[Jesus prayed:] “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. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for 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. 9 I 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. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 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. 12 While 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. 13 But 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. 14 I 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. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” – John 17:6-19
Today’s scripture reading from the gospel of John, the assigned reading for the day, is the middle of a prayer – which drives me nuts because it lops off the beginning and the end. It’s like walking in on the middle of a conversation. So I need to back up and give us some context.
In the larger context of our lectionary, for the past couple of weeks our scripture readings have been either from John’s gospel or from John’s first pastoral letter.
Two weeks ago in the reading from John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself as “the true vine” and we are the branches. Jesus says, “abide in me as I abide in you,” and the reading ends with the words “abide in my love”. The reading from I John talked about “loving one another” and said “whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” The passage points out that there is no fear in love and that anyone who fears is not yet perfected in love.
Last week the reading from I John said “the love of God is this: that we obey his commandments” and in the reading from John’s gospel Jesus commands us to “abide in my love”. Jesus says, “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.”
So for the past two weeks there’s been a lot of talk about ‘abiding’ and ‘love’ and ‘abiding in love’. ‘Abide’ is an old-fashioned word. It means more than just ‘live with’… it’s more like ‘snuggle down and make yourself at home with’. So Jesus invites us to make ourselves at home with him, and to invite him to make himself at home with us. ‘Love’ is a harder word to define. It’s used so often the word has become almost meaningless… but I would direct us to Paul’s definition in I Corinthians 13. Paul writes:
“Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the right; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (I Corinthians 13:4-8)
Jesus says if we love him we will keep his commandments. And his commandments are to love God and love each other.
In a way it’s simple… but in a way it’s not. The kind of love Jesus is talking about goes beyond ‘being nice’ or ‘being a good person’. It’s a full-bodied, deep, giving love – as Jesus has loved us. This kind of love is not possible, on a human level, without God. We need to stay connected to God, stay connected to the vine so to speak, in order to love this way. God loves us and abides in us, and as a result we love God and abide in God… and the circle of love is complete.
All of this is the backdrop against which Jesus prays his prayer. The disciples who hear Jesus’ prayer don’t realize Jesus is about to be arrested, that Good Friday is only a few days away. Jesus has told them, but they don’t quite grasp it yet. But Jesus, knowing what he knows, prays this prayer for them (and for us) as one of the last things he does before his death.
Two things to keep in mind as we read and listen to this prayer: first, when we talk about Jesus praying to God we need to hold in mind the truth of the Trinity: the God of scripture is described as ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Spirit, but the Father and Son and Holy Spirit are altogether one God. This is one of the great mysteries of the faith. At this point in time, though, as we listen to Jesus’ prayer, it might be more helpful to hear it as the words of a bridegroom speaking to the father of the bride (the bride being us)… praying for us during the time of his absence from us
The second thing to keep in mind is that what God says, happens. When God said, “let there be light,” light happened. When God said, “let there be birds in the air” birds happened. And because Jesus is God, Jesus’ words have the same power. When Jesus says, “get up and walk,” lame people get up and walk. So what Jesus prays for will happen. It may not have happened yet, or it may be in the process of happening. There is sort of a now-and-not-yet-ness about Jesus’ prayer. But Jesus is praying truth, and what he prays will happen.
So with those two things in mind let’s take a look at Jesus’ prayer, starting from the beginning, in John 17 verse 1.
In the first part of the prayer, verses 1-5, Jesus starts out by saying, “the time has come.” And his first request is “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” (John 17:1). This has a lot in common with the first line of the Lord’s Prayer: “hallowed be thy name”. The glory and honor of God is always Jesus’ first priority.
Jesus goes on to talk about eternal life, and the fact that eternal life comes through himself (as God wills) and yet, even though eternal life is through Jesus, Jesus says, “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) So Jesus’ second request is that we be able to live with Jesus and God forever. And what Jesus asks will happen.
Then Jesus returns to the theme of glory, saying, “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” (John 17:5) In other words, “Father, bring me home.”
In the second part of the prayer, verses 6-19 which we read this morning, Jesus prays for his disciples. This prayer is particularly relevant to “the twelve” but it’s not just for them; it’s for us too. This prayer is for anyone who lives by faith without Jesus physically present in the world. You and I may be used to not having Jesus physically here, used to living by faith (I mean, it would be nice to have Jesus physically here!) but for the twelve, Jesus being gone was going to be a shock. Even after his resurrection, Jesus won’t be back on earth to stay; his ascension into heaven happens only forty days after the resurrection. So in praying for the disciples – and for us – Jesus says to God:
“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. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you” (John 17:6-7)
“They were yours” – have you ever thought about that? We belong to God. If you’ve ever in your life felt like you don’t belong, like this world is out of kilter, or like you’re a stranger in a strange land, that’s why. You belong to God, and God’s kingdom is not of this world.
