Sermon for May 16, 2021

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2021
John 17:6-19

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus prayed:] 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. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for 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. 9I 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. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And 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. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I 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. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

You know me well enough as a preacher now to recognize that I am captivated by words, and how significant words in the appointed Sunday readings command our attention. Two weeks ago, it was the word “abide” that continued to echo. Last week, “joy” drew our attention.

This week, it’s the personal pronouns in today’s gospel reading from John: I, you, we, they, mine, yours, their, and on and on.

I have a sense that I have focused on personal pronouns in a previous sermon with you. But today, as far as I am concerned, we cannot escape attending to the personal pronouns in the passage from John, because according to my count, there are some 90 forms of personal pronouns in this comparatively brief passage of 14 verses. Generally, a word is significant if it’s used more than two or three times. Again, there are about 90 forms of personal pronouns in today’s gospel. That’s huge.

John records Jesus addressing God in prayer in this passage, a prayer he prayed in the presence of his disciples during the lengthy farewell discourse in John that occurred on the night of Jesus’ betrayal.

Listen again, briefly, to get a sense of the extent and significance of the presence of personal pronouns here: “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.” (John 17:6)

And again, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 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.” (John 17:11)

It’s normally pretty easy to overlook personal pronouns in discourse. In doing Bible study, pronouns may not be the first words one examines for discerning the meaning of a passage. But not in this reading for today with 90 forms of personal pronouns.

In addition to the plethora of pronouns in today’s gospel, it’s also true that personal pronouns are of major concern in popular discourse in our own current culture. You may have read in the national news that the ELCA elected its first openly transgendered bishop in the Sierra Pacific Synod in northern California. Bishop-elect Megan Rohrer employs the pronoun “they” in self-description.

Personal pronouns have become a focal point in the public discourse about gender identity. Going public in naming your preferred pronoun has become a way of claiming one’s sense of personal and gender identity.

Personal pronouns are also of great significance in relation to understanding and imaging God. To what extent should we employ “he” and “him” in relation to God? Extensive use of male pronouns reinforces masculine images of God. Hence the movements in the church over the decades toward inclusive, if not to say, expansive language for God.

Personal pronouns do indeed carry the weight of significance. They can point to inclusion – we, ours. They can point to exclusion – mine, they… And much, much more.

In short, personal pronouns can carry the burden of the law – to exclude, to judge, to objectify the other, and more. Personal pronouns can also convey the freedom of the gospel – to include, to embrace, to convey dignity and respect, and more.

Therefore, let us turn again to today’s gospel reading. The extensive use of personal pronouns here reveals a lot about what Jesus, according to John, wants to say about God, about himself, and about us.

That is to say, because of all of the personal pronouns, God and our connections to God through Jesus are all very intensely personal, relational.

And in reading today’s passage, it’s difficult to keep straight who is who. There are just so many personal pronouns, it’s challenging to keep in mind who Jesus is referring to.

And perhaps that’s part of the point in revealing the intimate connection between Jesus and the God whom he calls Father and likewise our intimate connections with the God known in Jesus. I believe that John’s recording of Jesus’ teachings about divine inter-relatedness begins to lay a foundation for what would become the doctrine of the Trinity – one God, three persons – a sacred reality that will appear on our liturgical horizons come Pentecost and Trinity Sundays.

There is indeed a unity, a oneness in all of the inter-relatedness that Jesus points to in John where Jesus prayerfully addressing the Father reveals the purpose, the end of these realities – “so that they [Jesus’ followers] may be one, as we [the Father and the Son] are one.”

Perhaps it is that Christ Jesus is the glue that holds all of the personal pronouns together in uniting us with God and with each other.

So, what do all of the 90 or so personal pronouns in today’s gospel do for us? They wake us up. We hear ourselves addressed. And thus, we begin to see ourselves included in the sacred drama.

Sacramentally speaking, this is what we hear that awakens and then renews our faith:
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
“The body of Christ, given for you.”
“The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

These forms of personal address bring God home to us, to dwell with us, to abide with us, among us.

When I was in college, I had occasion to visit Germany for a semester to study Luther and the Reformation. We lived with host families who were among the theologians at the university in Marburg. My host family was a very traditional German family, and we addressed each other in German in formal ways, using the German pronoun “Sie” in addressing each other as “you.”

Except in church, where the informal, familiar address was used in the German pronoun for you, “du”. I recall to this day my surprise, and can still feel it in my bones when my very formal and proper host father addressed me as “du.” By using the familiar form of “you” in church, I felt that I belonged, that I was included and embraced in a way that I otherwise did not experience with my host family. It was really quite remarkable.

That’s the power of language to generate realities. Even as realities of faith, and freedom, and inclusion are generated in the language we employ – “I baptize you,” “the body of Christ given for you,” and the “blood of Christ shed for you.”

In addition to awakening our faith, the power of the personal pronoun also awakens us to each other. When God in Christ addresses us in personal ways in the word and in the sacraments, we are then inspired by the Holy Spirit to extend this welcome, this inclusion to others as well.

We begin to see the other as you and part of we and not simply as they.

We begin to see the blessings given to us not merely as mine, but ours together in Christian community and in the human family.

Thus, personal pronouns and their faithful use are crucial in our missionary calling to be about the healing of the nations in an age when people are ever more divided from each other.

Next Sunday, the Day of Pentecost, we will return to celebrating Holy Communion when the Holy Spirit gathers many of us outdoors for worship. Thus, with holy anticipation, I call your attention to the prayerful plea in today’s Hymn of the Day: “Soon may we all one bread, one body be, through this blessed sacrament of unity.” (From stanza 3, “Lord, Who the Night You Were Betrayed,” ELW 463).

May this sung prayer know fulfillment when we who are gathered hear again, at long last, “The body of Christ given for you;” “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

And may our sacramental unity in the body of Christ be for the healing of the nations. Amen.

Now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:

  • In what ways do you hear in your life and routines personal pronouns used to divide, diminish, and exclude others?
  • In what ways do you hear personal pronouns used to unite, uplift, and include others?
  • Recall occasions when God has addressed you in life-giving, faith-renewing ways through the word, the sacraments, and the church’s wider ministries.