[This post is the transcript of a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]
Today’s Gospel reading is John 17:6-19. You can read the text here.
To tell you the truth, when I saw the text for today’s Gospel, I felt a bit intimidated about preaching from it. Of the four Gospels that we have in our Bible, John’s is easily the most complex; and this particular section of John’s Gospel is arguably the most theologically dense and, in some ways, the most cryptic of all.
So you’ll probably be relieved to know that I’m not even going to attempt to give you any kind of blow-by-blow exposition of the text. What I want to do instead is to give you a bit of context about the text itself – what kind of text it is, and where it fits into the overall gospel story – and then we’ll briefly see whether we can pull out one or two key points from this prayer that Jesus prays for his disciples and explore how they might apply to us today.
So, what kind of text do we have in our Gospel reading today? Well, this passage from John 17 forms part of an extended monologue by Jesus that starts at the beginning of chapter 14 and runs right the way to the end of chapter 17. Scholars refer to this part of John’s Gospel as the Farewell Discourse, and this kind of farewell speech is a well established genre in Jewish literature. So one of the functions of this long discourse is to signal to readers that Jesus is saying his last and most important words to his friends before he moves into what he knows is going to be the final act of this great drama that is his life, death and resurrection.
John’s Gospel is a Gospel that’s rich in poetry and symbolism. That becomes apparent right from the opening words of the first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Quite a few of the themes that are prominent in that first chapter also feature heavily in Jesus’ prayer here in chapter 17: we find repeated references to the Word, the truth, the world, glory, belief, and so on. It’s as though the writer wants us to have in mind the grandeur and the mystique of the opening chapter as we read Jesus’ words here. Jesus, the one who was sent into the world as the Word made Flesh, is now praying for his followers as he prepares to step out of this temporal world and back into eternity.
Which brings us neatly onto the place of this text within the narrative of the final week of Jesus’ life. The setting, of course, is the Last Supper. Jesus and his friends have shared the Passover meal together; Judas has already gone off to do his dirty work that will lead to Jesus being arrested; and Simon Peter, Jesus’ most loyal disciple, has been told he’s going to deny Jesus before the night is out. We can well imagine what the atmosphere in that Upper Room must have been like: heavy with a sense of uncertainty, anxiety and impending crisis. And this is the context in which Jesus prays for his disciples.
In each of the other three Gospels, Jesus prays his anguished prayer in Gethsemane, asking if the cup of suffering can somehow be taken from him. In some ways, that’s a very human prayer, laden with conflicting emotions. We don’t find any of that here in John 17: Jesus prays very much as one who knows what he’s about, what his mission is; and his focus is not at all on his own suffering, but rather on what’s going to happen to those who follow him.
What Jesus prays for
So let’s think for a moment now about what Jesus prayed for his disciples.
I’d like to briefly consider two points: first, how Jesus refers to his disciples as he prays, which has to do with their identity; and second, the implications of that identity for his followers. We’ll then wrap up with one final thought about how this prayer of Jesus can be a great source of encouragement for us as we try to navigate the ups and downs of following Jesus today.
Firstly, then, what can we glean from Jesus’ prayer about how he understood the identity of his disciples?
Jesus says in his prayer that the disciples believe and know that he came from God. They didn’t just believe Jesus was some special teacher or prophet: they believed he was sent by God to shine God’s light in the world. In the words of John 1, Jesus was and is “the true light that gives light to everyone”. This is what the disciples had come to believe and know about him. And this idea of believing in Jesus, of trusting that he was who he said he was, that he was sent from God, crops up time and time again as one of the defining themes of John’s Gospel.
So, believing is an important element of the disciples’ identity. But it isn’t everything: there’s more.
Another thing Jesus talks about a lot in his prayer is the world. He says the disciples are in the world, that the world has hated them, and that they are not of the world any more than he himself is of the world. But what does he mean when he talks about the world?
The Greek word that’s translated world here is found 78 times in John’s Gospel. Sometimes it seems to refer simply to creation as a whole, such as in verse 5 of chapter 17, just before our reading, where Jesus prays “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began”. Other times, it seems to refer to all of humanity, such as in the very well known John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” But neither of those definitions seems to fit our context here: if “the world” is something that has hated Jesus and the disciples, it can’t mean all of creation, and it can’t mean all of humanity. So what does it mean?
Well, it seems to mean everything in the world that’s in rebellion against God and his kingdom, everything that’s set itself in opposition to the creator and his good, life-affirming ways. To use the kind of language John uses in his Gospel, the world here is everything in the world that’s chosen darkness rather than light.
Jesus clearly says the disciples are not of the world. I take that to mean they aren’t products of the world, just as he himself isn’t a product of the world. Their values and commitments are shaped not by the world and its idols, but by the one they recognise as the True Light, Jesus.