God gave us to Jesus. But because God has given us to Jesus, and Jesus is leaving this world, Jesus prays for us and he says:
“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)
This is not about physical protection. It may include physical protection, but Jesus says ‘protect them in your name,’ that is, in the truth, in reality. God’s name is “I AM”. ‘Protect them in that truth’ is what Jesus is asking, so that we may be one even as Jesus and God are one
When I hear Jesus’ words and I look around at the state of the church today, with all its divisions, it makes me want to cry. We are so far away from the unity Jesus talks about. Jesus is not saying we all have to be the same, or think the same, or vote the same… that’s not his point. Jesus himself is not the Father and the Father is not Jesus, but they are one God – likewise we are not each other but we are one in God’s name. But as bad as things look, I take comfort in knowing even though we don’t look unified now, someday we will be – because Jesus’ words have the power to make it so.
Jesus goes on to say that believers in God are not of this world, just as Jesus himself is not of this world, and Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. And Jesus asks, not that God would take us out of the world, but that God would protect us from the evil one; that we would be made holy by the truth of God’s word. And again Jesus’ words have the power to make it so.
In the third part of the prayer Jesus prays for all believers in all times and places… “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” (John 17:20) And Jesus asks “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” (Sounds a bit like that vine-and-branches thing again doesn’t it?) Why does Jesus ask this? “…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)
Did you know one of the most difficult things overseas missionaries have to deal with is a lack of Christian unity? When missionaries evangelize a group of people, and then those people run into other missionaries from some other church, and the second missionaries tell the people the first missionaries don’t have all their theological ducks in a row… this is one of the biggest causes of new believers falling away from the faith. They say, “look, you all can’t even agree on what you believe in.”
But what if the opposite were true? If people could say, “look at those Christians – how they love each other!” What a witness that would be to the world! And again, ‘unity’ is not thinking the same things or living the same way… unity is knowing the truth of God: God is the great “I AM”; Jesus is the Son of God; and we are saved by faith and seek to live in love. That is our unity.
Jesus says to God, “The glory you have given me I have given them.” (John 17:22) And Jesus says, “I desire that those… whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.” (John 17:24) Doesn’t that sound like a loving bridegroom wanting his bride to be where he is?
This prayer of Jesus in John 17 is a spiritual gold mine… there is so much more that could be found in it!… but for now I need to wrap up and look at how we might apply some of this to everyday life. Jesus is talking about such high concepts – glory and unity and truth and love – where do we even begin to bring this down to the everyday?
I would suggest first – confidence. Being confident in our salvation. When Jesus prays for us, what he prays will happen. Jesus says to God, “you gave them to me.” We are his. We do not trust in our own strength – which is very limited – but we trust in Jesus, trust that we belong to him, and we go into the world carrying God’s truth and love with confidence.
Second, we can strive to make Jesus’ priorities our priorities. For Jesus, God’s glory and honor is his first priority. I wonder how we might live if God’s glory and honor were our first priority? What might we do to bring honor to God, or what might we stop doing that doesn’t honor God?
Jesus also puts a high priority on our knowing God and knowing himself, because knowing God leads us to eternal life. Jesus wants this so that we can know the joy that God and Jesus know. We can get ready for eternity by reading God’s word and talking to God in prayer as much as we can.
And Jesus puts the highest priority on our being one, on our living in love. Paul says in II Timothy 2:23, “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” And in Galatians 5:19 Paul lists among “the works of the flesh” “jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing…” (Galatians 5:20-21) Yes – Paul really means all these endless arguments we hear on TV talk shows and on Facebook are right up there with public drunkenness and carousing! Unity and love are our highest priorities.
Third, as Paul says in I Corinthians, strive for the greatest gifts. At the end of I Corinthians 13 Paul says the greatest spiritual gifts are “faith, hope, and love”. By faith we grow in our knowledge of God; by hope we keep moving in a God-ward direction; and by love we fulfill God’s commands.
Let’s pray together. Lord thank you for praying for us. Thank you for thinking of us even when you were on your way to the cross. Help us to walk in the confidence of knowing we are loved and protected by you. Help us to make your priorities our priorities. And above all help us to love as you have loved. We ask in your name and to your glory, AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 5/17/15