For many years I have been a casual collector of famous last words – the final utterances of the great, the good and the not so good. By the 19th century it had rather come to be expected that great men and women would use their final breath either to express some profound truth or at least say something memorable. One of my favourites, because of its combination of wit and theological soundness, was uttered by Charlie Chaplin. When the priest who was attending his deathbed said “May the Lord have mercy on your soul” Charlie retorted. “Why shouldn’t he? It belongs to him.” And belonging is one of the themes of this Sunday’s Gospel, in which Jesus says of his disciples:
“All mine are yours, and yours are mine”
This Gospel doesn’t have Jesus’ last words, but it is part of his final prayer for his disciples. It appears in St John’s Gospel shortly before the account of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, so it might seem an odd choice for the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost because it takes us back to the day before the Crucifixion. It’s an appropriate choice because one of the other themes of this “Prayer of Farewell” is change – change for Jesus because his earthly life is about to end, change for the disciples because their understanding of Jesus will be transformed by his death and, after a brief, tragic “in between time”, by his Resurrection. For the same disciples, the interval between the Ascension and Pentecost was a time of waiting for change, another “in between time”.
The “Prayer of Farewell” can speak to us in a very difficult “in between time”, the weeks and months between the normality that ended with the beginning of the lockdown and the new normality that we cannot yet fully discern, and in the shaping of which we are called to play our part. In between times can be very difficult. The poet Matthew Arnold, a man who mourned the loss of faith – his own and other people’s - found himself
“Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born”
Jesus understood the difficulty of “in between times” and his prayer acknowledges that he will not be present to the disciples in the way that he has been. He says
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.”
The thrust of the prayer is that the disciples are being called to live in the way that Jesus has lived his earthly life – accepting change, and believing that change can be transformative, even the bitter and painful change of his death. Jesus’ acceptance of change made possible astonishing, empowering changes in his followers – the changes which we shall celebrate at Pentecost. They came to understand that their
calling was to be the continuing presence of Christ in the world, affirming the reality and the value of that world, while at the same time pointing to a greater reality. That became possible for them because they understood and began to live out the experience of belonging, of belonging to God and belonging one to another. And they lived it openly and open-endedly, seeking to share the possibility of abundant life which they had discovered.
It was that sense of belonging that made them receptive to the Holy Spirit and open to change. Our calling is the same as theirs; to live in the world, to engage with it and to care for its people. That involves challenging the world’s assumptions when those assumptions are obstacles to human flourishing. The practical witness that we and other Eco-Congregations try to make is an example of that kind of challenge. I think we are also called upon to challenge politicians when they treat people as a means to some social or economic goal, and when they employ the rhetoric of “We’re all in this together” while pursuing policies which penalise some in order that others may prosper.
“We’re all in this together” isn’t a bad summary of the Christian gospel, but the “this” that we are all in is nothing negative. The Christian doctrine of human togetherness rests on the understanding that we all belong to God. If we live out that truth, that sense of belonging, then the possibility of being “changed from glory into glory” can be realized.