Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 16, 2021
John 17:6-19 Commentary
“You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.”
That is a saying of my former colleague Ron Nydam. And he’s right. Worse yet, we all know that you cannot insure the happiness of your children, either. 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.
I don’t know if this will mean anything to anyone all these years later but as I thought about Jesus’ concern for his followers in what is a rough world, I was reminded of a Youth Service sermon I preached at my former congregation a few weeks after 9/11 in the Fall of 2001 (amazingly enough that will soon be 20 years ago). My text then was from Romans 12 and one of our young people (Christina) had in that same service made her Profession of Faith, her “confirmation” as it might be called in other traditions. But here is how I ended the sermon—maybe it has some resonance with Jesus’ own loving concern for his followers:
“We all wish we could tell you for sure that the world is safe, or will be one day soon. We’d all love to make you feel secure just knowing that the FBI is on the case and that our bombs are bigger than their bombs. But the images burned onto our brains from September 11 inevitably remind us what a fragile thing life is. But the gospel has something to say to us even so–something that no news headline can ever touch.
In a recent column in the Christian Century a writer reminded us of something C.S. Lewis preached at Oxford University sixty-two years ago tomorrow on October 22, 1939. Hitler had invaded Poland only six weeks earlier, and England was at war. The undergraduate college students there at Oxford were frightened–many of them would face death soon, and altogether too many would die. Here is what Lewis told them: “If we had foolish unchristian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven here on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are now disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”
The world is a dangerous place. There is much that is good about this world and this life–we are surrounded by God’s gifts and we are right to take joy in them now and hope that we and our children can take joy in such things in also the future. But final security and ultimate hope are not going to emerge from what we or any nation can achieve this side of God’s kingdom coming in all its fullness. That hardly means that as Christians we have nothing to say, however.
There is something to say, and that’s why I want to invite all of you young people, 5th graders through 12th grade, to come up right now and join me by the baptism font–consider this a more mature form of the “Children’s Sermon,” if you will, but I really do want you to come up here.
For probably every one of you there was a time when your mom or dad or both brought you to this font or one like it in some other church. I don’t know exactly what was going through your parents’ minds back then or how precisely they pictured what baptism means. But when Christian parents bring a child to the font, we are admitting that on our own, we cannot guarantee the child’s future. So in baptism we let God claim you. We handed your soul over to God through Jesus, in whose hands alone you would be safe forever, in life and in death. The Jesus who met you in baptism is your and my only comfort. There is ultimately no other security in this world, not really. So we let God claim you. Today Christina answered God back some fifteen or so years after her baptism. In baptism God told Christina and every one of you, “I’ve got you!” Today Christina replied and said, “Thanks! And I’m staying put in your love, Jesus!”
It’s a rough world. So I urge you, young people of this church, in view of God’s mercies to you, not to conform to the roughness of this world, not to go with the flow of anger and revenge, but to be transformed from the inside out. Return every day to the love of God in Jesus that scooped you up at this baptismal font some years ago. Rest secure in that love. And then let it help you be loving, too. Let that love motivate you to do the hard work of figuring out what God wants out of us Christian people. Let love, not hate; good, not evil, guide you until that day when the love and goodness of Jesus is all in all. Remember: you’re baptized kids! And so whether you live or die, you are the Lord’s. Live in that hope, rest in that hope, and so go forward with courage, knowing that our world belongs to God and so do you.”
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