Sermons



Francesca Perlman
13th May 2018
Living in Answer to Jesus’ Prayer

I’ve been asked this morning to start by reflecting briefly on my time here at St Matthew’s, and I want to say how much I have appreciated and enjoyed the last 3 months here. The reason for coming here on placement was so that I could experience an Anglican church with a more formal style than I am used to. Over the last few weeks I have enjoyed the beautiful worship services, especially those during Holy Week, where the music and the visual experiences and the “living out” of the Passion story made the Easter message seem particularly real and fresh this year. As well as personal enjoyment, I have also gained a much greater appreciation and vision of how I (and hopefully others) can encounter Jesus through a “high church” style of worship. And I’ve learned that this can take place alongside good Biblical teaching.

But my experience at St Matthew’s has been about so much more than just the worship services. I have really appreciated the warmth and welcome of the church family, and seeing the way that people express God’s love through meeting each other’s needs within the church and also in outreach into the community. I have appreciated the kindness of particular individuals who have spent time with me, and people’s readiness to include me in the life and activities of the church.

 
Lent group

A particular highlight of my time here was taking part in the Facebook Lent group. For those of you who don’t know, this was a daily online discussion group based on Sister Wendy Beckett’s book “The Art of Lent”, in which she presented and commented on a different painting on each of the 40 days of Lent. Every day, Fr Andrew would post the day’s picture online and start the discussion. Others in the group would add their comments, and we had many interesting discussions. I learned a lot from people’s insights, and the conversations were made all the richer by the many church traditions represented here at St Matthew’s.

One of the paintings that particularly struck me was “Chasing butterflies” by Thomas Gainsborough, where the artist portrayed his two young daughters going off into a garden on their own, without their parents, looking for butterflies. Our discussions moved on from the painting, and towards the difficulties of letting go of our children and other loved ones, and allowing them to have their own experiences and adventures, in situations when we cannot control what happens to them and when we cannot come to their aid.

Looking at today’s Gospel passage from John 17, I wonder whether Jesus had similar feelings as he prayed for his disciples, knowing that they would be going into a difficult world, and that he would not be there with them.

Jesus prayed this prayer after the Last Supper and soon before his arrest, when he knew his earthly life was almost over. He had just been teaching the disciples, warning them of his coming betrayal and death, and of their subsequent persecutions; but at the same time promising them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and reassuring them of their place in heaven and of his eventual return.

As he prayed for the disciples, Jesus showed his very human side. Although he was fully man and fully God, this prayer reveals his humanity: he was a man who had to entrust his concerns to his heavenly Father, and he could not control the future.

 
The prayer

So, what is Jesus telling the disciples (and us) through his prayer?

The most important thing, I believe, is that Jesus wanted to give the disciples assurance, so that they could live their lives as an answer to his prayer. And he assured them in several ways.

He assured them by praying out loud. Just by hearing his prayer, they would understand more of what was to come, and that Jesus loved and cared for them. Perhaps the disciples did not take his words in at the time, but later they would look back and remember their significance.

Jesus assured them that his heavenly Father was in control. Although he was leaving them through death and suffering, this was part of God’s plan. He was going to the Father, having completed his earthly ministry, sharing all that the Father had given him so that they would believe in him and follow him.

He also assured the disciples of their security and purpose. They were secure in the Father’s love, because they had believed in Jesus as his Son. And through their lives of faith and obedience, they had brought glory to Jesus, sharing in his purpose of glorifying the Father. And knowing their security and purpose would surely help sustain them among the challenges of their earthly lives.

Jesus also assured the disciples of his protection. He had already protected them during his earthly life, with the one exception of Judas Iscariot. The loss of Judas, predestined and foretold in the Scriptures, also mentioned in our Acts reading, is one of the more difficult things to understand in the Bible. But, what is more important is that none of the other disciples was lost, even though they made many mistakes. Peter denied Jesus, Thomas doubted the resurrection, and all the disciples abandoned him at his crucifixion. Yet, they were not lost, and Jesus had protected them.

