June 1, 2014

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

“Jesus Prays for Us”

He’s got the whole world in his hands.
He’s got the whole wide world in his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands.

The songs we sing in daily life, and especially in worship, have a lot of power to shape our thinking and believing about God, the world, and ourselves in relationship to both. I grew up in church and at camp singing songs that expressed the love, care, and concern of God for the whole world… and that perspective has been a part of my theology ever since. God has the whole world in God’s hands: the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain, the tiny little baby, and you and me and everyone else as well.

If you share that kind of thinking about God’s interest in the world, you conclude that God loves your new Muslim neighbour, and God is concerned about what the agnostics and secular humanists discuss when they meet as the Saskatoon Centre for Inquiry. God cares about the First Nations children living in sub-standard housing on a northern reserve, about the young Indian woman who was stoned to death by her family, and about the rich family in a large North American city who live in a gated community and send their children to an expensive private school. God has the whole world in God’s hands.

But when the author of John’s Gospel writes about “the world” he doesn’t quite mean the same thing that I usually mean when I talk about the world and pray for the world that God loves. The Greek word that the Fourth Evangelist uses is κόσμος, which is not a synonym for “earth” or “creation.” Instead, κόσμος stands for everything that opposes God, everything and everyone that is against God and the community of God’s people.

Certainly, both Jesus and his followers have a mission to the world, and they hope the world will come to know the love of God, but in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus does not pray for the whole world. He prays for his own followers, for the Christian community, and for their work in the world, rather than for the world itself. God may have the whole world in God’s hands. But, in a special way, Jesus’ prayer reminds us today that God has you and me – Jesus’ own followers – in God’s hands in a very special way.

Relatively liberal, mainline Christians don’t tend to separate ourselves off from other people in our society very much. We tend not to go around talking about the fact that we are Christians and some of our neighbours and friends are non-Christians or non-believers. We focus on what we have in common… whether that is a shared belief in God, a common concern for justice and care for the poor, or just the fact that we root for the same sports teams or enjoy the same television programs.

Unlike the Johannine Christians at the end of the first century, we mostly don’t think of our faith as something that puts us in stark opposition to our neighbours and the generally accepted norms and values of the world around us. When Martha read that line about the devil from First Peter, it probably sounded quite melodramatic and outside of our normal way of speaking and thinking about our situation: “Discipline yourselves; keep alert,” the Apostle warns, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith…”

When Christianity became the norm and the established religion in many societies, and when Christian principles started to direct and shape the laws and customs of so many countries and cultures, I think we slowly started to lose sight of the particular calling, and mission, and purpose of the followers of Jesus, and how very different that is from the rest of the world. At some point along the way, we started to tell ourselves that we lived in “a Christian society” and we forgot that we are supposed to be different from others – that we have a particular responsibility as the Church to be the presence of Christ in the world.

Of course, the religious and non-religious make-up of our society has changed, and continues to change. We now live in a very diverse community, which still includes a large majority of people of faith, but with many different backgrounds and religious traditions. And there is a growing group on non-religious people – people who have consciously rejected religion, and many others who have simply not been exposed to it or considered it seriously.

One response to this situation has been to lament the change and to complain about the sense of marginalization that the church is experiencing in contemporary society. Another possible response is to separate ourselves off from the rest of the world – leaving society to its own devices, and keeping ourselves to ourselves so as not to be conformed to the world.

But I think Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17 points us towards another way. We are called to be in the world, but not of the world… trusting that we are not left orphaned, that God cares about us deeply, and will equip us for our mission by the power of the Holy Spirit.

For the last few chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus has been encouraging and instructing his followers on how to continue the ministry after he is gone. Jesus is preparing himself and his friends for the fact that he will soon by arrested, tortured, and killed, and they will have to go on without him.

He gives them a lot of advice, and makes a lot of promises to them – including the promise of the Holy Spirit to be with them, and remind them of his words, and empower them to continue his work. But when we get to chapter seventeen, the flow of Jesus’ discourse suddenly changes. The text says, “After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven.” And that’s when Jesus stops speaking to his disciples, and starts speaking to God. He starts to pray.

Of course, Jesus cares about the whole world. His ministry has demonstrated that all-encompassing love over and over again, as Jesus healed and helped those on the margins of society, and those who were rejected and despised, and then reached out further to embrace Gentiles and foreigners and all who were far from God.

But in this prayer, Jesus doesn’t pray for the whole world. He says, “I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine… And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.”

As Jesus prays, his prayer is for his first disciples who may be listening in on his conversation with God… and his prayer is for those late-first century Christians who are struggling with how to live as Christians in their context… and his prayer is for us – for Christians today, trying to follow Jesus with our lives and to figure out what that looks like in our pluralist, post-Christian, and mostly secular societies.

So what does Jesus pray for? What does Jesus want for his first disciples and for us? He doesn’t ask God to help us take over the world. He doesn’t ask God to increase our numbers and give us more power or influence over others. Jesus asks for two things, and the two are very much connected.

First he asks God to glorify him. Jesus knows that he is going to be arrested, and tortured, and killed. And he’s asking God to raise him from death – not asking to avoid death, or the pain and suffering that will go with it – but in the end that God will raise him and demonstrate God’s power over evil and death.

John’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus willingly went to his death so that God’s power over death would be revealed to the world. His desire is for eternal life for all his followers, and they will receive this life by trusting in God and following the way of Jesus.

The second thing Jesus prays for is the unity of his disciples. He asks God to “protect them… so that they may be one, as we are one.” In fact, the eternal life that Jesus wants for his followers is related to the unity (or communion) that he also wants for us. He says, “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

So, eternal life is not something that we wait and hope for after we die. It isn’t something that we hang on for, enduring the troubles and trials of this life with patience because we trust that eventually we will receive the reward of life everlasting with God. The gift of eternal life – the gift for which Jesus prayed for us – is the fullness of life that comes from knowing God in Jesus Christ, and experiencing communion with God and with one another.

Of course, God loves and cares for the whole world – not only the earth and its people, but the whole κόσμος. Jesus has a mission to the whole world, and we share in that mission as his followers. But Jesus also has a particular concern for his own followers, for those that God gave to him. And before Jesus died, he entrusted us into the special care of God asking that God would protect us and make us one.

We need that special care, because the reality is that we do not live in a Christian society or a world that yet conforms to the goodness and love of God. We need that special care because living as Christians in this society is not always easy or obvious. We need that special care because we do share in Jesus’ mission to reveal the love and judgment, and grace of God to the whole κόσμος, and that is a very difficult calling for which we need to depend on God’s guidance and help. And we need that special care because our tendency is to try to do things on our own… without God’s help, without the help of our fellow church members, without the help of our neighbour Christians and churches who share Christ’s mission with us.

As we share the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper today, may we experience a true communion with one another and with God. May we remember that as Jesus prayed for his disciples so long ago, he continues to pray for us… asking the Father to protect us, that we may be one, as Jesus and the Father are one. And with the gift of eternal life to encourage us and give us strength, may the Spirit empower us to engage in Christ’s mission to the whole world.

He’s got you and me, brother, in his hands.
He’s got you and me, sister, in his hands.
He’s got you and me, brother, in his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands.