John 17:6-19, NRSV
6 “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[a] you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost,[b] 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.[c] 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.[d] 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.
The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Earlier this morning we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together as part of our communion liturgy. That is the one that Jesus taught the disciples when one of them asked how they should pray to God. This disciple reminded Jesus that John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray a certain way and wondered if Jesus would offer them something like that. The prayer that Jesus taught them has been spoken in some form by people of faith all over the world ever since. I’d bet that you could stand in a crowd of Christians just about anywhere in the world today and say, “Our Father who art in Heaven…” and immediately receive a chorus of responses of the following lines in their native language. But this lesson in prayer is only one example of Christ’s conversations with God the Father. Did you know that Jesus didn’t just teach you a new prayer, Jesus also prayed for you?
The entire 17th chapter of John’s gospel consists of Christ’s four-fold prayer before he is betrayed by Judas and enters into his trials, torture, crucifixion, and resurrection. Christ prays first for himself, then the disciples, then all those who would come to believe and follow Christ because of their witness, then the whole world. He prays for the believers with him in person at that time and for all the believers who would walk the earth throughout time. That means, your name was on Christ’s heart as he prayed that night. Your Savior prayed for you before He died for you. There must be some serious power in prayer if, knowing what was to come, knowing what he was going to do for the world over the next few days, Jesus took the time to be still and talk to God.
This morning, let’s look at what he prayed for his disciples. This is not limited to the twelve, but refers to all of those who have seriously committed to following Christ. They may literally follow him from town to town as he travels to preach and perform miracles or they may experience transformation and stay put to see it through in their own hometowns, but somehow these men and women have demonstrated that they truly put Christ above all else. They have the incredible privilege of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the son of Mary and Joseph and Yahweh. As Jesus talks to God the Father, he reflects on their time together, how Jesus has called them and healed them and protected them while they walked together in the world. But Jesus knows things are about to change and he won’t be there, at least not in the same way. They won’t be able to see him and hug him and touch the hem of his robes and kiss his feet when they are in desperate need or when they desperately need to celebrate all that God has done for them.
Knowing that their world will be rocked over the next hours and days and years, Jesus gives them back to God. He prays primarily for two things: (1) that they would be one, and (2) that they would be sanctified.
Jesus desires “that they may be one, as we are one.” The Church is meant to serve as a reflection of the unity of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Throughout this prayer Jesus highlights the nature of the Church, or all of those who follow Christ, as set apart from the rest of the world. He wants Christ-followers to be in the world but distinctive, shining God’s living light just as Christ shines with the light of the Father. As we as people of faith have wrestled with that challenge of being both “in the world” but not “of the world” throughout our entire history, we have defined this kind of separation in a variety of ways. Some have claimed it involves our physical appearance, encouraging members of the faith to adopt a particular style of dress or to avoid cutting our hair or to keep hair covered. Some have suggested it has more to do with our engagement with the popular culture and media, shunning technological advances or only consuming certain movies or music that they feel honors God. Others think it must correlate to eating and buying habits, meaning we should observe certain dietary restrictions or make the effort to support business and supply chains that protect creation and respect workers. Some define it more politically, associating certain policies or candidates or people in power as being aligned with or opposed to our faith. We have and do seek to live out this difference in countless ways, but what is the distinctive characteristic of disciples for which Christ prays here?
Christ prays for unity. Oneness and love amongst disagreements and diversity. All of the groups I have just described are part of the Christian family, descendant in some way from the disciples for whom Christ prays in John 17. For all I know, they may all be represented here today in some way. There are a myriad of Christian denominations emphasizing different aspects of the Gospels and even more opinions and doubts and questions represented by the individuals that make up those denominations. Just because we are all members of one family of faith does not mean that we are all the same any more that being members of a biological or adoptive family means that we are exactly like our siblings or parents. Even the inner circle of twelve disciples were a ragtag gang of guys with vastly different experiences and personalities who sometimes fought like brothers, but they were all called from the family of Israelites to follow Christ, the Messiah to God’s chosen people the Jews, to the Gentiles, and to all of us. Christ prays fervently for the disciples’ protection, but I suspect He knows that often the most fearful threat to a family is internal rather than external. Sometimes we need protecting from ourselves and our own tendency toward division. That protection must start with transformation in our hearts.
Just as Christ prays that the disciples would be one as the Holy Trinity is one, he also prays that they would be sanctified as Christ himself is sanctified. Sanctification is one of those churchy words we are used to hearing, but we often skim over it in our Scripture readings and conversations without stopping to think about what it really means. What is sanctification exactly? The leader of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, describes it as a holy way of being, of viewing ourselves and others, and of acting in the world that is nurtured through grace until it grows to become a significant part of our character. Wesley was really big on grace, so for him sanctification meant that we open ourselves up to the grace God offers and let the Holy Spirit take the over to begin a process of making us more and more like Christ until love for God and neighbor becomes part of our personal identity as well as our communal or religious identities. It’s not enough to just say “Christians love God and love people.” Through the process of sanctification we begin to say, “I love God and love people, and here is how I show it.”
