Preached by the Rev. Canon John Kilgore at Christ Church Cathedral at 8 and 10 am on Sunday, June 1, 2014
So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
‘The glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.’ That’s a line in this gospel that is easy to get over looked. The bit that so often gets focused on is ‘All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them so that they may be one, as we are one.’ But let’s try to open it up a bit….
Have you seen the recent movie The Son of God? Or as they say, seen the play? Read the Book?!! You have read the book. You know the Book! You actually know the story!
I just watched it a couple of days ago, by happenstance, as I was contemplating this sermon. And it seems apt to talk about it a bit, since today’s gospel is John 17 and the movie is essentially the gospel of John. It actually is quite good; richly filmed with wonderful period costumes and desert landscapes, occasional water scenes as well, it is essentially snippets of Jesus’ life — broad brushstrokes and with a several second scene you know, are reminded of, the story. It is not a true narrative but rather snippets in the life of Jesus, essentially in order and telling the story of the life of the Son of God. And it is a story we can’t go wrong reviewing too often. The movie is interesting because it is essentially the gospel of John, from which our gospel passage comes today, and is told by John, in the first person singular narrative.
It begins with a disembodied voice, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.’ Sound familiar? Opening lines of gospel of John. And goes on to explain/remind us what that means. It goes on to say ‘He was there in Paradise with Adam and Eve [rich visual pictures give quick brushstrokes of the scenes in the garden]…He was there with Noah at the great flood [picture the ark and deep waters]…He was there with Abraham when he was chosen [standing on the mountaintop]…He was there when Moses led our people out of Egypt [walls of water on both sides]…In the struggle for the promised land he was always by our side…He was the light shining in the darkness…And then, He came into the world.’
There is then a scene of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the wise men. Then you hear, ‘The Word was made flesh and made His dwelling among us.’
Then the scene cuts back to an aged man with gray hair, sitting in a cave on an island, whom we have seen just briefly a time or two giving the above narrative. He is pondering and stirring the fire and he says:
‘I am John. I was one of his followers. After what I saw, how could I not be?’
This movie is interesting to consider because of the perspective it gives. ‘I am John. I was one of his followers. After what I saw, how could I not be?’ That line spoke deeply to me. When I was in seminary, the course in New Testament began with a historical documentation of the existence of Jesus.
The historical fact of Jesus’ life. An examination of the non-biblical references to a Jew named Jesus who was clearly documented to have lived at the time of the new governor Pontius Pilate in Roman-occupied Palestine. The 1st century Jewish politician, soldier, and historian, Josephus, is referenced as an external authority who made specific references to John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus’ brother James. We Anglicans with our three legged stool, appreciate scripture, reason and tradition. So beginning with an authoritative historical documentation of Jesus’ life appeals to our way of cerebrally considering the story. It is not just ‘Bible stuff’. There are several non-religious writings that testify to the fact that this guy named Jesus lived. Jesus existed and was written about, not just in the Bible. The New Testament course starts out with the historical fact of Jesus as a foundation and then builds onto that with the biblical narratives we have. And documents their writings.
And in the biblical narratives about Him we have several different versions of the story. And that’s good. For not everybody sees everything alike. Different people tell the same story differently. We have, as you know, four gospels. What are called the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke have a great deal in common and essentially give the narrative of the life of Jesus, pretty much in chronological order. But they have their different ‘takes’ if you will. For example Matthew focuses on Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and his lineage of the house of David. You will remember that the gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus. And Matthew has the most references to the fulfillment of prophecy of any of the four gospels. Clearly he had a historical Jewish point of view and was writing to that constituency making the case that Jesus was the expected Messiah. Mark, on the other hand, thought to be the earliest written of the gospels and possibly a source for some of the material in Matthew and Luke, seems to be writing to a circle of Gentile readers and is concerned with the action of Jesus’ works, depicting Jesus, as the Oxford bible says, as ‘being almost continually active.’ Mark uses ‘immediately’, ‘at once’, or ‘then’, very often and gives the most references to the reaction of the crowds around Jesus - they were stunned, there was fear and amazement. Luke, like Mark, was also writing to a Gentile audience rather than Jewish and also doesn’t make all the references to fulfillment of prophecy. He, rather, focuses on the salvation of all, Jesus’ inclusiveness, availability to the gentiles, women, Samaritans, and others. Luke has more of our beloved parables than the others and, of course, the flowery language that we know so well ‘In those days there went out a decree from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…’ as the beginning of Jesus’ birth narrative. Luke was the most educated of the gospel writers, based on his educated Greek language use and his methodical nature. He talks about writing an ‘orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us…by eyewitnesses…I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you…’ Clearly a thoughtful and insightful gospel from a well-educated individual.
