St George’s, Belleville—John 17:6-19
What an emotional roller coaster! First we heard about him from a friend or a relative or a neighbor. We were curious. So we went out at watched him from a distance and listened to him. There was something strangely compelling and attractive about him, though we couldn’t quite put our finger on what it was. But when he walked up and introduced himself to us and told us to follow him, our mouths said Yes and our feet were on their way before our minds had even had time to engage. We became his followers, his disciples. He taught us to look to him as the fulfillment of all our hopes and dreams, as individuals and as a nation. We had a noble purpose, and were enlisted in an invincible cause.
Then we went to Jerusalem. He insisted on it. Why? We’re not really sure why. But in a few short days the temple authorities and the Romans ran him through a kangaroo court and hung him out to dry. Most of us deserted him in that hour, but . . . well, wasn’t he deserting us by getting himself crucified?
Then Sunday morning came, and the reports began to trickle in. Some women went to visit the tomb, and he wasn’t there! Then Cleopas said he and a friend had seen him over in Emmaus; they even had dinner with him! Sure enough, he was risen, just as he had tried to tell us would happen, but we were too thick to hear it. He came to us and ate with us and explained things to us, and it was so wonderful to have him back.
Too wonderful, apparently, to last, because only last Thursday he was talking to us and a cloud enveloped him and he was gone. He left with some reassuring words about always being with us and sending us out on a mission to the whole world. But, to tell you the truth, we’re a little bit scared again. We’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. He’s gone back to heaven, but we’re left in the world, the same world, I might add, that crucified him. And now we’re even called by his own title — “Christians”! What does that say about our prospects in this world? We don’t belong to this world any more than he did. He even told us: be in the world but not of the world. We don’t belong here any more than he did.
All of this could have been spoken by any of the disciples of Jesus who watched him ascend into Heaven forty days after the resurrection. It could also, with a few relatively minor explanations and qualifications, be said of us, two thousand years later. In truth, we have more in common with them in that moment than they did with their own selves two months earlier!
As Christians, we also do not belong in the world. The world says, “Assert yourself.” Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek.” The world says, “Crush you enemies.” Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” The world says, “Fear those who are different, those who are strangers.” Jesus says, “Welcome them.” The world says, “Grab for power when you can.” Jesus says, “Be a servant.” The world says, “Be careful with that money you’ve earned.” Jesus says, “That money was never yours to begin with.” The world says, “Your body is your own; do with it as you please.” The gospel says, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” The world says, “Find the god of your choice, and make that god over in your own image.” The gospel says, “There is only one God, and he made you in his image.”
In the seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel, we have recorded for us what is known as the “high-priestly prayer” of Jesus. It is reported as taking place on the eve of his crucifixion, but it might just as well have been uttered on the eve of his Ascension, which was his final bodily leave-taking from this world until his coming again. And so we read this portion of John today, on the Sunday after Ascension. In this prayer, Jesus intercedes with the Father on our behalf, we who are his followers, but who are left behind in a world as hostile to us as it was to him. He prays that we will not be defeated by the world, that we will be protected from the assaults of the evil one.
Jesus envisions this divine protection as taking the form of four distinct qualities, four characteristics, which he prays will develop in us, individually and corporately.
The first of these qualities is unity. Unity. “Make them one, Father, even as you and I are one.” Yes, the outward façade of the church is severely cracked, and that is a problem. The Body of Christ in the world is a broken body, and it is incumbent upon us to pray for its restoration. Yet, in spite of that brokenness, there is a fundamental unity that shines like a beacon to the eye of faith! Community, at least, is experienced. Relationships are supported, and loneliness is overcome, in Christ. It doesn’t happen flawlessly, or completely, but it happens. Look around you and you’ll see it. Jesus’ prayer for our unity is being answered.
The second protective quality that Jesus prays that we will have is joy. “I speak these things in the world that they may have my joy complete in themselves.” Jesus isn’t talking about “smiley-face” “have a nice day” kind of joy. That kind of thing comes and goes. The kind of joy Jesus is talking about is a profound sense of ultimate well-being. Many decades ago, there was a celebration of the centennial of Christian missionary work in the heart of the African continent. There were all sorts of prayers and hymns and speakers on the agenda. But the show-stopper was an unscheduled speaker, a very elderly African man, who revealed, for the first time, a secret passed on to him by his parents. When the missionaries had first come to his village, the tribal leaders decided to kill them by putting a slowly-acting poison in their food. But when they saw that these missionaries faced painful and mysterious death with a deep sense of well-being, of being even then under the umbrella of God’s love, the villagers decided that they wanted to live that way too, and they became Christians! What they saw was authentic joy, and that joy is available to us as well.
The third protective characteristic that Jesus prays for on our behalf is moral courage. “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” As we can all testify, even though we are not of the world, the mere fact that we are in it exposes us to its moral hazards. To put it more bluntly, we are tempted, and we sin! We act in ways that are consistent with the values of this world, rather than the values of the kingdom of God. We begin our worship most weeks with the Collect for Purity. “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open…” — even mine!—”[to you] … all desires [are] known…” — even mine!—and “from you no secrets are hid…” — not even mine! If we really heard and believed that prayer, would it lower our anxiety? Or raise it? In either case God’s grace is sufficient for our need, because it offers us abundant pardon and forgiveness for anything, and I do mean anything, we have ever done. And, better yet, it offers us the capacity and the strength we need for amendment of life, for changing our mind, for following a different road. Jesus prays for us to be morally victorious, and, in him, it is possible.
The fourth and final protective characteristic that Jesus prays that we will have is missionary effectiveness. “As you have sent me into the world [Father,] so I have sent them into the world.” You and I are on a mission. We have a job to do, and, in doing that job, we are protected from the hazards of this hostile world. Our mission is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to every man, woman, and child who walks the face of this earth. Just as Jesus did not pray for his followers to be taken out of the world, we cannot do so for anybody else. But we do have the authority to call them to renounce their citizenship, to turn in their earthly passport and become naturalized citizens, with us, of the kingdom of God. This renunciation, this adoption of new citizenship, is called baptism!
As disciples of Jesus, we are in a world that wants to eat us alive. But the constant intercession of Jesus the Christ, our risen and ascended High Priest, assures us of our victory over the world. In him, we experience unity in the midst of alienation, joy in the midst of despair, moral courage in the face of temptation, and a message of hope in the midst of disintegration and chaos.
Alleluia, and Amen.