Becoming God’s answer (John 17.20-26) [Sermon 05-08-2016, Easter 7c]

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May 2, 2016 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for May 8th, 2016. Seventh Sunday of Easter, 2016.

The texts for this week are: Acts 16.16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17.20-26.

The full title of this message is, “Becoming God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer.”

An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.


The prayer of a dying man

In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus lifted up tear-and-sweat-stained prayers to God the night before he was crucified. Abba, Father, he begged, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want (Mark 14.36).

The Jesus we meet in the Synoptic Gospels certainly isn’t dragged kicking and screaming to the cross. But he’s not exactly stretching himself out on it and handing the soldiers a hammer and nails, either.

John’s Gospel also shows us Jesus praying in the hours leading up to his arrest, trial, and execution. But, as always, John just has to be different from his other Gospel-writing brothers. John doesn’t give us Jesus asking the Father of all possibilities for another way to reconcile the world. John’s Jesus isn’t really praying for himself at all.

John’s Jesus spent his last few hours as a free man praying for . . . us. And our Gospel lesson today let us overhear a few lines of that prayer.

I’m praying not only for them — the disciples who were with him already —

But also for those who will believe in me

Because of them and their witness about me.

Well, that prayer includes you and me. We’re the latest threads being woven into the long, long tapestry that is the church. Our faith ties our lives to the lives and the words of those first disciples.

And according to whomever wrote the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus hasn’t stopped praying for us since that night. Hebrews 7.25 reassures us that Jesus always lives to speak with God for us.

Jesus was concerned about so many things that night. Would he let his Father down? Would he let the world down? Was there really no other way? Who would take care of his poor mother after he was gone?

There was so much to be praying about that night. And he did. I’m sure there are many things he told his Father that aren’t recorded. But with so many other things rightfully weighing on his mind and heart that night, Jesus took the time to pray for us. He made you and me a priority.

We often pray for dying people. But how often have you ever had someone about to die pray for you?

When a dying person makes me a priority, I treasure that as the most precious of gifts. I want to honor that gift, and put it to best use. I’m sure all of you do, too.

One heart and mind

So the night before Jesus died, he made it a point to pray for me; to pray for you; to pray for each and every disciple who came before us; and who will arise after us.

What did Jesus pray on our behalf? What was his prayer for us?

The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—

Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,

So they might be one heart and mind with us.

So they’ll be as unified and together as we are—

I in them and you in me.

Then they’ll be mature in this oneness.

We have just heard Jesus say that the unity—the oneness—of his followers is not something we can achieve for ourselves. It’s not something we can do or manufacture. It’s not based on some list of doctrines that we have all absolutely agreed upon. It’s certainly not because we look the same, think the same, vote the same, come from the same place, have the same opinions, or see the world from the same angle. The oneness of Jesus’ followers is possible only because we have been invited to share in the oneness of Jesus the Son with Father God. Our unity only comes from our shared participation in God’s life and God’s love.

Another New Testament passage stands out in my mind as a sort of commentary on these words from Jesus’ unity prayer. Jesus prays to his Father that the church will be one heart and mind with us. I can’t help but think of what Paul wrote to the Philippian church when their unity was fraying. He told them to let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. In other words, be one in mind with Jesus. Share Jesus’ heart and mind. And what did Jesus do? Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Phil. 2.5-8 NRSV).

Paul draws a straight line from Jesus who took the form of a slave—when he washed his disciples’ feet—to Jesus who was crucified in obedience to his Father’s will. Elsewhere in the passage I just mentioned, Paul said that Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself. In other words, he let go of his advantages, his privilege, his comfort, for the sake of others. For our sake. He surrendered them willingly to his Father for our good. And so the Word of God became flesh and bent down to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. He had died to himself long before anybody put him on a cross.

We, likewise, will only be mature, complete, perfect, or whole in oneness when we let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. Notice that the key verb there is let. Unity doesn’t begin in what we do. It begins in what we allow. Will we allow the love God has shown us in Jesus to completely shape our lives, and and our life together as a church?

If we do, we will be led to empty ourselves. That means that we must be willing to surrender any position, any privilege, any prerogative, any comfort, anything that makes us feel superior, and—you may not like this—even any of our pet doctrines that get in the way of serving and loving each other as God has served us and loved us through Jesus. If we can’t do that—or rather, if we aren’t willing to let God love others through us by setting those things aside—we don’t have the mind of Christ in us. We will be found complaining about how each others’ feet smell instead of stooping down to wash one another’s feet. So we certainly won’t be willing to lay down our lives for one another.

But that’s exactly what it means to be one heart and mind with Jesus and his Father. And that is the only way to perfect our unity.

So as long as we are not willing, the prayer Jesus prayed just before he died will go unanswered. And that would be a sin and a shame, wouldn’t it?

