Nine days ago, the world marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, the end of one front of combat in the Second World War. We have probably all seen videos and photographs of the joy, the relief, and the shared celebrations of that time. Some of us might even be old enough to remember when that great day came.
Along with the great gladness, though, had to come a complexity of emotions. Families whose husbands, fathers, or sons would not be returning home safely. Millions of people all over Europe whose ancient churches, concert halls, and homes had been turned to dust and rubble. People who were starving, who were displaced, whose families had been torn apart. People for whom a cessation of combat meant also the beginning of decades of rebuilding. It was as though a door had closed forever, and there was no going back to the world as it had once been.
The shooting and bombing and large-scale killing and destruction had all stopped, thanks be to God. After years of war, of deprivation, of fears, of tensions, of uncertainties – to have had that finally end is extraordinary. The greater and more sustained the suffering has been, the more deeply experienced is the joy.
My dad was 10 years old when the war ended. The celebration went on for days, he says. And he says that he can remember the sense of relief that predominated, relief at a good job at last completed.
Today’s gospel also deals with a mission that is nearing completion – The Son of God’s redemption of his Father’s imperfect and stubborn human creation. It also shows us a rare and valuable insight into how Jesus himself prayed, what his concerns were and how he talked to his Father. We know that he prayed regularly, and when his disciples said, “Tell us how to pray,” he responded with what we now know as the Lord’s Prayer – but seldom are we shown what he himself actually said when he prayed.
In John’s gospel, today’s reading follows what is known as the Final Discourse, after he and his disciples have had their last supper. Jesus has promised that he is not abandoning his friends and that he will not leave them unsupported. Now at the moment of his death, there is just one last thing. Like Detective Columbo turning at the doorway as he’s about to leave the room: Oh. And one more thing.
He pleads with God, not to spare him from death, but to allow him to die, so that in his death he can complete the mission he was given to do, which is to show the world the glory and the love and the majesty of God. But before he can do that he has one more thing to be concerned about. My disciples, he says, urgently: Make sure you look after them. They have been my students, and they have listened and believed, even when they did not understand. They are now going into a strange new normal. A door is being closed in their lives. There is no going back to the way things were before. Help and support them in this new normality.
“Holy Father,” he prays, “protect them by the power of your name.” What a simple and beautiful request. “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name.” A very potent prayer for you and for me whenever we fear for our loved ones.
Care for those we care about is at the core of who we are. And in that, we are like Jesus. His disciples are almost like small children to him. They are vulnerable, only just beginning to understand who he is, and unaware of the danger in which they will soon find themselves. He needs to know they are going to be all right, so he hands their care over to the one he trusts implicitly – the Father.
When evil threatens the safety of those you care for, then you have little choice but to do whatever is necessary for their protection.
During both World Wars, many men and women found themselves having to risk their own lives so that their families and country should remain free. They knew that if they did not fight this country would not survive. Many of them paid the ultimate price – as Jesus has said just a few chapters earlier: “Greater love hath no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends.”
We try to live in the image of Christ. How much would each of us undergo to protect our family and friends from evil, even if it made us unpopular with others, even if we had to suffer hurt or torture, or even if it was our life on the line? What would we really undergo to protect those we love? The memories of the First World War have nearly gone – just a week ago we saw the death of the man said to be the last surviving combat soldier. The second war is fading fast, as three-quarter of a century have gone since that time. But – especially on this Memorial Day weekend – we must never forget those thousands of men and women who, like Christ, were prepared to suffer and even die to defeat evil in one guise or another. Whether they thought of it in that way or not, they were acting as Christ.
And where does that leave you and me? Confronted with Jesus’ extraordinary prayer to his Father from the cross, we can take this to our hearts: that even the worst pain that we know – the death of a loved one – will ultimately be put aside in a celebration that will make VE Day look small. In the fullness of God’s time, we will once again see all those whom we have loved and lost. That is the promise that Christ makes to us in his own death and resurrection. And until that day comes for each of us, we are invited to love one another with the tender urgency that Jesus shows on the cross for you and for me.