Lessons from John, 17:9-26, Priestly prayer (cont)

John 17:9-26 Prayer for the Church (cont)

The Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originallly broadcast August 26, 2007. Craig D. Atwood, TIR

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it has been a good week for you despite the record temperatures. I want to give a shout out to Emily and Odell Cheek who are celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary today. They are my aunt and uncle, and it is not at all surprising that they are celebrating this big event at Calvary Moravian Church, which has been their second home for many years. My family spent much of the week preparing for the start of school, buying supplies, going to open houses, and preparing to teach. It is always an exciting time of year for me. I’ll be teaching the history of theology and doing a guided study on Paul Tillich. Wake Forest Divinity School does offer several courses that people can audit at a reasonable cost. I hope you can take advantage of them. We are getting ready to kick off our fall programming here at Home Church. There will be new classes on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. One of them will be the theology of the Twilight Zone led by your truly.

Different from the World:            The reason so many commentators refer to this as the High Priestly Prayer is because Jesus intercedes with the Father on behalf of the disciples, just as the high priest interceded for the people of Israel. We should keep in mind that this is a prayer for Christians written by Christians for Christians. It affirms that those who belong to Christ have Jesus as their advocate with the Father. As the book of Hebrews says, we have a high priest who understands our weakness. Now, we have seen in John, that there is a distinction between those who belong to Jesus and those who belong to the world. This is not unique to John. Paul frequently contrasts those in Christ with those who belong to the present evil age. I Peter refers to Christians as a holy nation and a royal priesthood. Ancient Christian baptism rituals included a spoken renunciation of the world, which continued to be part of Moravian baptisms.

This idea that Christians are different from the world bothers a lot of people today because it seems elitist or divisive. There is certainly enough violence in the history of Christianity to give one pause before proclaiming that Christians have a special relationship to God. In the musical Spamalot, King Arthur says to his servant “You never told me you were Jewish.” The servant replied “That is not the kind of thing you say to a heavily armed Christian.” It is a line that gets big laughs, but communicates a poignant truth.

It is too easy to take Jesus’ words in this prayer as a divine affirmation of the superiority of Christians, but that is not what this means. This prayer does not endorse crusades, inquisitions, or preferential political treatment for those who have been baptized. It simply claims that those who belong to Christ belong to God. They are different from the world because they have been born from above and are being remade into the image of their Lord and Savior. As John Amos Comenius asserted centuries ago, when Christians rely on political and military methods to defend or advance the church, they are acting like the world, not like Christ. We belong to God not because we use the name of Christ but because we have been born anew by Christ and live by his commandment to love. Christ is glorified in his followers because they live as he has taught them to live.

This does make Christians different from the rest of the world, and the church needs to preach this message. The main reason that the Moravian Church was founded 550 years ago was because Brother Gregory wanted to have a community of faith that lived in a noticeably different way than the rest of the world. The Sermon on the Mount was their guide for daily living, and Jesus’ high priestly prayer gave them confidence that he was interceding for them.

Those who choose to live a life of non-violence in a violent age will be hated by others, as Jesus knew. Those who insist on speaking the truth during a time when lies rule, will face persecution. Those who insist that love is stronger than fear and that God’s way is preferable to the way of empires will be opposed. But they will not be friendless or without comfort. They will have an advocate with the Father who intercedes for them. According to John 17, those who belong to Christ will be protected. Their bodies may suffer, but their souls will be secure.

Son of Destruction                        Jesus says that only one of his disciples was lost. John’s Gospel calls him the “son of perdition” or the “son of destruction.” Many translators interpret this as “the one destined to be lost,” but that may be too much of a paraphrase. The “son of perdition” appears to be a Jewish phrase used to describe an agent of the Evil One. The phrase is used in II Thessalonians 2:3 to describe the antichrist who leads people away from Jesus. The phrase refers to someone who destroys the good that God does, but it also means that the “son of perdition” will be destroyed by God in the end. In Jewish literature, the son of perdition would appear at the end of history to oppose God’s Messiah, but in John it was the human Judas who was this son of perdition. We do not have to wait for the apocalypse to see the works of destruction. The struggle between God’s Messiah and the sons and daughters of perdition goes on in every generation. Too often, it is the church itself that has embraced destruction rather than eternal life. Judas ate at the Lord’s Table but chose death rather than life. May will choose life.