This brings me on to the final and most important thing I want to say about the identity of Jesus’ disciples: they’re different from “the world” because they belong to Jesus. He calls them those the Father has given to him, and he clearly feels responsible for them. He’s looked after them and protected them, and he asks the Father to continue to do that after he’s gone.
So, in short, Jesus’ disciples are the ones who believe in him and belong to him. They believe he is who he says he is, and because of that they’ve allowed their lives to become radically different from what they would have been if they’d simply continued as people of the world. And they belong not to the world of rebellion and corruption, but to Jesus, the True Light.
So, what are the implications of this identity the disciples have as those who believe in and belong to Jesus? One very clear implication is that they are those who Jesus sends into the world, just as the Father sent him into the world. Just as Jesus has been shining God’s light in the world and revealing God’s true nature to the world, the disciples are now tasked with carrying on that work after he’s gone.
Two other things Jesus prays for: that his followers would be sanctified, and that they would be one.
To be sanctified or holy means to be set apart. But we know Jesus isn’t asking for them to be set apart from the world, because he says so very explicitly: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world”. He needs them to be in the world so they can carry on shining the light of God’s love. So Jesus is asking for his disciples to be set apart not from the world, but for the world. In other words, they aren’t to be set apart as a kind of holy huddle, a pious refuge from the darkness of the world – which, if we’re not careful, is how we can very easily come to see ourselves in the church. Rather, they’re to be set apart in the sense of being in the world but so radically different from it that the goodness and love and light of God shine out from them into the world in ways that just can’t be missed. Their job description, if you like, isn’t to try to keep themselves separate from and uncontaminated by the world; it’s to be in the world as those who show the world a better way to be and to live.
What does it mean for Jesus’ followers to be one? Does it mean for them to always agree on everything? I don’t think so: as we read the Gospels, we see the disciples squabble and fall out; and later, the New Testament church experiences a good deal of disagreement and conflict. I think perhaps the kind of oneness Jesus is talking about is precisely a oneness of identity: Jesus’ followers are to see themselves as united in and by the fact that they belong not to the world but to Jesus. That’s what they have in common.
And this is important for us as followers of Jesus today, isn’t it? We may not always agree on everything – in fact, there may be times we need to find the courage to have an honest disagreement. But in our disagreement, we must remember what unites us: we belong to Jesus and not to the world. And that means we mustn’t let our disagreement become an excuse for the kind of behaviour that’s very much of the world: conniving, backbiting, gossiping, slander and so on. These things can creep in ever so easily if we’re not careful. In our disagreement, we’re called to demonstrate that there’s a better way to disagree: with mutual respect, integrity and an unwavering commitment to the truth. That, I think, is how we can remain one even when there are things we don’t agree on.
I promised to leave us with a concluding thought that would be encouraging for all of us who try to be followers of Jesus today. So here goes.
We’ve been thinking about how Jesus prays for his disciples. His prayer makes clear that their mission is to continue the very work Jesus himself has been doing. But let’s just stop and think for a moment about the disciples. We noted earlier that Jesus has already told Simon Peter he’s going to deny him. And we also know that after Jesus’ arrest, the disciples are scarcely to be seen anywhere. They don’t show great courage and commitment in the face of danger; they run for the hills and hide. By any human measure, they aren’t, at this point, a reliable and trustworthy bunch. And yet Jesus clearly still sees them as his friends, and, more than that, as those to whom he entrusts the work of continuing his own mission.
Jesus presumably knows the kind of trouble that lies ahead for the disciples. He knows they’re going to let him down and fail in the typical and very human ways we all fail. Yet he believes passionately in them – enough to pray for them, and enough to still entrust them with his mission – which, let’s not forget, is for the salvation of the whole world. I find that incredibly humbling and encouraging: to know that no matter how many times and how badly I’ve failed, and how many times I may yet fail, Jesus believes in me and trusts me with his mission.
I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in chapter 22 of Luke’s Gospel, which is Luke’s account of the Last Supper. He tells Simon Peter he’ll deny him three times before the night is out, and then he says these poignant words: “But I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail”. Of course, Peter did deny Jesus, and I’m sure he must have felt like an abject failure because of that. But he went on to be one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, and was so committed to his identity as someone who belonged to Jesus that he ultimately died for his faith.
We often make much of the importance of believing in Jesus – and believing in Jesus is important. But let’s not forget that Jesus believed in and prayed for Simon Peter and the disciples, in spite of their weaknesses and failures. And he believes in and prays for you and me too, in spite of our weaknesses and failures. I hope you find that as encouraging as I do.