Easter 7a, May 28, 2017

May 30, 2017

Upward Mobility

John 17:1-11


1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 6 “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. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.


This seventh Sunday of Easter is also known as Ascension Sunday. According to the account that’s provided in the first chapter of the Book of Acts, Jesus appeared to his disciples over the course of 40 days after Easter, and it was on that 40th day that Jesus ascended in to heaven. Last Thursday was the Day of Ascension, but today is the first Sunday after that 40th day, so it’s appropriate to incorporate the celebration of the Ascension on this Sunday.


But as you know, Jesus didn’t just want us to celebrate the remarkable things he did. Jesus wanted us to understand who he was and to find the kind of life that he embodied. Jesus wasn’t just out to create a huge fan base. Jesus wanted us to be participants in the life-giving endeavor in which he was a fully engaged. And this prayer that Jesus prayed just prior to his entry in to Jerusalem shows us the kind of ascension Jesus wants us to experience. He looked to heaven and prayed that we would experience the same kind of elevation that he had – even before he ascended in to heaven.


Jesus lived a glorious life, and he was on his way to Jerusalem to be fully glorified. We don’t normally think of being crucified as a glorious thing, but as John tells the story, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to be glorified. In the book of John you don’t find Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane in an anguished prayer. According to John, Jesus considered being raised up on a cross to be the highpoint of his life. Jesus redefined the object of life. He didn’t want us to equate life with survival. Jesus wanted us to understand the nature of true life – which is to live in relationship with God. And Jesus knew that through his crucifixion was able to demonstrate how perfectly aligned he was with God.


Jesus was going to suffer in Jerusalem, but he wasn’t focused on the suffering he would endure. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to be glorified. Many English Bibles refer to this glorious form of life as eternal life. Verse 3 says that to know God is to have eternal life, and while that word, eternal, speaks to the unending nature of this divine opportunity, it doesn’t really address the quality of this new life. And there are some other translators who use other words to describe the kind of life that Jesus was praying for us to experience. Some would say Jesus was praying that we would experience abundant life, but I’ve also seen it translated as prevailing life – which I find to be the most compelling form of life to obtain. Jesus wasn’t just praying that we would exist forever – Jesus was praying that we would embrace the kind of life that is glorious now and forever. Jesus was praying that we would experience a more prevailing form of life than what we experience under normal circumstances.


The fact that you’ve made the effort to come to worship this morning indicates that you are wanting the kind of elevated life that Jesus offered – regardless of what you call it, and this final prayer of his is an encouraging word for us. This prayer is a gift for us – Jesus wants us to find our way in to the kind of glory that he knows is available to us, and he’s doing what he can to help us, but he also knows of the obstacles that we face.


This quest for the best life possible isn’t unique to those of us who aspire to follow Jesus to that higher ground. I guess most people are in search of some kind of upward mobility, but people go off in a lot of different directions to obtain it.


On some level, I’m thinking that one of the most powerful engines that drives human behavior is this desire for upward mobility. I haven’t consulted any scholarly journals on the issue, but I think we humans have a powerful appetite to elevate ourselves, and this moves us to do some remarkable things and to behave in some extreme ways. This isn’t an original idea of mine. I think the Biblical story of the tower of Babel is a great illustration of this hunger to get ourselves to a higher place. And while this desire to build and achieve and obtain isn’t an inherently bad thing, it clearly can go in some bad directions. I don’t think anyone would argue that it was a wonderful thing for our ancestors to figure out how to make bricks and to build structures, but it’s not such a good thing to try to make ourselves equal to God, and it’s not unusual for this appetite of ours to achieve causes us to go too far.


I don’t think we can keep ourselves from looking up and wondering how we can get to a higher place. And this is a good thing. We wouldn’t have airplanes if there weren’t some people who were discontent to be tethered to the ground. The hunger to fly moved people to study and experiment and test and take huge risks. So much of what makes our lives more comfortable and interesting has come about because of this innate human hunger for life to be better. I don’t think this desire to get to somewhere other than where we are is a bad thing, but I think we all know that it can go in some bad directions.


This hunger for upward mobility can move us to pursue vain things in profound ways. Some people think they’ll find true life if they can make enough money. Some people think they’ll have it if they obtain enough fame. Some people think they can get it through a pill or a drink or a puff of smoke. I dare say we’ve all gone down some misguided roads in pursuit of the best life possible, but even bad paths can lead us to good places. There are a lot of people who have gained access to abundant life through the experience of doing all the wrong things. It’s interesting that one of the most redeeming things that can happen to us is to experience profound personal failure.


And the other side of this is that there aren’t any paths that automatically put you in touch with true life. I’m thinking it was the desire to get more out of life that moved me to go to seminary. It’s not easy for me to recall exactly what motivated me to pursue a theological education, but on some level I thought it would make me feel better to know a little more about Jesus. Seminary was a good experience for me, and I’m glad it turned in to a profession, but nobody needs to think that you become a more redeemed person by becoming a religious professional. I’m not sure if I thought I would gain access to the secret sauce of life by becoming a preacher, but I have come to know that this isn’t the case. Finding and staying on the path to true life may even be harder for a professional Christian than it is for those of you who haven’t made a career of following Jesus.


There are no automatic paths that we can get on that will lead us to the glorious life that Jesus experienced and invited us to obtain, but none of us are inherently barred from entry as well. We are all in need of God’s transforming love to turn our hearts around. It always involves an initiative of God to enable us to overcome our various forms of blindness and to see what true life looks like. It’s a gift of God to know God and to have eternal life. Jesus was facing elevation on the cross when he looked up to heaven and spoke of his final glorification. This is not the kind of elevation any of us are inclined to embrace, but Jesus was in prayer for us that we would find our way into such renunciation of conventional life.


It’s a beautiful thing that we have this passion for upward mobility. God has gifted us with this desire to get somewhere. It’s not a bad thing that we have this passion for movement, but it’s not unusual for us to try to rise above our circumstances in ways that are ultimately unsatisfying. Fortunately, it’s often at those moments of despair that we turn our attention to God. Probably the most unfortunate thing is when we find ourselves content enough to quit searching and yearning for a closer encounter with the one who knows what we need and who wills to provide it.


It’s good for us to look at Jesus, and to hear his prayer for us because he was the man who’s desire for upward mobility was perfectly directed, and his passion actually got him somewhere.


I also think it’s important for us to see that Jesus channeled his efforts in ways that run counter to the ways in which we generally pursue upward mobility. While we often try to rise above our circumstances in very physical ways – Jesus showed that real upward mobility occurs when our hearts are reoriented and our priorities are transformed. Our natural tendency is to think we get places by muscling our way up the ladder, but Jesus showed us that the real way to pursue upward mobility is to practice risky forms of self-giving love. We are tempted to think that we will get somewhere by promoting ourselves in attractive ways, but Jesus showed that the real way to get somewhere is to give of ourselves in costly ways.


Jesus revealed that there is such a thing as upward mobility. There is a way to rise above whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, and it’s not wrong for us to want to find it. The issue for us is to decide if we will be the kind of people who are looking get somewhere by standing on top of other people, or will we be willing to blend in with all the others who have let go of their lives and found their way into that highest level of existence.


Jesus is in prayer for us, and his prayer is that we would each live glorious lives, and that through our lives others would find their way into that glorious community we call the kingdom of God.


Thanks be to God for this prayer of Jesus Christ, who knows what we really need, and who is helping us to find it. Amen.


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