Joy            Verse 13 turns back to the disciples, and Jesus says that he wants them to face the future with joy because even death will not separate them from their Lord. They will have the joy of Christ in them fully. This might strike us as an odd thing to say in light of the events about to unfold, but this is consistent with John’s Gospel. The Passion Story is the story of Jesus’ glorification. He was returning to the Father, but was not abandoning his disciples. They would have the Holy Spirit and the living presence of the Word with them. One of the things that distinguish the followers of Christ from the world is this aspect of overflowing joy.

Joy is different from fun or pleasure, which depend on external circumstance. Joy is an inward attitude, a sense of enduring happiness. Joyful people can look at the world around them, with all of its grime and crime and slime, and see the beauty that shines in all that God has made. Joyful people can face the difficulties of life, the cycle of birth and death, without being repressed, oppressed, and depressed. Genuine spiritual joy is a grace of God that is hard to describe but wonderful to experience. C. S. Lewis titled his spiritual memoir “Surprised by Joy,” and in his Narnia books he describes how the breath of God brings color, life, and joy into the drab world we normally inhabit.

Many of the saints through the ages exhibited this joy, even while facing death. John Hus sang as the flames rose around him. This joy is not childishness; it is a deep spiritual maturity that refuses to let the forces of darkness and depression rule. In the Harry Potter books, the way to conjure a patronus to ward off the forces of evil is to remember a moment of intense happiness. By the way, patronus means “Father”. J. K. Rowling knows John 17. Our Savior prays to the Father so that we can face our struggles in the world with joy and light.

In the World not of the World:             Verses 14-16 repeat the idea that Jesus and his followers are in the world, but do not belong to the world. We have already seen that John uses the Greek word kosmos or world in two very different ways, which is confusing. On the one hand, kosmos refers to creation itself. It is the universe that has been ordered by God’s command and which is intrinsically good. But John frequently uses kosmos in a negative way to refer to the forces that oppose God and his Word. In this sense, the world is disordered. It is a world of corruption and distortion; the world of lies and cruelty. The closest we can get to this distinction in English is the idea of “worldliness.” Worldliness is selfishness rather than Godliness.

Sanctification                        Jesus prays that the Father will sanctify his followers. This is one of those words that is very hard to interpret today. Sanctity often has the connotation of being sanctimonious, and many of us are suspicious of people who proclaim their holiness. For over 150 years, American Protestants have defined “holiness” in terms of personal piety and morality. Holiness meant that a person did not smoke, drink, spit, cuss, fight, or fornicate – at least not in public. You probably know the joke that the difference between an Episcopalian and Methodist is that the Episcopalian will speak to you in the liquor store and the Methodist won’t.

In order to properly interpret John, we need to look at the meaning of sanctification in the Bible. To sanctify something, or to make it holy, was to set it apart for use in the Temple. A sacred lamp looked like other lamps, but had been set aside for use only in divine rituals. The priests of Israel were set apart from the people to serve as intercessors with God. When Jesus asks the Father to sanctify his disciples, he is asking that they be set apart for the work of God. In other words, this prayer repeats the idea that the followers of Christ do not belong to the world. When we baptize a person in the name of Jesus, we are setting that person apart from the world as a follower of Jesus.

Again we come upon the fundamental paradox of Christianity. Those who have been sanctified by Christ are sent into the world as the agents of God’s love, but they do not belong to the world. Different churches have dealt with this paradox in different ways. Some groups, most notably the Amish, took the idea of set apart to such an extreme that they set up separate societies where they did not have to interact directly with the evils of the world. Other churches have emphasized the idea of being in the world working to redeem society.

There has never been a simple solution to this paradox of being holy in an unholy land. Paul continued working in the marketplace while he preached the gospel. Jesus sent his disciples out as sheep before wolves. This prayer in John does not solve the problem of how to be in the world without being corrupted by the world. What it does is remind us that it is a problem that we should pray about.

