“Sanctified” Colchester Federated Church, May 13, 2018, (John 17:6-19) Seventh Sunday of Easter

A fun TV show that’s been around awhile is The Big Bang Theory.  The series began by focusing on the lives of four friends—two are physicists, one is an aerospace engineer, and the other is an astrophysicist.  Dr. Sheldon Cooper (one of the physicists) is probably the most socially awkward character and is played brilliantly by Jim Parsons.  One of Sheldon’s many quirks is gift-giving and receiving.  He wants to make sure that if you give him a gift, he returns the favor.  However, Sheldon’s gift has to have the same monetary value as the one he received.  Or he feels indebted to the giver and that’s not okay.

When exchanging Christmas presents with his friend Penny one year, he goes to the mall and buys at least 10 baskets of bath products, lotions, etc., knowing that he will base the size of the gift basket he gives Penny on his estimated value of what she gives him.  This is what Sheldon says to Penny, “I know you think you are being generous, but the foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift. You’ve given me an obligation . . . the essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you’ve given me.”[1]  Sheldon analyzes the practice of gift giving to such an extent that he rarely, if ever, enjoys the custom.

We can contemplate giving and receiving gifts when looking at Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel according to John.  We are used to thinking of Jesus as a gift to us.  At Christmas in particular we hear that Jesus is the greatest Christmas gift.  Though we know all year long that Jesus’ life and teachings, his death and resurrection are a selfless and loving gift to humanity.  And that’s good—Jesus is and was a gift to us!

But perhaps his followers were also a gift to him.  Jesus may have perceived the disciples (not just back then but even us today) as gifts that he joyfully received from God. Have we ever thought that we can be gifts to the world here and now, and that we all have intrinsic value as such that cannot be easily calculated?

Disciples of Christ minister Jennie Churchman wrote that what Jesus was saying to the disciples in his eloquent prayer found in this 17th Chapter of the Gospel according to John was namely this: “You are called and empowered.  And you are mine.  I need you to carry on my work.  I need you to pass on to others the wisdom I have shared with you.  I need you to love one another as I have loved you.  I need you to be the gift to the world that you are meant to be.[2]

Jesus needs us.  Jesus needs us to be gifts to the world.  That is so humbling to think about.  Because Jesus had incredible teachings about the kingdom of God and a ministry of healing and bringing wholeness to people that is unparalleled.  When Jesus began his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth he turned to the book of Isaiah—to the Hebrew prophets.  And Jesus said to the gathered congregation in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[3]  Then Jesus sat down while everyone’s eyes were fixed on him.  And he boldly proclaimed that today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.  That’s what Jesus’ ministry was about, this prophetic call to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free. Yet if Jesus’ disciples didn’t pick up the mantle that he left behind, the message that he preached and lived from the very beginning would have died with him.  That would have been the end of the story.

What’s remarkable is that Jesus prays this moving prayer in John’s Gospel right before he’s about to be betrayed and turned over into the hands of those in power by one man that he was gifted by God.  Moreover, the rest of the disciples he was entrusted with during the span of his ministry will abandon him in the next chapters of the Gospel.  Jesus could have been so bitter when he sees that all of his work is apparently crashing down upon him.  Who could blame him for that—after the years of teaching, healing, and struggling?  After the hope he must have felt when he stood in the synagogue that day in Nazareth reading from the book of Isaiah?

Instead, Jesus prays to God on behalf of these disciples he was gifted by God up to the very end.  Jesus earnestly prays: “While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me . . . I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”[4]

There are some expressions of possession here, right?  Jesus is saying that he’s protected these gifts that God has given him for as long as he could.  But his time has come since he couldn’t physically stay with the disciples on earth forever.  Now he needs God to protect them, to stay with them, to watch over them.  Jesus wants his followers to go out into the world and live out his teachings which can be countercultural to what other societies will view as success.  Bringing good news to the poor and letting the oppressed go free isn’t going to win a lot of favors among the powerful.  That was as true back then as it is today.  Though the disciples need God’s help to witness to Christ’s love because it can and sometimes will be a hostile place out there.

This prayer that Jesus prays for his beloved disciples is tender and compassionate, full of hope.  Jesus knows that he is going away and entrusts his teachings to this group of faithful and flawed human beings.  And in this prayer, Jesus presents us with an aspirational vision of how things can be.  Because this whole prayer is like Jesus’ divine pep talk.  It’s foreshadowing the disciples’ redemption after running away in fear as he was tried and crucified.  Because this prayer that Jesus prayed on their behalf, this affirmation of us all as gifts from God—well, it often does come true!  We wouldn’t be here today if the young Church hadn’t come together and overcome some pretty major differences in order to proclaim God’s grace.  And all of us—Jesus Christ’s disciples who hear these words thousands of years later—know that this radical redemption came to pass and can be inspired by it all.

Though in order to live out the teaching that Jesus gave them, in order to be the gifts to the world that Jesus hoped they would be—those first disciples had to leave the nest to go out into the world and enact his love.  As it is Mother’s Day today, our mothers may be on our hearts or we may be thinking about our children and the gift it is to be their mother.  We also know that it can be a hard day for people who have complicated relationships with their mothers or have lost their mothers or struggle to be a mother or have even lost a child.  May the day fall gently for everyone.

Parents often have dreams and aspirations for their children.  Bright hopes for their futures.  Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of parenthood (so I’ve heard) is to see your children have both roots and wings.  To watch and help them learn and grow as young children and teenagers.  And then blossom as adults who go out and be who God called them to be.  It’s not a coincidence that people get called “empty nesters” when children may eventually leave the family homestead.  That image of children flying the nest is one that has stuck.  Sometimes you even see images of mother birds literally kicking their babies out of the nest who really don’t want to leave!  Though adult child who happen to still live at home may be flourishing too, so it’s never been a perfect image.  Economic realities don’t always make it easy for children to literally fly the nest these days, and people don’t need shamed because of that.

Now Jesus didn’t have biological children.  Though this passage feels like there’s some parental overtones.  Jesus seems to be worrying a bit about his beloved disciples (who sometimes acted like children let’s be honest), and he’s entrusting their care to God just as a parent would.  Jesus doesn’t want his followers to flounder, not when they are meant to flourish and fly!  Jesus wants to see them leave the nest and go forth in confidence.  Jesus wants to see the disciples begin proclaiming the message he had on his heart from the beginning—bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of God’s favor.  And so Jesus asks God to “sanctify them in the truth.”[5]  To sanctify means to make holy, to set apart, to consecrate.  Jesus has such high hopes for these disciples and asks God to set them apart to be gifts to the world as they fly away to be the Church.

In the end, Jesus prays to God, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”[6]  This sending isn’t just about the disciples back then.  It means us today too.  We have been and are being sent into the world to proclaim our loving vision of Christianity.  We are being sent to show our belief in Jesus’ love commandment, to be Christ’s teachings in bodily form.  We are being sent to enact Christ’s theology of hospitality and inclusion we hold close to our hearts.  We are being sent as Christ’s gifts to the world.  Sanctified in the love of God, we have some holy and important work to do!  May it be so with us.  Amen.

[1]The Big Bang Theory, “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis,” 2008,  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1256021/quotes
[2] Jennie Churchman, “Now Choose” in Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions, 2012, 148.[3] Luke 4:18-19, NRSV.
[4] John 17:12 and 14-15.
[5] John 17:17.
[6] John 17:18.