disciples to God. And they get to listen in and hear what Jesus is saying to God about them.

If you have spent any time in John’s gospel, you can’t fail to realize that the Jesus John describes is a far different Jesus from the one found in the other three gospels. This is a Jesus firmly in control of his destiny, firmly convinced of his oneness with God. There is no fear in the garden, no pleading to let the cup pass, no need for help in carrying the cross, no cries of abandonment from the cross. Just “it is finished” (19:30) after making provision for his mother’s care. This is not Luke’s compassionate and familiar Jesus or Matthew’s rabbi Jesus or Mark’s messiah Jesus. This is the Word made flesh, present in the beginning with God, the fulfillment of God’s purposes for creation, for humankind, not some afterthought to fix everything after we had messed things up so badly that incarnation and death and resurrection were the only way to make things right. I’ve always imagined John’s Jesus as walking just a little bit above the ground, fully human yet carrying undeniable divinity. This Jesus is Max von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told, not Ted Neeley in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Here at the end of his time on earth, in this short bit that we read this morning, the words glory and glorify are used six times. What does that even mean? I spent some time this week doing a word study of the Greek noun δόξῃ, from which we get “doxology,” and δόξῃ means praise, honor, renown, and to “glorify” is to “make renowned,” to “render illustrious,” and “to cause the dignity and worth of some person or thing to become manifest and acknowledged.”[1]

So for Jesus to ask God to glorify him is to make it known to the disciples and to all the world that Jesus is who he claimed to be. The great I AM. One with God. And the way that was to happen led straight to the cross, because only God can conquer death.

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis in the spring of 1968, he didn’t go to make a speech. He didn’t go to meet with world leaders. He didn’t go to receive recognition or reward. No, he went to support sanitation workers who were on strike because the municipality of Memphis was not paying them fairly or assuring their safety. Just two months earlier, two sanitation workers – garbage collectors – were killed when their truck mechanism malfunctioned. Dr. King took his Poor People’s Campaign to Memphis to shine a light on the need for economic and social justice in this sleepy southern city.

On April 3, thousands of people packed into the Mason Temple and heard Dr. King give what would be his farewell address. He wasn’t even supposed to speak that night. The keynoter at this gathering of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was supposed to be the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, but when the crowd shouted for King, Abernathy called him on the phone at the Lorraine Motel where they were staying and asked him to come.

Many have said that King seemed to sense that the end was not far off. The airplane on which he had flown to Memphis had been delayed while bomb-sniffing dogs and law enforcement could search luggage and the airplane hold due to threats on King’s life. His speech is filled with melancholy, reflecting on an attempted assassination years earlier that had almost killed him and wondering “What would happen…from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [2]

There’s that word again. Glory. Yes, Dr. King was quoting the words of abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, but this final address to those who looked to him to deliver them as Moses delivered the people of Israel is very much like Jesus’s final address to the disciples who looked to him to deliver them from the oppression of Rome. Both died the next day after sharing these last words. And if we understand “glorify” as making known one’s exalted position, one’s worth, one’s value, then not only were these two glorified, those who came after them – including us – have been elevated, brought into proximity with the divine.

In the 1647 Westminster Shorter Catechism, one of the Confessions of the Reformed Church tradition, including Presbyterians, the very first question asks:

Q: What is the chief end of man? 
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.[3]

We glorify God, giving the honor and praise due to our Creator, and Jesus is asking that he be glorified and that we share in that glory. When the disciples watched Jesus ascend into heaven, it was not as if the world went back to the way it was before. They had been commissioned, glorified, and told to wait for the gift of the Spirit.

As followers of Jesus, that same glory is imputed to us. We are God’s own, “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP 308). We may not understand what Jesus was talking about any more than the disciples did, but still, they went to the temple, spent their time in prayer and worship, and waited. Trusting that what Jesus had told them was true.

Athanasius of Alexandria who lived in the 4th century claimed that “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”[4] It was these words of Jesus, the high priestly prayer, that gave birth to the understanding that we share in the divine life, the glory of God. How can we ever imagine that we are created for less or that any other human is? The mystery of the Incarnation is that God chose a human life as a way to bring us back to God. Christ ascended completes that purpose. We live in God and God in us.

In these days when we are separated from each other, these are encouraging things to hear. In these days when we are shut inside, let us follow the example of the disciples, in prayer and praise of God, waiting for the rush of a mighty wind from heaven.




[4] Athanasius, On the Incarnation

ASEPSermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas