Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” This scripture passage we heard this morning comes from what most scholars call, “Jesus’ high priestly prayer.” Jesus was praying on behalf of the community, his followers, to whom he would soon be leaving his mission in the world. The timing of the prayer is set near the events of the Last Supper, right before Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion. If we can for a moment imagine ourselves in this setting. Imagine being one of the disciples overhearing this prayer. I bet during that quiet after-dinner conversation, we like them, would have felt that everything was about to change once again, and we all know what change brings: anxiety.”(1)
Facing a life-altering change (death on the cross), Jesus chose not to succumb to anxiety, but he chose to pray, and moreover to pray for us. Imagine that for a moment. In a time of great anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and potential dread, Jesus’ heart was focused on those whom he held most dear; with those whom he loved. He was troubled about their future, and the fact that he would have to leave them to continue his mission; this same mission of the church today.
I wonder, how would our mission in the world today be different, how would our life together as the church be different, if remembered in our times of anxiety that, “We are a community for whom Jesus prays.” This high priestly prayer assures us that Jesus himself will always be with us, to strengthen us and enable us, so we might remain focused on our ministry in this world, rather than withdrawing from it. (3)
Jesus said, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” Here, Jesus is trying to draw a distinction between the ways of God, and ways of the ordering of human existence, which shapes our culture toward injustice and death. The system of the world often causes suffering and oppression, cruelty, selfish greed and conflict. Jesus’ prayer calls this world system on the carpet. Jesus’ prayer shines a light on the “world’s system” of oppression and conflict, and exposes it to God’s system of grace, which is love, mercy, justice, reconciliation, and restoration.
In his prayer, Jesus is not saying the church should withdraw from the world into a quiet, safe haven of perfect bliss. We all know for a fact that is not even possible, because the world’s ways of injustice, suffering, and oppression always finds its way into the faith community. We are still at the same time; both sinners and saints are we not? We cannot escape the world and thus, our purpose is not to be a safe haven for the saints, but to stand on a hill as a lighthouse and rescue station for the world. We are a beacon of hope pointing to another reality; God’s revelation of love in Christ Jesus.
Jesus was the one set apart to reveal God to the world. Jesus is the organizer of the ecclesia; the community universal, the church. We as the church are on a mission appointed by God, but we must be aware that we can become ineffective in our mission, when we become merely one more social organization. The Church is sent out into the world, to continue Jesus’ work of reconciliation in the world. Jesus calls his followers, not to run and hide from it all, and not to get too swept up in it all, but to live in the swirling chaos and conflict of this world, anchored in the life-giving ways of God.
Jesus said, I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them. We need God’s protection. The church is certainly not water-resistant to the deluge of conflict inherent in the world. Conflict occurs every day, and in every facet of our lives. It should surprise no one that disagreements, misunderstandings, injuries, and yes, even evil still happens in Church. We sometimes go from disagreement to intractable division, and then the Body of Christ becomes wounded deeply.
When we face conflicts, disagreements, and misunderstandings, we need to follow the example of Jesus and return to prayer and a reliance on God, rather than merely ourselves. Continuing Christ’s mission of reconciliation really begins with us. We cannot avoid conflict, we cannot deal with things as we always have in the past, especially when it did not work before.
“We need take our cue from that relationship between Jesus and Abba God, a deeply intimate knowledge and love that Jesus also shared with his disciples, and a model for our own relationships today. This relationship is one which is “mutually supportive and non-hierarchical, giving space to one another and allowing others to live into full personhood within a loving community of care.” (1)
We need to insure that we focus on the mission of reconciliation within the community, so that we can be messengers of that same reconciliation, in a world that does not pay as much attention to as it did a few years ago.
We are on a mission that is more difficult than ever, but we are not on this mission alone. A few days ago, Pew Research Center reported “that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% . . . in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.” (2) The report also stated that the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%”.(2) Did you know that 20 years ago, that number was only 8%?
Folks, the mission field of the church, not some far off, distant mission field in another other region of the world, but the LOCAL mission field of the church is changing dramatically. For the sake of Christ’s mission of reconciliation, we must reorder our lives and rethink our priorities. We are going to have to choose between falling back into a comfortable, safe-haven, attempting to be devoid of all the world’s conflict and chaos, or we are going to have to face issues honestly, engaging them openly, so that through conversation with Christ-like vulnerability, we can begin to plant seeds of love, grace, reconciliation, mercy, and restoration within our institution.
This week’s passage tells us that there will be times when we have to choose, and when it comes to life or death, love or hate, God is always on the side of love and life. We need to be on that side too. How then will we order our lives and examine our priorities and shape our institution, especially if we are going to reflect Christ to a world that is no longer paying as much attention to us, as it did just 20 years ago?
We can begin again by loving each other, as Jesus loves us. By the way, that kind of love is not merely a feeling; it is action when feeling it is not quite there yet. Love like that is a thoughtful loving gesture when undeserved. Jesus loves us with hands and feet and pierced side, while at the same time being rejected, taunted, and misunderstood. Jesus said, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
I don’t know about you, but I want to be in a community where love like this abounds, where mutual respect exudes from the walls, where burdens are hoisted and carried for each other, and where that love extends deeply to people outside the community, not just in words, but in actions.
Jesus said, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” The church’s future is God’s and not ours alone, but we have to learn to trust and allow ourselves to be sent. The high priestly prayer is at Jesus’ last hour, as he is facing death and yet, he trusts his future to God. Jesus still had to go to the cross, and he went freely. We must be at the work of reflecting Christ in everything; I mean everything we do, to show forth our intimacy with God as the community of God.
“All this sounds great,” you may say! “Eric, you are just a dreamer,” you may tout! I imagine the speculative doubters would be right, that is if we all just continue to reject the very real fact that “We are a community for whom Jesus prays.” We are not left alone to do this work Jesus left for us. We are invited to consider the possibility of life trusting God. We face a future in which God’s governance and care of us is complete, and the experience of God’s love for us is realized. This is not an impossible mission that is if we remember, “We are a community for whom Jesus prays.”
(3) Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2