And then we have the Gospel according to John, origin of today’s gospel reading and the basis of the film I mentioned. This gospel focuses on the mystery of Jesus, his divine origin, and grandeur. John, like the others, recounts the events of Jesus’ life, the miracles performed, but gives his own interpretation to them more than the other gospel writers, and highlights the tension between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. It really is only in John that we see Jesus interrupted by others during his discourses and engaging in debate with them. Remember the challenge about paying taxes and rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Typical John. And it is John that focuses on Jesus’ eternal origin and divine nature. And to illustrate he uses a number of symbolic terms to make Jesus real to us: bread, water, life, door, shepherd, as the Oxford Bible again points out.
It is easy for us to get wrapped up in a Bible passage, in particular details, in the reading for the day. In the use of particular words or phrases. In the differences among the gospels. But it is really good to look at the big picture. To consider all the gospels. All the Bible. And the context. An example of this is a couple of weeks ago I had to preach on Jesus saying, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life…No one comes to the Father but through me.’ That passage had always been a stumbling block. And in that sermon at St. Paul’s within the Walls in Rome, I made reference to Dean Kinman’s ‘Gnaw on This’ notes that the beginning of John’s gospel reminding us that Jesus was before the present opens up the possibility of His expression to other people in other times and situations, Muslims, Jews, and others. If Jesus was present before, His work didn’t just start with his birth, and didn’t end with his Resurrection and Ascension. We are a part of the story. Not the whole story. It is so important to look at the whole story, to take more than just one passage into account.
Which takes me back to the beginning of this movie, ‘In the beginning He was there…with Adam and Eve, and Noah, and Abraham and Sara, and Moses, and David, and Rahab, and Esther, and Job…. In the beginning He was there. But not just in the beginning. He was there along the timeline. And is… Throughout all these stories. And now, and in the future.
One interesting thing about watching this movie and seeing the stories brought to life on the screen was — I knew all the lines! I don’t think I have ever seen a movie where I could finish the lines of most of the movie, where I knew what the next words were coming out of someone’s mouth! Now I know there are devotees of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Wizard of Oz out there that know every line, can sing all the songs, know the dance routines, etc. But this was different. I didn’t know what parts of the story they were going to include (obviously in a 2 hour movie you can’t tell the whole story) but the parts they related I was, oh so familiar, with. And I could usually finish the sentences. It is a familiar story with familiar lines, but told from a different perspective. A perspective bigger than a single gospel.
And John really sets the stage, tells the story when he says, ‘‘I am John. I was one of his followers. After what I saw, how could I not be?’ Jesus tells doubting Thomas, ‘Blessed are you for seeing and believing. Even more blessed are those who believe but do not see.’
There is another interesting, and really revealing line in the movie, just as Jesus is being crucified and Pilate’s wife is warning him, again, not to have been involved because of her dream and she says ‘You will live to regret this,’ Pilate responds, ‘He was hardly the first Jew to be killed.’ To which she replies, ‘He was different, He was chosen by the gods.’ And Pilate says, ‘He thought he was. He’ll be forgotten in a week…’ John didn’t think so. Peter didn’t think so. The other disciples didn’t think so. They gave their lives telling of Him. How very wrong Pontius Pilate was. For here we are two thousand years later still remembering Him! And so much more than just remembering. Doing what He told us to do.
The movie ends with John on the island of Patmos, living out his days in exile as the only disciple left. And Jesus appears to John talking about the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Opening up the story with very wide bookends. Before time, during time, after time. The Book of Revelations. And Jesus says, ‘I am coming.’
But there is one other scene in the movie that is very important. Just after Jesus’ ascension, the disciples are gathered on the hillside and Jesus is suddenly vanished and Peter says to the other disciples, ‘My brothers, my sisters, we have work to do!’ And the narrative goes on to say that with Peter as their leader they spread the word of Jesus throughout the world, shining the light on all creation. And here we are, results of that.
And that is what we are called to be, to do, with our gospel lives. Yes, our gospel lives, as I like to call them. Our lives of work telling the story. But not just with words. You know that St. Francis said, preach the gospel always, sometime use words. Our gospel lives. Our Jesus lives. How we live and show the gospel to the world is paramount. Seeing this movie reminds me that that is what we are called to do. And it is helpful to have the whole story. For it is when we have the whole story, In the beginning, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, and Jesus in the midst of all of it, that it really makes sense. Jesus was in the beginning and with Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sara and Moses and John on Patmos, and with us, and with those who come after us. John really summarizes it best when he says, ‘I am John. I was one of his followers. After what I saw, how could I not be?’ And then Peter puts us to work — ‘my brothers, my sisters, we have work to do.’ After what John saw, what we have seen, how could we not.