Second-Hand People

The disciples were an heirloom from the Father to Jesus, vessels precious containing the word...

SJF • Easter 7a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.”

One of the peculiarities of John’s Gospel is that his account of the Last Supper contains no mention of the Holy Eucharist. Rather, John is the only evangelist to record the startling act of humility, when Jesus rose from the table and washed the disciples’ feet. But John’s account is also unusual because it is so much longer than that of the other evangelists. As Deacon Cusano reminded us last week, John’s Gospel retelling of the Last Supper includes four and half chapters of teaching and prayer. In this long discourse, Jesus reveals why he came to be among us. These chapters have a timeless quality, as they appear to describe the future, but they also reflect the eternal. It is as if Jesus is both looking forward to his Passion but also looking back upon that Passion, and even upon struggles of the early church, by which the church would come to share in his sufferings. It is as though he is looking back from a time long after his Resurrection — from an eternal perspective, from a God’s-eye-view.

There are even moments, as in today’s portion, in which Jesus refers to himself in the third person — as if he were talking about someone else: “This is eternal life,” he says, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

On top of that, there is an almost hypnotic quality to the language in these chapters — the repetition of phrases, their inversion and weaving together, in a wonderful vision of the interconnectedness of the Father and the Son, knit together in the Spirit, folding the disciples into the unity of God himself: “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.” It is as if all of time and space, humanity and divinity, were displayed on a great silken tapestry being shaken out before us, held up on display, then folded and refolded, tucking all of history, all of the cosmos, into a small space, four and a half chapters in the middle of the Gospel according to Saint John.

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One of the things Jesus makes clear in this reflective and prayerful meditation is that the disciples were not his originally. As he says, they belonged to the Father, and were in the world. I noted in my sermon a few weeks ago, that it was God who chose those who would become followers of Jesus, those God deemed precious. And God committed these chosen disciples to his Son. Jesus had them second-hand.

Anyone who comes from a large family knows about second-hand and hand-me-downs. Actually, since my younger brother outgrew me and soon was bigger and taller than me, I actually experienced a few cases of hand-me-ups! But they were still second-hand.

Usually such second-hand hand-me-downs are forced by economy and practicality. When you don’t have much money, getting some more wear out of someone else’s clothes can help a family pinch a penny until Abraham Lincoln weeps. And I can readily admit that in my early days living in New York City as a struggling artist, I made more than one trip to Goodwill both for clothing and for furniture — and I wasn’t making a donation! I also was savvy enough to take advantage of the Thursday evening “set your unwanted furniture out on the street for collection” that still turns New York City streets into a kind of free-for-all flea market where one person’s refuse becomes another’s living room furniture! I’ve still got a floor lamp over at the rectory that I rescued from the clutches of the sanitation department over forty years ago.

But there is another kind of second-hand that is far more important and valuable than even the greatest curb-side flea-market discovery: and that is the precious inheritance that a father or a mother passes on to their children. I’m sure most of us here have some kind of heirloom from a parent or a grandparent, an uncle or an aunt — perhaps not some valuable by worldly standards, but important to us. In my office downstairs I have on the wall a porcelain plate with Raphael’s “Madonna and Child” on it. It belonged to my mother, and she gave it to me as an inheritance. It probably is not worth much by the standards of AntiquesRoadshow, but it means a great deal to me.

Most of you probably have some such item, perhaps also not worth much in the worldly marketplace, even if you would never think of parting with it. That’s because its value to you as a family treasure is so much more important than its value may be as a worldly treasure. (I do wonder, sometimes, when someone on Antiques Roadshow learns that the treasured vase that momma left them isn’t carnival glass, but a Tiffany worth tens of thousands of dollars, as you can see the wheels beginning to click behind their eyes, calculating the value of this keepsake versus its possible value of cash on the barrelhead, and how much longer it is going to stay on momma’s dresser. Because it’s no longer a vase; it’s a vahse!”)

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But, vases and vahses aside, God’s gift is much more precious than any heirloom, valued for sentiment or even for its cash value. What the Father gives to Jesus is precious — precious to God and so infinitely precious; for the Father gives Jesus the disciples, chosen out of that worldly world to be the beginning of a new family, the human family, the family we call the Church. They are the heirloom vessels, chosen to be the means by which the family of God will grow, through the preaching of the Gospel. The Father presents them to Jesus his Son, and from that moment on they belong to Jesus, and he puts them to immediate use, filling these vessels with the Word — which also comes second hand; as he said in our Gospel today, God gave the word to him, and he passes the word on to the disciples. As he said to the Father, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.”

These disciples, though second-hand, are second-hand from God: they are heirlooms of the precious kind, and they are given for a purpose. They are not just pretty pictures to hang on a wall, attractive furnishings to brighten up the corner of a room. No, my friends, they are chosen and precious vessels — vessels designed by the Creator, who presented them to his Son, to bear his message — to carry that word, that saving word, his saving message, the words God gave to him, that he committed unto them — to the rest of a waiting world.

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We are poised today, on this Seventh Sunday of Easter, between the observances of the Ascension of Jesus and that of Pentecost, next Sunday. After the Ascension, the apostles, those chosen vessels, were dumfounded; they stood there looking up into heaven with open mouths like so many vases or urns. We hear their names recited out again, names to be repeated to the end of time, these chosen eleven, and then the angel gives them the charge to go back to Jerusalem, and wait for the Spirit. There they will await the fulfillment of their purpose, the fulfillment of what they were designed for, what they were meant for, what they were chosen for. For on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will come upon them, and fill those chosen vessels. The fire of God will fire that ceramic and make it strong enough to bear the days that are to come, the days of stress, the days of trouble, the days of persecution. God will give them the power to testify and proclaim, God will fill them to the brim with many languages so that they can bear the saving message to the world’s four quarters, to all of the people of the world, and enlarge the family of God, sharing with them in a precious inheritance.

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And you know what? We are second-hand people too. Because we received the message from those who got it first hand, from those apostles and evangelists who stood staring up on a hillside looking after Jesus as he ascended into heaven; but then returned to Jerusalem to await the coming Spirit; who, when the Spirit came, were filled with power to spread the word abroad.

We second-hand Christians, members of Christ’s family, have received the most precious inheritance imaginable — the word of salvation itself — we aren’t just vases, we are vahses, we are full of the Spirit and the message of salvation.

And you know what? We’re not going to take it to Antiques Road Show. We’re not putting it up on eBay. We’ve got a better way to share the gift, through the power of the Spirit. We too, with the disciples, can proclaim the way to eternal life of which Jesus spoke that night in the upper room: that all the world may know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

So let us not, at the end of our worship today, simply stand staring with open mouths, even though we’ve all been singing. Let us go forth, having been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, to do the work God has given us to do, to the glory of his Name, that all may be one in him, even as God is One: God the Father Almighty, his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Holy Spirit, is worthy of all honor and glory for ever and ever.+