Seventh Sunday of Easter
Sunday, May 12th, 2024
ACTS 1:15-17, 21-26; PSALM 1; 1 JOHN 5:9-13; JOHN 17:6-19

As you have sent me into the world,
so I have sent them into the world.

A question has arisen among ocean animal researchers, the people who study the behaviour of orcas in particular. The question being, are orcas learning new behaviour? Because it seems they are.

In March 2019 in Australia, researchers witnessed something that had never been seen before: a dozen orcas successfully hunting a blue whale. While this had never been seen before, it’s now been seen a number of times since.  Other new behaviours have been seen too. Orcas have begun scavenging off longlines—where fish are caught on long lines of baited hooks trailed behind boats. Where once they foraged on seals and penguins, orcas now enjoy toothfish buffets unintentionally provided to them by the fishing industry.

And the question that wildlife researchers have been keen to answer: are the orcas learning new things? And this may be prompting a question for you. What the heck to orcas have to do with today’s readings?

In our passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus is at prayer, praying to the Father. And in this prayer, Jesus prays, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” This is an important idea for John, important enough that in John’s Gospel Jesus will repeat these words almost verbatim during one of his resurrection appearances, saying to the disciples later on, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

So this is very important to Jesus in John’s Gospel. Not just that Jesus is sent into the world for our sake, but that in Jesus’s ministry, life and death, lies the source, the origin, and the guide to what the followers of Jesus are given to do.

You’ve probably heard the saying “what would Jesus do,” but it’s not really like that at all. That’s far too narrow an idea! Instead, as we imagine our ministries, and our ethical decision-making, our vocations in the church and the world, we don’t clone what Jesus did—but we will find in them a sort of family resemblance.

And so we don’t follow Jesus up the hill to Golgotha to be crucified; but we will not be surprised to learn that following Jesus can be costly. Nor does it mean being an unmarried preacher and hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors; but we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that following Jesus often means having a different sort of family, and hanging out sometimes with the poor and the rejected. Nor does it mean acting in such a way that would anger religious leaders; though we probably shouldn’t be afraid

to make leaders sometimes feel a little bit uncomfortable. It probably won’t mean laying down your hammer and saw in order to wander jobless, relying on the wealth of generous women; though it might mean finding a vocation in the church, or balancing work life with a side-gig commitment to some ministry work in the church.

To be sent as Jesus was sent doesn’t mean replicating what Jesus did, like a photocopy; it’s more like an artist’s rendition of what Jesus did. It’s less like memorizing poetry, and more like writing poetry. It’s less like learning a piece of music written by someone else, and more like improvising on a theme. This notion of Christian life and ministry—that we are sent as Jesus was sent—is fundamentally creative.

David Ford asks this question: “What does it mean to be sent like Jesus now?” And as he answers his question, Ford suggests that “John’s massive emphasis is, above all, get to know who the living Jesus is.” And once we get to know more about the who, once we get to know more about who Jesus is, then we can begin to answer the question of what—the question of what it is we are to do, and what it means to be sent as Jesus was sent.

If we were to dig into John’s Gospel, a few things would come to light. If we wonder what it might mean for us to be sent just as the Father sent Jesus, these are the sorts of things we would find it meant for us to be sent: to quote David Ford again, “The sending of Jesus, and therefore the sending of his followers, involves things such as being steeped in the Scriptures, forming a learning community, teaching, doing signs of abundant life for those beyond his immediate circle (wine for a wedding celebration, healing, feeding, and more), repeated face-to-face encounters, washing feet, and praying. Jesus is also sent into darkness, conflict, suffering, and death, without them being the last word.”

To know what it would mean to be sent as Jesus was sent, we would read, and reread, and reread again all those stories—and to imagine what it might mean for those stories to come alive in new ways according to present need and opportunity.

So what about those orcas? Well, the point of the orcas is not you becoming  the apex predator of the sea. There’s a different lesson to learn here. What those researchers decided about the orca behaviour they were observing—what appeared to be new behaviour—was not the orcas learning some new and novel thing never before seen in the life of orcas. Instead, what they decided, was that the orcas were just being orcas. Well, except that the orcas were being orcas in a world of change, the sort of change that offered an opportunity for them to improvise and be creative.

So when orcas do something that appears new—like hunting blue whales in large groups—this is just orcas being orcas, but orcas in a world where whale populations have grown after the end of commercial whaling. When orcas do something that appears new—like giving up dining on seals and penguins, and instead starting to dine on fish caught on lines by humans—this is just orcas being orcas, but orcas in a world where new human fishing techniques are taking place in orca territories.

Similarly we are called to be what we’ve always been—Christians reading Scripture, Christians learning and reflecting on who Jesus is, Christians learning and reflecting on what Jesus did and what he accomplished. But we don’t do this in order to replicate some Jesus of the distant past, or even to replicate the church’s own more recent past. Instead, we are called to be Christians, and to be who we are and to do as Christians do: to be a people sent as Jesus is sent, improvising creatively, and bringing the divine life to bear on the world we are always discovering anew.

What might this mean for us? We are beginning to ask this again in a few different ways. Our exploration of what it would mean for us to be sustainable over the next generation is very much a question about who Jesus is—of what it means for us to be sent as Jesus is sent, but sent in new and creatively improvisational ways, always starting from within the life of Jesus. Part of what I will be doing on sabbatical will be to imagine what it means for me to be sent here, and how my ministry will adapt and change according to the new opportunities presented to us, and to me, too, according to where I find myself within the life of Jesus. And this is what you are called to do too—because you too are sent as Jesus is sent, learning more and more who Jesus is and what that means for your life. And so it will be important for us, and for me, and for you, to continue to read Scripture, and to find anew the ministry of Jesus within this world in which we find ourselves.

And this—what we do, and how we follow, and to where we are being led—is always according to God’s grace, God’s gift, and God’s generosity to us, who offers to us a life so expansive that we can find ourselves within that grace, that gift, and that generosity in ever new and surprising ways.

The Revd Cannon Preston Parsons PhD