SJF• Easter 7c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “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.”+
Just between us, I’m kind of glad that the Sunday School and Youth have gone about their activities, because I’m going to mention something about childhood and youth that is probably best kept amongst the older generation. Though, seriously, I don’t know who I’m fooling, because almost all children really know it already; soon after learning to walk and talk, they have learned a powerful secret that will help carry them on through life and into their own adulthood. It is a secret that helped the children of Israel survive in the wilderness, and in the Promised Land in which they settled after their long journey. It is a secret that helped the Apostles deal with the difficulties they faced as the church began to find its feet and take its first tottering steps and begin and speak out against idolatry and injustice. And the secret is this: when Mom says No, Dad can be appealed to, to intercede, and maybe to get Mom to change her mind.
This is the secret art of advocacy, getting someone to advocate for you, to mediate for you and take your part, to speak on your behalf when it seems that the case may be closed and the judgement final. Having been serving jury duty last two weeks, and due to go back for at least another before the trial is completed — I’ve seen with my own eyes how important it is to have a good defense attorney: someone to serve as an advocate, to speak on your behalf, to make a compelling case. Even very young children learn fairly early on that No is not always the last word, and that a little skillful diplomacy, advocacy or mediation can get even a stern motherly or fatherly mind changed. The crucial thing is that the advocate must be someone who can speak to the one who has made the adverse decision, someone who has a relationship with the one who handed down that previous order, someone whose advocacy will have an impact, just as a husband might be able to influence his wife, or, as in the case of our Gospel today — the Son of God interceding on behalf his disciples, and those who will believe through their word — who knows he will be heard by his Father in heaven. He is not just speaking into the air, but into the ear of his loving Father.
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Imagine, if you will, a child who has just knocked over his mother’s favorite vase. Now, this child might well go to his mother right off and apologize. But a wise child might first go to his father, explain the situation, and ask for his help in preparing the way for the apology to his mother. And such a father might well tell his child to rely on the love that his mother has for him, even though he’s just broken her favorite vase.
I spoke last week of how important tradition is, how important history is for knowing where you’ve been and where you are, in order to understand where you’re going. That goes for our personal history as well, the history of our personal relationships — relationships that do not simply pop into existence out of the blue, but which are built up over time and enriched by experience. And few such relationships are as important as the relationships we have with those who brought us up from childhood — whether our own parents, or foster parents, or grandparents. Those relationships begun in childhood are the longest lasting, simply because they are the earliest to start.
And so, the father in my imagined scenario might encourage his son, by saying, “Do you think that your mother, who has loved you your whole life, will turn away from you now just because you broke a bit of crockery? No, she won’t do that, because of the love that has been there long before.” Not that a few helpful words from the father to the mother might not help, mind you! — that’s where intercession and advocacy come in — but the basis is the trust that relies on the relationship that existed long before.
And that is really how advocacy works. Most advocacy, most mediation, consists in reminding people of the “big picture” or the larger context of the situation. It’s not just the broken piece of crockery, but what might have led to that accident. Justice is not just about the particular minute act in question, but about the whole course of a life, with all its ups and downs, its failures and successes, seen in relation to the circumstances of the particular occasion. This was a point made by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as part of her confirmation hearings. Some people didn’t like that way of thinking; they didn’t like to think that a woman who grew up in the South Bronx might bring a different perspective to the Supreme Court. Some people didn’t like it and thought a judge should preserve complete judicial blindness to the context of a person’s life and treat all actions in the abstract — as if they were pure acts suspended in space, apart from the actors who carried them out. But thanks be to God that God’s justice is not blind — based as it is upon complete and perfect knowledge not just of the individual actions that we perform, but of us, and of all of the contexts and conditions surrounding them.
This is why God is the ultimate just judge, and also — in Christ — the great mediator and advocate. He is the Lord of context, of inclusion, of the “big picture.” He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, arching over the whole of creation and present in every place at every time.
God is infinite, but we are finite. God is without limit in time or space, while we have a beginning and an ending, and a specific place in the world. We human creatures, dust brought to life at the breath of God, aware of our limitations, need to be reassured from time to time that God still does take account of us, that God cares about us, especially when we’ve strayed and done wrong, and know we’ve done wrong, and rightly feel that God may turn from us.
Our collect today contains that almost heartbreaking appeal: “Do not leave us for comfortless...” And so we appeal in these moments of feeling desolated and comfortless, to Jesus our Lord, the Son of the Father, to intercede for us with the Father. We appeal to him to take up once more that great prayer that he prayed on the night before he suffered and died for us, that prayer not only on behalf of the apostles, but also on behalf of those who believe in him though their word, for us, who have received that word second-, third- or fourth-hand down through that long tradition of the church. He was praying for us as well that night: that we might all be one.
We crave the assurance of that unity, of God’s love for us, for that unity and peace in the embrace of God, like the embrace of a loving parent, that all is well; and yet we know we are far from perfect, we know we have erred and strayed, and not done all as we should do. So somewhat shy of standing before the majestic judge, we turn to Jesus, who, while he is our judge, is also our only Mediator and Advocate, and we ask him to intercede on our behalf, to restore our sense of unity with him and with each other, and with God, his Father and our Father. For it is unity that is our hope and God’s will for us: that we may all be one even as God is one. Our prayer is to be with Jesus where he is, for when we are with him who is one with the Father, we are with the Father too.
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I began this sermon by telling about children’s skill in obtaining an advocate to be with them on their side and speak on their behalf. Writer Carol Kent, in an interview in Today’s Christian Woman, tells of one such skillful child, her little boy Jason. They were eating breakfast together one morning; she was wearing a patched pair of jeans and a fuzzy old sweater, ready to do housework on her day off. The little boy looked up over his cereal bowl and said, “Mommy, you look so pretty today!” She was surprised, since she didn’t even have any makeup on, and said, “Jason, why would you say I look pretty today? I’m not even wearing my suit and high heels.” The child said, “When you look like that, I know you’re going away; but when you’re dressed like this, I know you’re here, and you’re all mine.”
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Well, Jesus is all ours. He is our mediator and advocate, and that’s a big “our.” It’s not just you and me here at Saint James; it’s not just all the Episcopalians or all the Anglicans; it is rather all for whom Christ prayed on that night before he died, all of those who would believe through the preaching of the apostles, all one in Christ throughout the whole wide earth. That is what Christ prayed for, and that is what God granted.
Christ came to us dressed in his housework clothes, and he knelt to wash the disciples’ feet. He came to us not in majesty and splendor, robed as a king or a conqueror, but as a humble worker — a carpenter from a small town out in the suburbs, a friend and companion of common folk, of fishermen and farmers, of clerks and shopkeepers and people who lived by their wits on the streets. And he was with them and he belonged to them as he is with us and belongs to us, and all of us together belong to God through him. He is our only mediator and advocate, and he has not left us comfortless, nor abandoned us— he is ours for ever, and we are his. And even in this present seeming-absence from us, in this in-between-time in-the-mean-time since his ascent into heaven and until his coming again in power and great glory to rule the world, he has sent his Holy Spirit to be with us, so that we might have him in our hearts, comforted with that spiritual presence until that great day when we are exalted to that place where he has gone before, that where he is, we may also be, for ever, and be completely, utterly, and finally and at last, one.+