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Acts 16.16-34John 17.20-26

Today is something of an in-between Sunday. The Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, as we follow Luke’s story of the early church. The disciples know Jesus is not with them in quite the same way he has been since Easter day, and yet they’ve been told to wait for the Spirit, when they will find Jesus with them in a new way. We know their waiting period is ten days. They don’t know that, they don’t know how long it is they will have to wait.

This time between Ascension Day and Pentecost is also being kept as a time of prayer following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initiative called “Thy kingdom come.” That phrase from the Lord’s prayer is a reminder that a central strand of Christian thought and prayer sees the times we live in as in-between times. The time of Jesus, and above all his resurrection from the dead, marks the beginning of God’s kingdom of love and life, but from then till the end of time we live both in the light of God’s coming kingdom, and in the shadowlands of a world still marked by hurts and hates, pain and death.

Today’s gospel is the end of Jesus’ prayer on the last night of his earthly life. John tells the story of the Last Supper quite differently from the other gospels. After the foot-washing, Jesus speaks for several chapters about the fact that he is “going away for a little while” and that he is “going to the Father.” He talks about how after he has gone away, the Father will send his disciples another Advocate or Comforter, the Holy Spirit.

That word can refer to the kind of public advocate, what we would now think of as a barrister or lawyer, who will speak up for us when we end up in trouble, on trial. Finding themselves in prison, before judges, in court was part and parcel of the early Christian experience as Luke tells the story, including today’s reading which has Paul and Silas being thrown into prison. They would regularly find themselves in situations where they needed God’s presence to help and strengthen them, and enable them to speak up for their faith.

The word can also be interpreted more generally as Encourager or in the older English of the King James Bible, Comforter. The Bayeux Tapestry, commemorating the Battle of Hastings, has a famous scene of the warrior bishop Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror, enthusing his troops as he waves a club at them on horseback. The inscription explaining the picture says “Bishop Odo comforts his boys.” Comfort is a rather more vigorous idea in the King James Bible than we take it to be today. The Holy Spirit is the one who urges us on.

And here, at the end of Jesus’ final evening, his prayer to the Father emphasises what we are meant to be about in these in-between times. In this closing part of his prayer, he prays not only for his disciples but for “those who will believe in me through their word” – a group that includes you, and me. In this reading, John describes Jesus praying for you. And he prays for us to live in unity, in truth, in God: “As you Father are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us” and “May they be one, as we are one.” Jesus wants the life of the church on earth to reflect the perfect love and unity of God. That’s rather more than “getting along with each other”, aiming for “good disagreement”, or learning to be tolerant.

I’ve sometimes heard various Christians say things like: “the truth of the gospel is more important than unity”. I don’t really understand that attitude in the light of Jesus’ prayer. The unity of Christians, is meant to be an example, a foretaste, of the unity, peace, reconciliation and love God intends for all humanity, all creation: the kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. Unity, this kind of unity in God, is the truth of the gospel. It challenges those of us who try to follow Jesus not simply to planning ecumenical events with other Christians, not simply to going along to get along with one another, but to be prepared to follow the example of the one who gives himself away to serve God and reconcile the world.

Jesus promises that whatever we face in these in-between times, we do not face it alone, but with the Comforter, the Advocate, whose comfort might be more bracing than we would sometimes wish. He prays for us, that we won’t simply cling to what we know, but will catch the vision of what real peace and unity can look like, the love that imitates and shares in the eternal triune love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the love that gives itself away in the service of others.

That’s a daunting call, and so we pray not only “Thy kingdom come”, but also “Come, Holy Spirit”

O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

Questions

  1. How do you react to the thought that in this reading you eavesdrop on Jesus, praying for you, personally, one of those who believe in him because of the disciples’ message?
  2. When you hear people talk about or pray for Christian Unity, or do so yourself, what sort of thing are you praying for. Have you ever thought of that unity as being as close, deep, and complete as the unity shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
  3. What do you make of the idea of living in in-between times, whether in changing personal circumstances, or as a way of thinking of all human life between the resurrection of Jesus and the end of time?

If you want a link to the Bayeux Tapestry picture referred to in the podcast, you can find it here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odo_of_Bayeux#/media/File:Odo_bayeux_tapestry.png