Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B
May 16, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
What does reading a mystery novel and going on a retreat at a monastery have in common?
Both are forms of escape from the world. When you read a mystery novel, you get lost in the story, fantasize about the lives of the characters, and so on. When you go on retreat at a monastery, you’re at least supposed to disconnect from electronic devices and the world at large and spend time in prayer and meditation. In both cases, you get to escape from the world around you.
We all need escape from time to time. We live in a world of constant pressures including complicated relationships, budgets, commutes, and other time constraints. It’s also full of temptation to sin, and oppressive societal pressures like sexism and racism and terrorism and the like.
Since the beginning, Christians felt the need to escape from the world. We want to follow Christ with all that we are, and being in the world in the midst of temptations and those who challenge our faith can be exhausting. We’ve glimpsed a vision of what is good and holy, and have experienced genuine Christian community where we forgive one another and learn to love each other despite our faults. We even experience a foretaste of heaven each time we celebrate the Eucharist together.
Some Christians throughout history have responded to this by living communally with likeminded Christians in monasteries or convents. On a smaller scale, many more occasionally visit monasteries or convents for a brief retreat from the world around us. In both cases, there’s an attempt in some way to “create a space, unencumbered by the world, that allows for a fuller realization of a faithful, holy Christian life.”
I remember back in my evangelical days when I was taught that allegiance to Christ meant avoiding certain movies, or abstaining from alcohol, or observing the rule that persons of the opposite gender couldn’t come in my dorm room as it might lead to an inappropriate sexual encounter. We were taught to avoid chunks of the world in order to be able to avoid becoming entangled in the world in such a way that living a faithful and holy Christian life isn’t possible.
The early Christians who heard Jesus’s prayer from St. John’s gospel lived in a conflict-ridden world in which being a Christian resulted in persecution. I can only imagine that they fanaticized about escaping to a world in which the Roman Emperor became a Christian, got baptized, and stopped persecuting them. A world where practicing one’s Christian faith was seen as admirable. A world where it was easy to gather with other Christians to tell the stories of Jesus and regularly receive him in the bread and the wine. A world where simply being a Christian isn’t dangerous.
This is the context of Jesus’s prayer. Note that it doesn’t include a request that they be allowed the luxury of escaping from this world. He instead asks the Father to protect them in his name. Jesus acknowledges that he and his disciples “do not belong to this world.” (v. 14) But he specifically prays, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” Christ didn’t call them into community to escape from the world, but instead to stay in the world under God’s protective care. We too are called to stay in this world, in the midst of the terrors of mass shootings, and nuclear weapons, persistent racism, gender inequality, and even a global pandemic. But to stay in the world under God’s protective care. We are called to live life amid all of the evil in the world without ourselves getting entangled in it.
The fuller realization of a faithful and holy Christian life cannot be found in escape from the world, but instead in dedicating oneself to God entirely while still being an active part of the world. In verse 17, Jesus prays “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” The word “sanctify” means “total dedication to God.” This realization of holiness isn’t found in escape, but is found in the truth of God’s word – Jesus – as he is revealed in our world day in and day out.
Remaining in the world is not without its risks. Being a Christian without being wholly dedicated to Jesus leaves us open to succumbing to the evil around us and getting off track. What does being totally dedicated to God look like in everyday life?
The key is prioritizing one’s life by putting God before everything else, and more specifically by setting aside intentional time to pray and read the Bible.
Our evangelical brethren call this setting apart of time to spend with God “a quiet time.” It was a time when one is supposed to read the Bible and pray. My problem was this: I often found myself wondering what part of the Bible to read, or what to pray. I would pray for my family, and those who were sick, and various church leaders, but after that, what was there to do?
It was the discovery of what our prayer book calls the Daily Office that answered this question for me. In The Episcopal Church, the Daily Office consists of Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline with Morning and Evening Prayer being the primary and most important of the offices. These prayer services mark the hours of each day and sanctify the day with prayer. The Daily Office isn’t a magical thing to be done when you feel the need to escape, but it is a tried and true method to be sanctified in the truth. It’s all about prayer and the Bible, all tidied up and ready for you and I to use in our everyday lives. On the one hand, when I discovered Morning and Evening Prayer, I was grateful that the Church provided a systematic way to pray that has stood the test of time, and grateful that I no longer had to wonder how to proceed in private prayer; on the other hand, I no longer had an easy excuse when I didn’t know what to pray.
The Daily Office may not resonate with you. There are plenty of organized ways to pray and study the Bible out there, both new and old. The important thing is actually making time to pray and read the Bible! If that’s not something you’re doing now – or have ever done in your life – don’t be scared! Take the plunge and give it a try! Spend five minutes in the morning in quiet prayer, beginning by praising God and thanking him for his grace, followed by a few minutes listening to God, and then ending with intercessory prayer for those you love.
Jesus prays, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” This is the opposite of getting out of the world! That said, we can’t escape the temptation to escape from the world. But Jesus is redirecting our desires today. We should look to “create a space, unencumbered by the world, that would allow for a fuller realization of a faithful, holy Christian life,” not by escaping from the world, but by dedicate ourselves to Jesus Christ while living our lives in the world under God’s protective care. We are called to live life amid all of the evil in the world without ourselves getting entangled with the world. In order to do this, we need to intentionally spend time with God in prayer by sanctifying ourselves in the word which is truth. One way to do this is by praying the official prayers of the Church in the Daily Office, but there are many other ways. We are called not to disengage from the world, but intentionally press into God while still in the world, and in so doing, we receive the grace and fortitude to live as a Christian in the midst of our broken world that we might have a more abundant life, right here, and right now. Amen.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 545.
 Verse 11.
 Feasting 547.
 Michael D. Coogan, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version : With the Apocrypha : An Ecumenical Study Bible. 4th ed. (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2010), 1910.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!