John 17: 1-19
Seventh Sunday in Easter/ 5th June 2011/ Sacrament of Holy Communion
Nobody prays like this. If any of us offered a prayer like this it would be presumptuous, ludicrous. If I offered a public prayer like this the heresy police would be at the doors of our sanctuary to escort me away. Nobody prays like this—except Jesus.
And Jesus prays—and does he pray: deeply, personally, boldly, with faith, with conviction, with power, with focus, with vision. John 17 is known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. In John’s gospel the prayer comes after Jesus’ last meal with the disciples, it concludes their dinner conversation. He prays and then goes out to the Kidron valley to be arrested. It comes just before his betrayal. Knowing what was about to transpire, he pauses in prayer and becomes like a priest.
A priest is a mediator—that’s what priests do. They mediate between humanity and divinity. They convey the needs of humanity to God and they convey the promise and hope of God to humanity. John views Jesus as a priest who stands between heaven and earth, between this world and another world. And as such, Jesus offers this amazing prayer.
If we took the time to really break it down, analyze it, pay attention to the words, the tense, the flow of its content, we would discover Jesus doing this amazing dance back and forth between being human and at the same time participating in God. The Father-Son relationship is obvious. Jesus acknowledges that he glorified God with his ministry—but then he asks to be glorified, with the same glory he possessed with God before the world began. In his prayer for his disciples, Jesus says, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine.” None of us would ever pray this way. It is clear that Jesus identifies himself with the glory of God. There is no doubt in Jesus: he knows who he is. He shares in the glory of God. In the world of theology, this is called a high Christology—there is no doubt that Jesus is divine here.
And yet, it is extraordinary how he continues to pray and plead from the human side. He prays on behalf of the disciples from out of his experience with them as a human, as one of them. He places his feet firmly in both worlds, here and there; in two natures, human and divine, but does so with the strength of a God who embraces the tension in himself. Nobody prays like this; except Jesus. And as Jesus prays this way he participates as a human being in the very life of God.
He goes to God on behalf of his disciples, but also on behalf of all humanity. As God in humanity he brings humanity before God; as humanity participating in God he brings to humanity something of God. This is the dance; this is the exchange; this blessed movement back and forth in his prayer. He goes to God on our behalf. He places our needs before God. He intercedes with us and for us. “Protect them in your name that you have given me,” he said, “so that they may be one, as we are one.”
And he just doesn’t pray for his disciples alone, as a detached priest, as if he personally needs nothing. He’s praying out of his own need: he needs and he wants from God something for his disciples. This is the occasion for the prayer: Jesus wants his disciples glorified, he wants them strengthen and cared for. There is no reference to the Holy Spirit in this text—that will come—but Jesus’ prayer is really a prayer for the Holy Spirit to do something with and in his disciples: to sanctify them, to sanctify us, to set us apart and bless us and equip us.
And here we get to the heart of the prayer: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world,” Jesus said.
We need to pause briefly here to note what John means by “world;” what we find here is a form of the Greek word, kosmos. The kosmos is understood as the part of the universe that is at odds with God’s will; it’s a force that seeks to undo what God desires and hopes for. This word, with this meaning shows up a lot in John’s gospel. Although kosmos is a force at odds with God, it is always, nevertheless, the object of God’s love. God desire is to redeem it. For example, “For God so loved the kosmos that God sent the Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent the Son into the kosmos, not to condemn the kosmos, but that the kosmos might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17). The theme is picked up here in the prayer in John 17. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” And here: “They do not belong to the kosmos, just as I do not belong to the kosmos. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world,” the kosmos—hey, are you with me? here it is—“so I have sent them into the kosmos. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they may also be sanctified in the truth.”
The object of God’s love is the kosmos—it’s everything in this world that is at odds with God and undoes God’s work, whether in the depths of our psyches, in relationships, in society—which God loves and seeks to redeem. It’s nothing less than the kosmos that is the object of God’s love and death and resurrection. This is God’s plan – send the Son to train disciples and then send them into the world to continue the redemption of the world. Into the world; into the kosmos. The grand design is this: the sanctification of the world through the sanctification of God’s people. Through people like you and me who have been baptized and equipped with the Holy Spirit, who know the love of Christ, and seek to serve him.
Into the world. There’s nothing escapist about this vision. It’s why obsessions with raptures (which I saw even on billboards in Turkey last month) and the end of days is a dangerous diversion from the work at hand. In last week’s The New Yorker there was a cartoon of a prophet-like figure standing with a sign that read: “The End Was Near.”
There’s an old “Peanuts” comic strip from years ago that pictured Peppermint Patty troubled by the imminent end of the world. “What if the world ends tonight?” