Comments and Observations
“You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.” That is a saying of my former Pastoral Care colleague Ron Nydam. And he’s right. But the truth is that parents all know that as a matter of fact you cannot insure the happiness of your children. And that truth is married to another undeniable fact and that is this: the wider world in which we want our children to be happy most assuredly cannot be counted on to make that happiness a reality. In fact, the wider world has millions of jagged edges ready to tear into any given person’s happiness and success and stability at a moment’s notice.
Jesus is not the “parent” of his followers but his love for them is at least as fervent as a mother or a father. Thus as he looks ahead to his own departure, realizing that he’d have to leave his friends to keep working in the midst of a highly challenging world, Jesus knows that among the things he must pray for them is protection from the evil one, from the destructive forces of life that seem calculated to knock the stuffing out of us more days than not. Jesus knows, too, that the success of his mission depends precisely on the disciples’ not being transported out of this world nor cocooned away somewhere far away from society or from the people in this world who need to hear the Gospel message.
No, the only way this thing was going to work was if the disciples continued to labor smack in the middle of the very same world that was about to reveal its character that very night when no less than the Son of the Living God would get arrested and accosted and then nailed to a spit of wood. That was the world in which they’d have to work and that was why Jesus had to spend so much of this prayer begging his Father to give them all the help, all the protection, all the support he could provide.
If ever we in the church needed a reality check as to what we should expect in ministry and in service to this world, the fervency of Jesus’ prayer here should remind us that we should not expect smooth sailing. Yet so many people seem to expect just that. Too many in the Church are just shocked when they encounter resistance to the Gospel. It’s as though we simply cannot believe that there could actually be atheists around or people who would prefer we not pray in public schools or those who take a view of sexuality or money that just is so clearly at variance with what Christians regard as God’s own truth.
But why should any of this surprise us? Jesus knew what we’d be facing. Yes, he prayed for protection and strength but he did so precisely because he did not necessarily think the world was going to be any more receptive to God’s kingdom than it had been in his own lifetime. The truth is we need all the prayer we can get as followers of God but we need it because Jesus knew that the evil one still has some kicks. We ought to expect no less. But the Good News is that Jesus is—right now—still praying this same prayer at the right hand of his Father.
Of course, Jesus first prayed it in front of the disciples too and there was no doubt a reason for also this. Haven’t we as pastors occasionally prayed for our congregations—and prayed in front of our congregations—in ways that expressed both our genuine gratitude for these members of our flock and yet prayed somewhat aspirationally for a few things we wish were more true of that same flock? All things being equal, we’ve all surely prayed things about the congregation as a whole that we know full well are not true for the congregation in its every detail!
The truth is, Jesus was the only realist in that upper room that night. He alone was ready to face the events John will tell us about in chapter 18 and beyond. And he alone knew he’d face his trials alone—he knew not only of Peter’s impending implosion but of the failure of them all. Yet here is how he prayed about those very same people.
The good news is that post-Pentecost, everything Jesus expresses here about his band of followers would come true. But even at the moment, it was finally an act of love that Jesus prayed the way he did. When you love people, you want the best for them and you express this in also your prayers for them. You want to give thanks for the things worthy of gratitude and you also want to see them so singularly through a lens of love and compassion that you’ll say things that may not be totally accurate at the moment but that will be true by and by and that will be gloriously true when that comes to pass.
Jesus is about to be brutalized by this world. And his dearest friends on earth would do nothing to stop it or even to stand with him in his agony and dereliction. Yet far from rebuking them or being angry with them, Jesus prayed for them and he did so in the best possible light at that.
There are oodles and oodles of vignettes in the New Testament that display how much love Jesus had for his people and for his most devoted followers. But as displays of love go, this prayer surely counts as one of the finest!
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Frederick Dale Bruner makes the claim that it’s possible to view John 17 as a whole as John’s expanded version of the well-known “Lord’s Prayer” that Jesus presents more straightforwardly in the Synoptic Gospels. Verse 1 contains the equivalent of “Our Father in heaven.” Verse 2’s talk about glorifying the Son that he may glorify the Father can be a gloss on “Hallowed be your name.” Verses 11-12 contain talk of the ongoing presence of the disciples in the world and this could be a version of “Your kingdom come” even as verse 15 can be seen as a “Your will be done” and also a “deliver us from evil.” Just beyond this lection in verses 20-24 one can also locate versions of “Forgive us our debts” and “Lead us not into temptation.” Whether Bruner’s idea works exactly here is open for debate but at the very least the similarities he notes shows that Jesus was indeed very consistent when it came to his own prayer life, his view of his Father, and what we need to pray for in this world.
Some while back during the 2012 presidential campaign Jon Stewart played a video clip on The Daily Show of a Christian leader who lamented the possibility of a Mormon being elected president because, this person went on to say, it’s just inconceivable to have a man in the White House who worships a different god. Stewart then rather cheekily replied that as an American but also as a Jew, he could assure this man “You get used to it!”
Not to make too big a deal out of this but . . . sometimes Americans in particular seem to view the world through a lens quite different from the one ground for us in the New Testament. Jesus on the night he offered his wonderful prayer, and then later Apostles like Paul, did their work and wrote their letters and preached their sermons in a world where it was merely expected that the powers-that-be would not be friendly to the Christian cause. That’s just the way the world works. And if we are blessed to have like-minded believers in positions of power, that is a blessing without a doubt but until Jesus comes again and the kingdom of God is all in all, we followers of Jesus for whom Jesus prayed what he did in John 17 should probably expect that now and then—if not on an ongoing basis—this old world of ours will provide us with challenges to our faith a’plenty and we’ll need all the help from our Father in heaven that he can graciously give us.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 17, 2015
John 17:6-19 Commentary