Then the world might believe

Jesus prayed for a deep, organic, abiding unity among his followers. He prayed for Father God to make us one. But is that an end in itself—loving, peaceful, oneness among the church? Or does the oneness of the church serve a greater purpose? Does it have anything to do with the mission of the church in the world?

Yes. Jesus says it has everything to do with the church’s work in the world.

We already heard Jesus say that he was praying not only for his present followers; but also for those who will believe because of them and their witness about me. So this prayer includes you and me. But it also reaches out hopefully, to embrace those who will be drawn to Jesus because of our work. Our words. Our witness to Jesus with our lives, and our life together.

Jesus prays that we all be of one heart and mind with him and the Father so that others will see and believe.

In his prayer, Jesus voices a profound hope for the world when the church is united. And Jesus goes on to voice the same hope throughout the prayer. He asks that the oneness of the church will give the godless world evidence that you’ve sent me and loved them in the same way you’ve loved me.

What Jesus desires the world to see in the lives of his people is the love of God the Father. He prays to Father God that when the world sees us bound together in one heart and mind, then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.

It is not enough for the world to believe that a God, or God in general, sent Jesus. The problem is, as Jesus says, that the world has never known his Righteous Father. The world worships all sorts of gods, many of them so worldly that they worship them unknowingly. Like comfort, luxury, security, certainty, power, and control.

Even God’s people have often fallen into the trap of believing in—and worshiping—a God who turns out upon closer examination to have been made in our image. A God who is nothing but a projection of how we would rule the world if we were still us, but really, really big, and with superpowers.

But that’s not the God Jesus wants the world to believe sent him. Jesus wants the world to believe that his Father sent him. And for that to happen, the world must see Father God at work in us. And they will see that when we allow his love to unify us.

Revealing the Righteous Father—showing the world who God really is—was Jesus’ mission, his work in the world. And he has now left that work with us. A work baptized in the prayer we have heard him pray.

We are Jesus’ prayer for the world.

I have made your very being known [1]

How does Jesus want us—his followers—to see our mission? Why are we here? What are we supposed to be doing in this godless world that Jesus says has never known the Righteous Father?

Jesus prays that we will know that our work, our mission, in the world flows directly from the work Father God began in his Son, Jesus.

He hints at this very early on in our reading today, when he says: The same glory you gave me, I gave them. In other words, Jesus—the Word of God become flesh—reveals the true character of Father God. And when the disciples follow Jesus—when they obey him, when they imitate him, when they do the things he did for the reasons he did them—they reveal Jesus. And when Jesus the Son is revealed, so is God the Father.

Jesus goes on to explain that he is praying for his followers as they—as we—carry on the work in the world that Father God began in him.

Righteous Father, the world has never known you,

But I have known you, and these disciples know

That you sent me on this mission.

I have made your very being known to them—

Who you are and what you do—

And continue to make it known.

Jesus will continue to make God known in his cross and resurrection. There he will reveal most clearly who his Father is, and what his Father does. God would rather suffer and die in and for the world than destroy them. Father God is a co-sufferer with us. This is its own good news. But the good news—the best news!—is that Father God is, above all, a resurrecting God.

Here’s something you absolutely have to know about John to grasp what Jesus means when he talks about glory, or about being glorified. John just loved playing with words. He enjoyed using words that had a lot of nuance. He especially took delight in words that could have multiple meanings, or that could be understood ironically.

We hear this, for instance, throughout John’s Gospel when Jesus talks about being lifted up. In John 3.14-15, he tells the befuddled Pharisee Nicodemus: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.

This refers back to a story from the book of Numbers. The Israelites were throwing yet another temper tantrum, and God was fed up with them. So he sent fiery serpents out among the people to bite them. The people were only spared from judgment when God had Moses fashion a fiery serpent from bronze; place it on a pole; and lift it up for the people to see. When the people looked at the bronze serpent, they were healed. They lived and didn’t die. Jesus is drawing a line from that event to the cross. Like the bronze serpent, the cross reveals both God’s judgment and God’s mercy. Jesus uses this same language again in John 12.32: When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me. John tells us in the next verse that, He said this to show how he was going to die.

The thing that makes Jesus saying he will be lifted up when he is crucified quite ironic, is that the word usually meant exalted to greatness or favor. For instance, the same verb is used in James 4.10: Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. But Jesus says that the cross—which looks like a humiliating defeat, Jesus being brought low—will actually exalt him, or lift him up.

Jesus talks about glory and being glorified in John much the same way he talks about being exalted or lifted up. When we think of glory and of someone being glorified, we’re generally thinking of their greatness being revealed. We’re seeing them being elevated, right? Well, a moment ago, we heard Jesus say: When I am lifted up, I will draw everyone to me. And he was speaking of his crucifixion. And just a few verses earlier, in John 12.23-25, Jesus said this:

The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.

