17 May 2015

Sermon – “Jesus’ Prayer for the Church” (John 17:6-19)

The trees have their leaves. The flowers are blossoming. The sun has regained its strength. And the somber shadows of Holy Week seem a long way into the past. Yet that is precisely where our Gospel reading this morning takes us: not only into Holy Week but into its darkest moments, to the night before the crucifixion, to what is often referred to as Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17.
John does not tell us where Jesus prayed this prayer. It was not in the upper room. It was not on the Mount of Olives. No one really knows where it happened. And it occurs to me that there is a certain appropriateness to that. For here we have a prayer that Jesus prayed not only at a particular time and place and for a particular group of people, but for all of his followers across all time and in all places. When Jesus prayed that prayer, he was praying not just for Peter and John and Mary and Joanna, he was praying also for Rachael and Dick and Mary Lou and Mya Htay and for each of us here this morning—as well as for our brothers and sisters around the world: for parishioners gathering in l’Épiphanie Church in L’Acul in Haiti, for Bishop Stylo and his flock in the diocese of Hpa-an in Myanmar, for the good folk at Gloria Dei around the corner, and the list goes on…
The doctrine of the ascension, which we celebrate this week, teaches us (among other things) that Jesus continues to intercede for us at the right hand of the throne of God (Romans 8:34), that he always lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25), that he is our advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1). And so there is a sense this morning, as we read from this chapter, that we are entering the Holy of Holies. We are peering into the very soul of God.
Here in these last hours before his crucifixion we find Jesus praying for what is dearest to his heart: for his church, for that fledgling band of disciples, so cantankerous and divisive, so feeble in their faith, so naïve—and yet they were the ones whom the Father had given him. They were his church. It must have seemed that its future hung on less than a spider’s thread. And so in these last moments left he prays for them.
What are the kinds of things that you and I pray for when we pray for the church? For money to meet the budget? For more people to fill the pews? For a successful Youth Mission dinner? Let’s take a few moments to look at what Jesus prays for his church—and maybe it will help us to mold our prayers accordingly.


In the verses that we have before us this morning we find Jesus praying for four things. The first of them is unity. For such a small group of people the company of disciples contained a remarkable variety of individuals: a group of fishermen, a carpenter, a tax collector and a radical revolutionary among others. They had already skirmished over who among them was to enjoy the greatest prominence and one had recently betrayed him. What was going to hold them together after he was gone?
As the church began to grow and incorporate an increasingly wider variety of people, that challenge became only more acute. It was not that long after Pentecost before complaints were coming to the surface that Aramaic-speaking widows in the congregation were receiving preferential treatment over their Greek-speaking counterparts. Then there was the whole divisive issue of how non-Jews were to be admitted to the faith, over which Paul had some sharp words to share with Peter. On a smaller scale there was the dispute between Paul and Barnabas as to whether John Mark should be included in their second missionary journey. And later there were the many heresies and false teachings that sent cracks through the church and divided Christian from Christian.
Yet in spite of all the forces that threatened to divide it, those early Christians discovered an amazing unity that was infinitely deeper than the occasional fissures that appeared on its surface. It was a unity in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, most powerfully portrayed for us by Paul in his image of the church as the body of Christ. Part of the genius of the body is that our unity is not found in our all being the same, but in our differences. The Holy Spirit is able to take those differences and combine them in such a way that they are not conflictual but complementary.
One of the great architects of Christian unity in the twentieth century, Archbishop William Temple, wrote this about true oneness in Christ:
The unity of the Church is something much more than unity of ecclesiastical structure… It is the love of God in Christ possessing the hearts of men [and women] so as to unite them in himself… The unity which our Lord prays that his disciples may enjoy is that which is eternally characteristic of the Triune God. It is therefore something much more than a means to any end…; it is in itself the one worthy end of all human aspiration; it is the life of heaven.[1]