Truth                        As we continue in Jesus’ prayer we see once again the importance of the Truth in John’s Gospel. I wonder if any word other than Love has been more tortured in recent years than Truth. I hear preachers proclaim they are teaching nothing but the truth while denying the plain facts of nature and violating the simple rules of logic. It is time for Christian churches to take a pledge to speak the truth even when they are not forced to do so by court order. You should know before you ask a Christian a question that he or she will respond honestly – even if it is not what you want to hear. Don’t ask a Christian household if a certain outfit makes one look.

Opposition            The evangelist tells us that the disciples of Christ are sanctified in truth. The truth sets us free, but it also sets us apart from the world, and in fact the world will hate Jesus’ disciples. That sounds so harsh to our ears. How could anyone hate a Christian brother or sister? The author of John’s Gospel knew that Nero had killed dozens of Christians, claiming they had been responsible for the fire of Rome. He was writing in a period when Christians were indeed taken into the arena and literally fed to hungry beasts for the amusement of the crowds.

We might think that the period of martyrdom for the truth is over, but ask anyone who has blown the whistle on corruption in their company, and they can tell you about hatred and persecution. Ask someone who tries to protect God’s creation from exploitation and pollution, and they can tell you about hatred. Ask someone who takes the risk to love those whom their neighbors despise, and they can tell you about hate.


Jesus knew that his followers would face persecution. They would see fiery crosses on their lawns. They would be excluded from clubs and organizations. They would be insulted in the press and ridiculed by those with power. But they would remain faithful and joyful.

A young girl named Ruby Bridges was the first black child to attend a white school in Louisiana. Every day she walked past hundreds of angry white people, many of their parents of her classmates, who called her horrible names and threatened her life. When she made it past the daily gauntlet of hatred and abuse, she sat alone in a classroom because the white students would not enter the same room with her. Robert Coles noticed that Ruby’s lips were moving as she walked to school each. He asked her what she was doing. “I’m praying,” she said. For what? “For the people who are being so mean to me that Jesus will help them.” That is what it means to be sanctified in truth; to be sent into the world without being part of the world. Ruby Bridges overcame the hatred of the world because the joy of the Savior was made complete in her. She was just a child, but may we all become such children of God.

Becoming One in Christ            Jesus did not just pray for the disciples who sat with him at dinner at the Last Supper. He prayed for all those who would come to believe in him because of their witness. He prayed for us who read John’s Gospel and follow its teachings. He prayed that all those who believe in him should be one. Verses 20-26 all deal with this idea that those who believe in Jesus ought to be united in him. This is the will of our Lord, and this is a prayer that appears unfulfilled. Is it not odd that churches condemn with such vigor all manner of sexual sins, most of which Jesus never even mentioned, but forgives the sin of divisiveness? Is not odd that evangelists list immoral acts and thoughts that can lead one down the path of destruction, while fostering self-righteousness and church divisions? Is not odd that liberals can condemn social injustice while mocking and denigrating other Christians, especially poor ones?

Jesus prays that all of his followers be united with him, just as he is united with the Father. If we are united to Jesus, then we must be united with each other. There will not be a Moravian Church in heaven nor a Catholic Church. There will not be liberals or conservatives or evangelicals or post-modern existentialists with neo-Thomist leanings in heaven. There will only be those who are united in Christ. If churches were doing their primary job of preaching Christ and helping each other live as followers of Christ, we would have been growing closer together through the centuries instead of farther apart.

The great period of Moravian missions was fueled by this prayer in John. Moravian missions was based on the simple desire to unite everyone God’s love revealed in Christ. We should go into the world preaching Christ as a way to make ourselves feel holier than others. We should only do so because we are so full of joy and love that we want to bring that love to all corners of the earth. We proclaim Christ by word and deed by loving others and bringing them into the household of God. Our ancestors wanted the world to know that no people are God-forsaken; no people are despised; no divisions erected by the sons of perdition can stand against the joyful love of the Savior. We cannot hope to engage this mission based just on our good will or our desire to do the right thing. We need to become one with Christ and the Father. We will fail in this mission of redemption as long as we prefer theological, denominational, and political labels to our identity as disciples of Christ. They will only know we are Christians by our Love.

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