Did you hear that? Jesus is saying that he will be glorified in death—even his death on the cross.

Just a few verses after that, Jesus prayed:

Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? “Father, save me from this time”? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time. Father, glorify your name! Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” (John 12.27-28)

The cross exalts Jesus, and glorifies Jesus, because glorifies his Father. For it is in the cross where Jesus makes the very being of God known. It is there where he shows us who God is, and what God does.

God is the one who suffers with us. Cries with us. Acts on our behalf, to rescue us. Is determined to bring us safely home, even if he has to die to do it. The cross paints this glorious portrait of God in the blood of his Son.

The cross glorifies God because it gives us a radically new way to see God. One that challenges many of our assumptions about who God is, and what God does. We humans use these magnificent words to speak of God: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. All-knowing, and all-powerful. The Unmoved Mover.

But the cross shows us a Most-moved Mover. A God whose power is made perfect in the weakness of his crucified Son.

Furthermore, the cross shows us the glory of God because it provides an occasion for the resurrection. There was not much—if anything—less glorious than getting yourself crucified. You didn’t get much deader back then than crucified and buried for three days. What a mess. What a scandal for God to be caught up in.

But God revealed his glory again by raising his crucified Son. The message could not have been plainer back then to anyone who was paying attention. Father God is saying, through the cross and resurrection of his Son: The world condemns and kills. The world makes crosses, and nails victims to them. That’s because the world doesn’t know me! I am not-the-world. I suffer with the condemned and humiliated. I raise up the victims. I break the power of crosses.

What does all this mean for us, the church—Father God’s household, God’s Beloved Community? Well, it means that God the Father at work in us through Jesus the Son loves us into reconciliation and unity. He loves the church with the same love he loved his Son Jesus with—a perfect love. And as it is written elsewhere, perfect love—and only perfect love—drives out fear (1 John 4.18). Hatred and hostility always begin in fear, so Father God’s perfect love is the only antidote. The Father’s love within us and among us transforms hostility into hospitality. God’s love working in our lives, and among us as a gathered community, is what makes us one. This requires a love that is both willing to die for the beloved, and that is also stronger than death. Otherwise, it is not the perfect love that will drive out fear. This is the love God has shown us through Jesus. And now God loves us into oneness with each other by that same love.

So that your love for me might be in them

When Jesus prayed for his disciples the night before his death—for oneness, for loving community, for our work in the world—he had one vision. He saw one thing that he wanted the world to see. And that vision is shared with us in the final words of our reading today:

I have made your very being known to them—

Who you are and what you do—

And continue to make it known,

So that your love for me

Might be in them

Exactly as I am in them.

Jesus knew that this is the one best hope the world has of knowing the Righteous Father, so that they might believe.

I want us to be very careful how we hear John, and how we hear Jesus. It is quite easy to fall into thinking of the church as God’s in-group, and the world as God’s out-group. But then we will fail in our witness to Father God’s love. After all, it’s also in John’s Gospel that Jesus tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son (John 3.16). If we view our mission in terms of the church against the world—us vs. them—we won’t be united in God’s perfect love. Then we will be uniting against a common enemy. But that’s what the world calls unity: coming together not in love, but to defeat some common enemy. The world is simply John’s way of naming those who do not yet know God as the Righteous Father of Jesus. It is not a way for us to identify a threat we must contain and defeat.

Jesus prayed that we would be a people who knows who God is and what God does, because Jesus revealed this in his words and his life. And that Father God’s love would dwell in us, shape us, and guide us; the same way Father God’s love dwelled in Jesus, and shaped and guided his life.

Father God’s love in Jesus was always expressed in very practical ways. Eating with sinners. Forgiving offenders. Reaching out to the excluded. Feeding the hungry. Comforting those who mourned. Bringing healing to bodies and minds. Standing up for those who were being put down. Tearing down walls between people. Nurturing friendships. Washing smelly feet. The cross was that same love taken to its limit—the willingness to die for the beloved. But what does dying for the beloved prove when you haven’t lived for them first? All these very earthy, very dirty, very flesh-and-blood ways Jesus lived out Father God’s love; were really just Jesus practicing death and resurrection. Humbling himself before God—and his neighbors!—and trusting God’s perfect love to lift him up.

This is the love that will love us into unity, and show the world that Father God is the one who sent Jesus into the world.

This is the love that make us God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer for us—and for the world.

[1] This movement of the sermon is deeply indebted to the analysis of John’s Gospel found in Michael Hardin, The Jesus-Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity with Jesus, 2nd ed (Lancaster, PA: JDL Press, 2010, 2013), 264-295. And by “deeply indebted,” I mean I could not have written this without him. I heartily recommend this book, and published work of Michael’s you can get your hands on. By the way, if you don’t dig this movement of the sermon, don’t blame it on Michael!


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