The second quality that Jesus prays for his disciples is joy. Contrary to the claims of the health, wealth and prosperity “gospel”, the Christian life is not a stroll along Easy Street. Remember that Jesus was praying this prayer only a short time before he would be led away to be crucified. Just moments before, he had warned his disciples that in the world they would face persecution (John 16:33). Yet even in the face of crushing opposition they would continue to have joy. Why? Because joy does not depend on what is happening on the surface of our lives. It arises from what is within.
Five years ago Karen and I had the privilege of a week-long visit to Libya. Many of you have seen the pictures. As a part of that trip we drove inland from the coast across the hottest, driest places I have ever experienced, but every once in a while we would encounter a large pipe emerging from the sandy ground. They were vents from one of the greatest engineering projects of the twentieth century, known as the “Great Man-Made River”. Underneath the Sahara are forty million billion gallons of water, twelve and a half times the volume of Lake Superior. That water was flowing through culverts thirteen feet in diameter down to the coastal regions. As a result those areas no longer need to depend on the sporadic showers that formerly supplied them.
For me, the enormous aquifers buried half a kilometer under the Sahara are a parable of what joy is all about. True joy does not depend on what is happening on the surface of my life. It is about what is going on on the inside, deep within my heart. On the surface there will be disappointments and sorrows. There will be dry spells and times of doubt. Those are an unavoidable part of living in this world. At the last supper, as he contemplated his own suffering, Jesus said to his disciples,
Very truly, I tell you … , you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy… So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16:20-22)
Decades later, as he and the communities of believers sprinkled across the Roman Empire began to feel the brunt of persecution, the apostle Peter could also reflect,
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. (1 Peter 1:6-8)
Such is the joy for which Jesus prayed to the Father and which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence deep within our lives.


The third thing that Jesus prays for is protection: not protection from persecution, not even protection from the influences of the world, but protection from the evil one. We are all targets. We are all in the crosshairs of the devil. And if we don’t believe that we are in his sights, we are living in a fool’s paradise.
One of the great sources of sadness for me over the course of my ministry has been from time to time to see people (often deeply committed and informed believers) fall away from Christian faith. In almost every case it was not because of intellectual objections but through moral failure. St Paul wrote about “the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). The devil knows where our weaknesses are. And his aim is deadly. Have no doubt about it. His desire is to bring you down. And he will use any means possible to do it.
We dare not underestimate the power of our enemy. At the same time, we must never underestimate God’s power to save. Jesus is our good shepherd and he has given us the assurance that none of his sheep will perish. “No one,” he promises, “will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29). “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” asks St Paul. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35,37). And so Jesus asks the Father, “Protect them from the evil one.”


That brings us to the final thing for which Jesus prays in this morning’s passage: “Sanctify them in the truth.” What does it mean to be sanctified in the truth? The apostle Paul wrote about taking “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and it seems to me that this comes close to what Jesus was praying for on our behalf. In our confused and conflicted generation we often hear people calling us to take a stand for the truth. What they really mean is that they want us to throw our weight on this or that side (and preferably their side) of a particular issue.
I believe that what Jesus was praying for was something considerably deeper than that: not merely to stand on the truth, but to have our lives suffused and transformed by it—to have what the Bible calls the mind of Christ. In his book, The Opening of the Christian Mind, David Gill writes,
Nurturing and shaping a Christian mind, trusting and loving God with all our mind, means the possibility of seeing life and work in depth. It means a lifelong adventure in meaning, direction, purpose and understanding. It means being absorbed into the vantage point of the Creator, Center and Redeemer of everything.[2]
This is not just a matter of having our minds shaped by the truth, but our hearts and our wills as well—of finding in Jesus wisdom from God, not to mention righteousness and sanctification and redemption, indeed the heart and source of our life (1 Corinthians 1:30).
At this point there is not much else that I can say—or ought to say—except to pray. And I would like to pray using the words of Jesus.
*  *  *
Holy Father,
we are yours and we belong to you.
Protect us in your name so that we may be one,
as you and the Son are one.
May your joy be made complete in us.
We do not ask you to take us out of the world,
but we ask you to protect us from the evil one.
Sanctify us in the truth; your word is truth.
And as we live in the world,
grant that your love may be in us,
and Jesus in us.

[1]     Readings in St John’s Gospel, 320
[2]     page 64

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