Sunday, May 1, 2016

Preacher’s Study – Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C (2016)

The Preacher’s Study
Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C

D. Jay Koyle

Acts 16.16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17.20-26

There is an imaginative scene in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, in which Alice encounters the character of the White Queen. The two talk about memory and Alice reports that she remembers only things that have already happened. The White Queen, astonished by Alice's limited perception, pronounces, "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards." Unlike Alice, the Queen remembers not merely the past, but also things that have yet to happen. Indeed, her memory of the future shapes her present in very tangible ways. (For example, her finger bleeds before it is pricked by a thorn.).

"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards."

Whatever one's overall assessment of the White Queen, I believe her words ring with profound insight. While it may seem to belong to the world of fantasy and science fiction, I have long contended that hers is a notion indigenous to the "world" of faith.

The Proclamation of the Word in liturgy is more than instruction, the dissemination of religious information. The Scriptures are the written memory of the church, and our sense of identity is shaped when biblical text is proclaimed and preached and voiced in songs of praise. As the late Mark Searle so keenly observed, "The assembly, remembering Christ in a profound act of recollection, discovers its own mystery, its identity as the body of Christ in the world, continuing his surrender to God and to the work of God, until the end of time…" Memory is key to understanding who we are in the present, and common prayer invokes our ecclesial memory, a memory encompassing both past and future.

The Sunday nestled between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost celebrates the enthronement of Christ as Sovereign of the universe. Thus, while the church awaits the fulfillment of God's promises and hungers for Christ's return, it also lives out of the memory of God's future as it continues to experience the Lord's presence in the fellowship of believers. The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus inaugurate the longed for future of God. This is the lens through which the coming Sunday’s readings and liturgical action come into sharp focus.

Standing at the threshold of his glorification and the bestowal of the Spirit, Jesus prays that all who believe may be one, for their own sake and that of the world. Frequently esteemed as a sermon masquerading as prayer, Sunday's Gospel text is treated by many homiletical interpretations as little more than a passive aggressive moralistic exhortation. This is regrettable. The fact that this a prayer meant to be overheard makes it no less of a prayer. In fact, such prayers are found throughout Scripture (ex. Deut. 32-33) and are intrinsic to corporate worship. Such prayers not only address God; they also retell the salvation story, announce God's promises, and edify Christ's Body.  

These words of Jesus indeed are prayer, confessing the intimate communion between Father and Son, and consecrating believers into that Spirit-filled communion. Their inclusion among today's lections implies they are the ongoing prayer of the ascended Lord. The eschatological fulfillment of this prayer belongs to the church's memory (Rev. 21.1-22.5) and thus has power to shape our lives today.

In the wonderful scene that is the first reading, Paul and Silas conduct a midnight praise service in the penitentiary, lifting holy hands even with shackled wrists. What lands them in detention is an encounter with a slave girl possessed of a spirit. This demonic custody gives her star billing on Philippi's preeminent psychic hotline, an enterprise yielding lucrative financial dividends for her owners. Her contact with our protagonists, however, results in deliverance from that spirit, effectively pulling the plug on the hotline and flushing her profit potential down the drain. As a result of their interference in the machinations of First Century capitalism, Paul and Silas are tossed in the clink. 

Seemingly stripped of liberty for furthering liberation, the two nevertheless exalt as free people. Moreover, their joyful praise becomes the realization of emancipation not only for themselves, but also for the other prisoners and even the one responsible for enforcing their incarceration.

In company with Paul and Silas, our liturgical action is a remembering forward, hastening for the world the liberation that is already ours in Christ. 

When we loose our tongues in song, our lips and lives are opened to sound words of hope and deliverance. When the scriptures are announced in our midst, our memory is quickened and our life invigorated through the recollection of God’s future fulfilled. When we share in Christ’s priesthood through our intercessory petitions, we lay claim to God’s sure and certain promises for the world, particularly those who suffer need or injustice. When bread is broken and shared, we rehearse the pattern, and share a foretaste, of Kingdom life in its fullness. When the doors swing open, sending us forth into the world, we walk out as living signs and witnesses and agents of the Reign of God.

Do we await liberation as a church? as a world? Or could it be the liberation already won needs to be claimed? Perhaps the answer to both questions is "yes." Whatever the case, in the economy of salvation, our future in God can shape our present as potently as any event of the past. Jesus Christ reigns over all that is sin and death, bondage and oppression; and this makes all the difference in our worship and work, in our praying and serving, in the whole of our living.

D. Jay Koyle, president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, participating in its Christian Initiation seminar. A popular speaker at conferences and workshops in the U.S. and Canada, Jay is Congregational Development Officer of the Diocese of Algoma (Anglican Church of Canada).

This post is revised from a commentary by Jay published in the resource Preaching: Word & Witness.

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