Oswald Chambers, the author of the famous devotional My Utmost for His Highest, put it this way, “Sanctification means to be intensely focused on God’s point of view. It means to secure and to keep all the strength of our body, soul, and spirit for God’s purpose alone.” That is certainly what Christ does. Remember he is praying this just hours before he’ll be betrayed by Judas, one of his best friends whom he has handpicked to walk with him in ministry and to sit with him at the Table and share his final meal, As he settles his mind and spirit to face crucifixion and all the betrayal and pain that will lead up to it, he means it when he says, “I sanctify myself.” And here’s the scary part—that’s the model he offers for how we are supposed to be sanctified as well. Total surrender to God, whatever the consequences. Oswald Chambers asks, “Are we really prepared for what that will cost? It will cost absolutely everything in us which is not of God.” Um… that’s a great idea in theory but can I have a minute to think about it? My own knee-jerk reaction is pretty similar to Saint Augustine’s. He was known for being a big partier before he became a beloved theologian, and early on when God first started pricking at his heart to move toward sanctification he prayed, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”
When we look at the context of these prayers for unity and sanctity, they’re more daunting than they initially seem. To be like Jesus doesn’t mean simply to be kind. It doesn’t mean to have good intentions. It doesn’t even mean to give part of our time and money in service to God and others. It means to give everything. And sometimes it means that literally.
Some of you may remember the movie Defiance that came out a few years ago. It told the story of Jewish brothers who escaped from the Nazis with other Eastern European Jews to a forest in Belarus where they built a community to wait out World War II. They ended up saving over 1000 people this way, but it was a hard existence, often on the move to avoid discovery and to find food and supplies. Many people died, and as they grieved over two more deaths, one of the characters offered a poignant prayer about the cost of following the Lord and being seen as one people sanctified to the Lord.
“Merciful God,” he said, “we commit our friends… to You. We have no more prayers, no more tears; we have run out of blood. Choose another people. We have paid for each of Your commandments; we have covered every stone and field with ashes. Sanctify another land. Choose another people. Teach them the deeds and the prophesies. Grant us but one more blessing: take back the gift of our holiness. Amen.”
Can you imagine the pain and exhaustion behind those words? The people in that forest had given everything because of how others viewed them, how they had been unfairly and inhumanely judged by those of the world. They, like so many, did not choose their suffering. But do we, as people of faith who call them and all the members of the human family brothers and sisters, choose to sanctify ourselves and suffer with them as Christ did? Do we choose to offer our prayers and our presence, our words and our concrete expressions of love and service to ease their suffering or at least to show our siblings that they are not alone in it?
Today we celebrated communion, the Lord’s Supper where we remember the death and resurrection of Christ and we look forward to his return. We praised God for the mystery of the Trinity, that God is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. We prayed for sanctifying grace to remember Christ’s sanctification and to be more like him. We shared bread and the cup. We did all of this in remembrance of him. How will that remembrance change us? How will it influence us and those around us? How will it unify and sanctify us?
Author Christena Cleveland, who will soon be joining the faculty at Duke Divinity School, examined this question. She said she’d started to get uncomfortable with the way she took communion, not because she and her church were doing anything too unusual when they practiced it, but because they weren’t. She wondered if she might be missing something in the way she took this holy meal, so she wrote a liturgy of communion to be practiced everyday in the world, in addition to our practice together on Sunday morning. Here are her words.
Communion, like the cross, should be a critique of unequal power structures in our homes, churches, communities and societies.
What if communion were me sitting on my Rastafarian neighbor’s back porch, listening to reggae, and hearing about his week? Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were showing up at a protest and taking on issues that are not at all like my own? Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were turning the other cheek again and again and again? Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were speaking up and risking the ire of the powers that be for the sake of equality? Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were regularly serving as a church (perhaps as part of the Sunday gathering) in our community. Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were making a sacrificial gift — the kind that seriously hurts the checking account and seriously heals the soul? Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were leaving my turf (like Jesus did) and attending a church full of people that look, talk, think or act differently than me? Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were holding onto hope, no matter what? Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were earnestly and painfully examining my privilege right now, this day, this moment, and not just talking about it, but actually taking steps to steward/abdicate/share it? Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were drinking Arizona iced tea and eating Skittles, and talking about how Jesus wants justice for young black men and we should too. Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were deciding, as a church community, that no one in our community would live below the poverty level…and then putting our money where our mouths are? Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were shutting up, so that other voices can be heard? Do this in remembrance of me.
What if communion were not settling for the individualistic and painless way that I’ve been practicing it for most of my life? Do this in remembrance of me.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.