“Sanctify them. . .”

“Sanctify them. . .”

This is the sermon the Rev. Kevin Johnson preached at the diocesan worship service for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2021. We are grateful to Trinity, Fort Worth, for offering their St. Mary’s Chapel for the diocesan worship service.


John 17:6-19

It’s only 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, your cup of coffee hasn’t quite kicked in, the synapses in your brain, in the words of the magnificent Dolly Parton, are still “yawning, stretching, and tryin’ to come to life,” ….. and today’s scriptures are really super complex.

For example, here’s this snippet from the 17th chapter of John,

Father… sanctify them in the truth…. For their sake I have sanctified myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth (John 17).  Huh?  What on earth is Jesus talking about here.

So, first a little context.  In John’s scripture this long soliloquy from Jesus occurs at the end of the Last Supper, right before he goes off the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal and his arrest.  Except, this morning, today, is the seventh Sunday after Easter, after Holy Week; today, calendar-wise, we are way beyond the Last Supper.

However, through the magic of the church calendar we have entered into that concept of the universe where time folds back in on itself.  You see last Thursday was Ascension Day.  We’ve had the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the post-Easter fish fry on the beach, and now, 40 days after Easter we encounter the post-Resurrection Jesus in the town of Bethany.  In Bethany, where we find Jesus lifting up his hands and blessing the people. In Bethany, where in the midst of blessing the people, Jesus …. gets carried up to heaven – while Jesus was blessing them, not after, but while – an ongoing action….. a blessing that has not ended……. Keep that image in your mind while we consider today’s words from John, who reminds us of Jesus’ prayer for his friends in that upper room just hours before his arrest: Father….sanctify them in the truth….”

So….. what do you think that means – “Sanctify them?”  And, what is this “truth” to which Jesus refers?  (I told you the scriptures are going to stretch your synapses this morning.)

To begin with the verb tense Jesus uses when he says “sanctify them” is one that implies an ongoing action, like one of those perpetual motion machines that just go on and on and on, without end.  Kind of like Jesus’ blessing that has not ended.

At the simplest level sanctify is simply the combination of two Greek words which means “to make holy”  or to “set aside” for the work of God. We make holy / set aside a lot of things in life: We bless boats and houses and cars.  We set aside cups to use as chalices and tables to use as altars.  And we also bless people. How often do we toss out a quick “Bless you” to our friends, neighbors, and the grocery check-out clerk?  These are all good and wonderful blessings and settings aside.

On the other end of the sanctify spectrum – using the same root biblical word – we “consecrate” the bread and the wine.  At its simplest meaning consecrate means to associate something with the sacred.  Just like “making holy” means setting aside something for the sacred.  And yet, I think it is fair to say that there is a difference between the consecrated bread and wine becoming for us the Real Presence of the Christ and someone’s blessed fishing boat.  Is that fair to say?

I suggest when Jesus says, “Father…sanctify them….” he is talking more on the consecrated bread and wine end of the spectrum and less on the blessed boat end.  So, let’s pause for a moment and consider this: “What does it mean for you to be sanctified?”  Have you ever stopped to recognize yourself as such?  I mean, it is something of an audacious claim, is it not?  The claim that each and all of us are sanctified?  And yet, it is what you are — It is what we are; more on the consecrated bread and wine end of the spectrum, more on the Real Presence of the Christ, much more than a boat.

“Father…. sanctify them…..”

“in the truth….”

The truth.  “What is truth?” Pontius Pilate famously asked.  This set of readings, Jesus the Christ’s conversation with his most intimate friends, hints at the answer because it gets to the most fundamental root of God.  Let’s dig around in that fertile ground a bit.

Nothing in existence is conceivable in itself; in other words nothing exists as a separated, set apart individual.  I know individualism is at the core of the American Myth, the image of the solitary cowboy, astride his horse, silhouetted against the vast empty plains – and if it’s the 1970’s he is smoking a Marlboro – unfiltered.  However, the idea of individualism is a false myth, a dead-end road.

For if God is the creator and creation is the visible presence of God’s hope (that’s interesting to realize isn’t it? Creation is the visible presence of God’s hope).  And if each of us, and all of us together, are the image of God in flesh, the imago dei, then God is at the very core of all that is, seen and unseen.  Nothing exists absent God.  God contains all; all contains God.

Therefore, nothing exists as a separate individual; everyone and everything exists only in communion.  Not even God exists outside of communion; to be God is to be communion: Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier (there’s that word again….).  Communion is what makes beings “be.”  Communion is the core truth of God.

“The truth” is connectedness; “truth” is communion.  And, not just communion in the surface-level, easy to get out of, I disagree with you so I’m out of here way…….. But, communion in the inextricably bound up, stuck with each other way whether we want to be or not.  It is why Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote, “Your baptism doesn’t belong to you.”

You can’t un-baptize yourself, you can’t give back your baptism, because your baptism belongs to God, and now you belong to God, and God, who is all bound up with you in communion, will not abandon you or ever let you go — ever.  In the words of Jesus from today’s gospel “…so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me…. (Jn. 17.22-23).  That, my beloved, is “the truth.”  Communion – whether you want to be or not.

Much, much further on the consecrated bread and wine end of the spectrum; much less on the blessed boat end.  In fact, all the way on the end of the consecrated spectrum – imago dei.

Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “But, I know what a screw-up I am.  I know my transgressions; I know my iniquities.”  So what! You think God doesn’t know this?  And yet — you are made holy as God’s own, forever – at the core of all that you are: seen and unseen.

Father… sanctify them in the truth…. For their sake I have sanctified myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth….  All the way on the consecrated end of the setting-aside spectrum – in complete communion, whether you want to be or not.

Now, I am going to give you a question to ponder  upon as this week unfolds.  A question that was asked of me many years ago. A question that it took me a long time to really understand, and an even much longer time to finally reconcile myself with the answer.

As we observed earlier, communion is what makes things “be.”  We also know that the Creator’s self-given name, Y-H, means “to be” – communion.

So, given the truth that all things exist in total communion with the Creator, including yourself, and given that Jesus’ humanity is your humanity – in full communion, inextricably intertwined, all bound up – seen and unseen.  And, given that the Incarnation of the Christ means that the Christ enters into human nature, not just a singular human being, but all of human nature (It’s that communion thing again).  So, given these things: Is the difference between you and Jesus one of type (like an elm tree and zebra are two different types of creation)? Or, is the difference between you and Jesus one of degree?  If so, what are the implications of that?

Perhaps the degree is akin to the difference between the ocean and the river.

It is all water.

Perhaps it is the difference between the light of the sun and the light of a camp fire.

It is all energy.

Perhaps it is the difference between Luciano Pavarotti’s opera and a baby’s cry.

It is all sound waves generated by moving air.

A difference not of type, but one of degree.

Is the difference between you and Jesus the Christ one of type, or one of degree?

What might it be if we begin to believe the words of the Incarnate Jesus the Christ who prayed “Father… sanctify them in the truth….”  What might it be if we think in terms of a difference of degree?  What might it be if we believe in terms of difference of degree?

For, eventually, the water of the river flows into the ocean and it all becomes one water.

Eventually, the light of the sun and the light of the campfire join together and it all becomes one energy.

Eventually, the air of the baby’s cry gets inhaled by the opera singer’s lungs and it all becomes one song.

What might it be if we begin to think in terms of degree, not of type?

What might we be?

Father, sanctify them…… You have been.  You are. You will continue to be.