And he assured them by praying that his Father’s ongoing protection, even though Jesus himself would not be with them physically. And they would need those prayers. Jesus warned the disciples that they would face hatred and opposition by the world, and spiritual opposition by the Evil one, especially to their unity. Yet they knew they were prayed for, just as we know that Jesus continues to intercede for us in heaven (Heb 7:25).

Jesus prayed not only for the disciples as founder members of his church, but later in the chapter (after our reading) he prayed for those who would become believers through them. And knowing that Jesus was praying for you and me even during his earthly life 2,000 years ago gives me great comfort and confidence.

 
Our response:

So, how can we respond to Jesus’ prayer? I think that Jesus wants us to respond, like the disciples, by becoming an answer to his prayer. And he gives us many clues as to how we can do so.

1 Be joyful
The most important thing is to be joyful, knowing that as believers, we are secure in Jesus. Joy isn’t about superficial frothy emotion, but it’s about a deeper feeling to give us resilience even when times are difficult.

For me, and perhaps for some of you, it isn’t always easy to be full of joy when life is hard. Yet in those times, we need to remember that Jesus has done the work, we are saved if we follow him, and like the disciples, we are secure in God our Father even when we make mistakes. And this security is the foundation of joy. (And if you are not sure about your faith in God, please talk to someone on the leadership team here, who would be happy to discuss any of this with you.)

2 Be watchful
In his prayer, Jesus reminds us that we live in a hostile world where we can expect both persecution and spiritual attack, and we need to be on our guard and praying for our protection.

Whilst we don’t face the severe physical persecution that Christian believers face in some parts of the world, we still may face rejection and ridicule for our beliefs, and we should not be surprised when this happens.

And we will also experience spiritual attack. It’s very clear that Jesus believed in the forces of evil, and particularly in the Evil One. The Christian writer C.S Lewis warns us of the “two equal and opposite errors” of either disbelief or having “an excessive and unhealthy interest” in such forces. So we need to have a balanced understanding; we need to be aware, and to pray for protection.

Jesus prayed especially for the unity of the believers, just like his unity with the Father within the Trinity. And often spiritual attacks can come as challenges to unity. One of the things I like about St Matthew’s is seeing a diverse group of people sharing fellowship together, with a common aim of serving God. But we cannot take this for granted, and we need to echo Jesus’ prayers for unity. And unity needs to be worked at. Whilst there is not time to talk about this in any detail, I believe there are a few basic principles that help: a willingness to communicate honestly but respectfully, to admit our mistakes, and to forgive readily are important. None of this is easy, and I certainly find it challenging.

3 Be growing
Jesus prayed that the disciples would be sanctified, just as he had sanctified himself, and being sanctified means becoming more holy. And he specifically mentions God’s word in relation to this. Engaging in the Bible is an important part of allowing God to transform and renew us into his likeness. Listening to a sermon on a Sunday is good, but if you’ve not already done so, why not take the opportunity to read the Bible for yourself, re-reading the passage for the day, reading through one of the Gospels or using some daily Bible notes. It can seem quite challenging at first, but I’ve personally found spending time in God’s Word to be a worthwhile long-term investment.

4 Be out there
Jesus has sent us as his representatives into a world, and he wants us to reach out to others through loving service and in sharing the Gospel (later on he prays for those who will believe through the disciples’ witness). As I have already said, one of the things that has particularly struck me about St Matthew’s is the many examples of practical loving outreach, of which the Food Bank is just one example. But there are times when we need to explain to others the Christian faith that underlies our outreach. And this is a challenge for all of us, including me. Local training courses such as Faith Pictures and the “How can I tell” Deanery course are helpful in growing in confidence in sharing our faith, but we need to be praying for and taking opportunities to speak of our faith in practice.

 
Summary

In conclusion, Jesus prayed so that we, like the first disciples, can know joy and assurance. He wants us to be on our guard against opposition and to remain united. He wants us to be growing closer to him as we pray and read his Word, and he wants us to reach out and share our faith with others.