by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca)
Our reading is part of Jesus' prayer at the end of the last supper the night before he was crucified. Notice how the word world comes twelve times. Obviously Jesus is not referring to our physical world of land and seas. He is praying about the world of people who can hate (John 17:14) and believe (17:21). Earlier in the Gospel we learned that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16).
This prayer was before the crucifixion, but it seems to express how the Messiah will keep praying for us after his ascension as he continues his reign. Let me pick out three activities that are important in his relation to the world : Dividing, Praying, Sending.
A. Dividing - Jesus divides the world of people into two classes : those who have believed and those who have not yet believed. "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word" (John 17:20).
Similarly in his preaching he did not view the world as a gradation of shades of grey. People are building their house on the rock or on the sand (Matthew 7:24-27, Luke 6:47-49). They love the light or they prefer the darkness (John 3:19-21). There is good wheat and weeds, both growing in the field which is the world (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-42). We are either on the wide road that leads to destruction or on the narrow path of eternal life (Matthew 7:13-14).
Does his prayer for us mean that he is unconcerned for all the rest of humanity? As we will see in a moment, he is praying for us so that we can perform our task of bringing others into his joy. He has a division in mind but only to achieve his eventual loving purposes.
We like to divide people into good guys and bad guys. In the old melodramas the bad people wore black hats, and everyone hissed as they appeared. It was those who wore white hats who galloped up just in time to free the heroine from the railroad track as the train was approaching.
A few years ago people used to divide the world into the free world, which consisted of good people, and communists who were bad. Similarly in the Christian church there was an early division into the Greek Orthodox Church to the east and the Roman Catholic Church in the west, and both viewed the others as heretics. After the Reformation we divided ourselves into Protestants and Roman Catholics, and both imagined the others were not Christian and certainly going to hell.
These days, especially in the Bible belt of the United States, fifty per cent of people claim to have been born again, and all others are unsaved. To be born again you need to go forward in a Billy Graham meeting, or revival gathering, and that saves you from going to hell. It does not seem to matter that most of those who say they are born again never appear in church, or show any sign of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Being born again was certainly very important for the leading rabbi in Jesus' day. "You must be born from above" (John 3:7). Nicodemus was a very learned Bible teacher, but his faith needed to move from his head down to let the Holy Spirit into his heart. "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8).
In the parable of the Vine and the Branches, a branch is alive by abiding in the tree and the sap from the tree coming in to give it life. Here the life-giving sap corresponds to the Holy Spirit (John 15:1-5). And Jesus expressed it this way in his prayer: "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us" (John 17:21) Where people have moved from head knowledge about God to letting the Spirit move in their hearts we can say they are born again. It could happen suddenly in an inrush of spiritual life, or we just know that is what empowers us. It is something God can recognize, and we can know from experience. "Yes, the Holy Spirit is doing this or that in my heart." But we cannot make a list of such people by asking them questions as to when and how it happened.
B. Praying - The division in Jesus' mind influences the way he prays. "I am not asking for the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me" (John 17:9). "Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me" (17:11). I can think of at least two cases when I would certainly have been killed, but a miraculous intervention (I call it the hand of an angel) saved me. Last week I was talking to a member of this church who was a Spitfire pilot in the war. On one occasion as he was coming down to land he was watching a car underneath him, and he had not seen a tree to the right. Suddenly that wing was lifted by an invisible hand to clear the tree and leveled out again for the landing.
The Lord is chiefly concerned for our joy. "That they may have my joy made complete in themselves" (John 17:13). If we are restless, grouchy, frustrated, miserable, we should remember he is praying and waiting for us to open our hearts to his joy.
We often think the solution is to escape from our difficult circumstances, but that is not the way he prays. "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one" (17:15). Many have been tempted to think that becoming a monk or nun in a monastery would solve their spiritual problems. There is nothing wrong with a convent offering us a week-end retreat to quieten our hearts and take time to listen to God. But Jesus' prayer is not for our escape but for us to be freed from the lies that bind us. Satan's power is by telling us lies about God, about others, and about ourselves. But as Jesus prays for us, and we listen, we see what the situation really is and we know we are safe and well.
There are also innumerable sects with a stockade fort mentality. "You must escape from the world by joining our holy huddle, and have nothing to do with those worldly people outside." It sounds plausible, but those who join them become narrow-minded, judgmental, joyless bigots. Jesus said "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13) and salt does its job, not by remaining pure in its packet, but by being mixed in with the food.
But to do our work Jesus prays "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth" (17:17). The silver cup on our communion table is set aside for its holy purpose. We do not use it to pour juice at the pot luck supper. The cup is carefully washed after it has been used in each service, but then it is again filled with wine and many people drink from it. Similarly after each contact with the world of people Jesus wants us to be sanctified from the lies which have entered our minds by the Word of God. And then again he sends us back into our offices and factories, the hockey arena and golf club, our university and local government, our families and friends. Which brings us to the third strand of this astonishing prayer.
C. Sending - "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (John 17:18). The eternal Son of God, the Lord Messiah who reigns among the nations, was sent to take birth in the very messy world of Bethlehem and Nazareth, Samaria and Jerusalem. And he prays for us as we are put in the traumatic, cruel, frustrating, terrible circumstances that many of you face.
But what is our purpose here? Why can't we go straight to heaven?
We go back to the key verse in this passage. "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word" (17:20). The world is not made up of good guys and bad guys. He is praying for those who have believed so that they can help those who have not yet believed. It is true that some, for inexplicable reasons, finally choose to reject the love of God. But that is not what the Messiah has in mind. All are invited, and all are welcome to the eternal joy that God has prepared for us.
The way others come to faith is "through their word." I was thrilled
at the earlier service to see how some of our Sunday School children have
memorized the twenty-third psalm and the story of the prodigal son. That
word which they have hidden in their hearts will work in and through them
throughout their lives. We are constantly influencing people by what we
are and what we say. We may not open our Bibles and point to verses here
and there, but the Bible works to change our whole body language and mentality
as well as the actual words we speak. What we believe is totally different
from the usual lies that Satan has spread around. And people are at first
puzzled, and then influenced by what the Bible has done in us. They may
oppose and persecute, as they did to Jesus when he was sent into the world.
But the ultimate results in terms of eternal life are far deeper and more
extensive than ever we imagine.