In the World, but not of the World
Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Sundays
The passage set for today, which is taken from the great prayer of Jesus in the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel, is one which rewards a careful reading. In this prayer Jesus, God the Son, speaks to God the Father and like many conversations between close family members the language is condensed. We have the enormous privilege of listening to one half of a conversation taking place within the Holy Trinity itself. Here is the inner conversation of the Godhead. Here are words to be dealt with carefully, slowly and with great reverence.
Given all this I thought I would appropriate to go through the passage section by section, rather than simply tackle it as a whole. Like a rich and tasty pudding, better small spoonfuls than spiritual indigestion!
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. (John 17:6)
Notice how Jesus here makes sure we understand that all the words which he has spoken and teaching he has given does not simply have its source in him. No, he is “manifesting” the Father’s name to his disciples. In Jewish thought someone’s name summed up their character, and in all his teaching Jesus has simply set forth the character of God.
But notice this too: this teaching has not been given to everyone, but rather those who God has given Jesus from “out of the world”. The choice of who will listen is God’s, and not everyone will hear what Jesus has to teach.
Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. (John 17:7-8)
Back in the third chapter of John we heard that God “sent his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to the world, and he was sent with a particular message. Those who hear this message, who receive and accept it, realise that Christ came from God. Let us never try and pitch a loving Christ against a judgmental God as some are prone to do. No, all of this work is of the Father and the Son is the one who manifests this to us. To separate the Father from the Son (or either from the Holy Spirit) is to do violence to the very being of God. No. The mission of Christ is in fact a mission of all the Holy Trinity.
I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. (John 17:9-11)
Here, in this most personal prayer of Jesus, we find another deeply counter-cultural message: it is a dangerous thing indeed to attempt to merge the “world” with the “church”. Jesus prays not for the world, but rather for those whom the Father has taken from the world and given to Christ. We may be members of the state church, but let us not confuse church and state. One is a heavenly kingdom, the other an earthly one. One is eternal, the other fleeting. The call of the Christian is to be different, to be “salt and light” to the world around, to be united to Christ. It is to march to a different drum, to think in a different way.
While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. (John 17:12)
As Christ prays for this band of believers, he speaks of his care of them. The Good Shepherd has guarded his sheep, and only one has been lost. This is not the result of a lack of care, but rather that Scripture might be fulfilled. The one who is betrayed is in need only of a betrayer, and that dread role fell to Judas.
Let us also notice that you cannot separate God from his Scripture. In this prayer between Father and Son, the fulfilment of Scripture is brought to the fore. This should give pause to those who hold that the Bible is merely a human document. After all, why would God seek to fulfil a simply human and fallible piece of writing? Why should God’s actions be constrained by a merely human pen? Surely this prayer speaks of the truth that in the Bible we find God’s words, which speak reliably of God’s actions. This is not to deny that it is written by humans, but rather to recognise the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiring those writers.
But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17:13-14)
And so Jesus returns from his mission, returning via the cross. His mind turns to those disciples who will be left. They have the word of the Father, but this word brings opposition. Christ himself was taken to the cross, and those who now hold his words find themselves hated by the world. After all, why should Christians expect better treatment than Christ? If Christ was simply a good man, one wonders why he was crucified. If he was a man who was bringing a radical message from God, well then one can see why those challenged by such a message might respond violently.
I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:15–19)
Given all this opposition from the world, one might expect Jesus to place his followers into some safe corner. Not so, rather he prays they may be kept from the evil one. He prays they will know the truth of God’s word, which will give them firm foundations to live in a mixed community. In the same way that salt only fulfils its purpose once it is outside the salt cellar, the Christian most fully expresses the love of God when out in the world.
Much here to chew over. Much here on which to meditate. Here are some of the final words of Jesus, and his prayerful desire for those who follow him. As you read them, be encouraged by the prayers of Christ and watchful as you seek to live out the Christian life in a society which is increasingly secular in its attitudes. Rely on the words of God, contained in his scripture, and have confidence that God protects you from the evil one. Christian! The Father has taken you from the world and placed you in the secure hands of Christ. You will find no safer, or more secure place in which to dwell.