Seventh Sunday of Easter (2 June 2019)
JoAnn A. Post
Jesus prayed: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 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.
“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
In 1967, then-US Navy lieutenant commander John McCain fell into the hands of North Vietnamese forces and became one of the most famous POW’s in American history. His “fame” (an unfortunate word) grew, not because of his four-star military heritage, or the brutality of his captors, but because he refused to leave. When his abusers discovered that their prisoner was the son of the commander of US forces in the Pacific, they offered him early release—a propaganda ploy and an attempt to further demoralize other US prisoners of war.
The young McCain refused, clinging to the POW code that prisoners are released in the order in which they are taken captive. He would not do damage to his brothers in prison, even though he was nearly killed for refusing the “offer.”
He suffered unbelievable hardship because he stayed. For the sake of another.
In 1985, imprisoned leader of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela refused an offer of early release from Pollsmoor Prison, Capetown. At that point, he had already been held for 14 years as a political prisoner. Why did he refuse? Until other political prisoners were released AND until the ANC was recognized as a legitimate political party AND until Apartheid was lifted, he would not budge. For his stubborn loyalty to the cause of racial equity in South Africa, he sat in prison for another six years before an agreement was reached.
He suffered decades of isolation because he stayed. For the sake of another.
This morning we read a similar story in scripture (Acts 16.16-34). In the year 70, the apostles Paul and Silas were chained in the bowels of a Greek prison. Their crime? They had cast a demon from a slave girl. Outraged that their “property” would no longer turn a profit for her “owners,” the owners convinced the magistrates that these middle-eastern preachers were a threat to society. They were bullied and beaten with rods for their “crimes.” It was, of course, a complete sham, but Paul and Silas refused to defend themselves.
In a miraculous turn of events, their shackles—and the shackles of all the prisoners locked in that jail—were loosed, the prison bars shredded by a mighty earthquake in the middle of the night. Convinced the prisoners had fled (wouldn’t you?), the jailer was about to take his own life rather than face the consequences of his failure to secure the prisoners.
Paul cried out in the dark, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
They were. Paul. Silas. And every one of the other prisoners. Not only did they stay. They sang. Long into the night. They sang.
What causes a prisoner to willingly remain in prison? What drives a prisoner to sing in shackles? Why would one stay in the dark brutality of a prison? The writer of Acts doesn’t say specifically. But we can guess. I think it was because of something Jesus said the night before he himself was taken prisoner, unjustly accused, beaten and sentenced to death. Something about living—and dying—for the sake of another. Something about staying.
As the Easter season draws to a close, we find Jesus on his knees in prayer. Recently betrayed by Judas, aware that in a few hours Peter would do the same, Jesus prayed—out loud.
Funny thing. Jesus’ prayers bear no resemblance to mine.
My prayers are typically terse, selfish. “Help me.” “Protect the ones I love.” “Show me.”
Jesus would have had every reason to pray a similar, terse, selfish prayer that night. Had he been inclined he could have prayed fire down on the head of his accusers. He could have prayed for an escape route. A change of heart for Pilate. An ally among the soldiers. He could have prayed to wake from the nightmare his life had become. But he refused.
Instead he prayed for his disciples—the weak-kneed, self-serving, easily-distracted cast of characters he had chosen to be his closest friends.
But, again, he didn’t pray for them as I might pray for my friends. He prayed that they would be one. United. Of one mind. For the sake of another. Firmly planted in the world.
The gospel writer John has a unique slant on the Jesus story. Unlike the other three gospel writers, his goal was not to chronicle Jesus’ ministry or make political and theological points. John’s Jesus is always glancing out of the corner of his eye, over his shoulder, into the distance. If Jesus had been an actor, we would say that he was “breaking the fourth wall.”
The fourth wall is a theater concept. The fourth wall is the invisible barrier separating the audience from the actors on stage. The actors typically play their roles as though no one is watching. But every once in awhile, an actor will turn to the audience, breaching the fourth wall, and address them directly. It is a wink, a nod, a dog whistle that says, “I know you’re there. We all know you’re there. This is all for you.”
John’s Jesus consistently breaks the fourth wall. Making it clear that we are his intended audience, we are the object of his affection, the source of his concern, the reason he stayed with unworthy disciples, and his unworthy disciples would remain in the world.
Three times in this morning’s gospel Jesus winks our direction in his prayer, asking his Father “that the world may believe you have sent me;” “that the world may know you love them;” “so that I may be in them.”
By the end of the gospel, John himself will have abandoned all pretense of impartiality. He will turn directly his audience—to us—to spill the beans, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20.30ff)
Everything Jesus did and said, every miracle he performed, every indignity he suffered, every prayer he prayed—all of it was for another. All of it was for us. And also, for us, he stayed. When another would have run or retaliated. Jesus stayed.
I marvel at men like John McCain, Nelson Mandela, the early believers who suffered sorrows we cannot imagine. This week we have been invited to also consider Harriet Tubman, as much a marvel as any of the men we have already named.
You may recall that she was a 19th century abolitionist, who repeatedly risked her own life to free other slaves. Born into slavery herself, Tubman escaped and subsequently made at least thirteen missions to rescue over seventy enslaved people. She is in the news now because she has been deemed mysteriously unworthy of gracing the $20 bill, as had been planned by the US Treasury. Misogyny? Racism? Political game-playing? No mind. It was not public fame or a minted image she sought. She would not allow anyone to be left behind. Returning again and again to the war zone of Reconstruction. She stayed with slaves until they were free.
Of course, we are grateful for the tremendous sacrifices these women and men made for us. We are humbled at their courage to stay behind, sometimes even to sing. Who among us has courage to do the same?
But today we are asked to do more than admire selfless individuals. Because Jesus is still praying. And as he prays, he glances out of the corner of his eye, over his shoulder, into the distance. Past us. To all of them.
It is not enough that we receive Jesus’ affection and attention. Gosh, thanks, Jesus. You shouldn’t have.
It is our turn to face the audience, to address the world. Our turn to be brave. Our turn to love. Our turn to be stand as one. Our turn to stay with all the broken and abused, the misunderstood and misplaced in our world.
In Jesus’ name, we will stay in the world, with the world, united in love for another and all for whom Christ died. And, of course, we will sing.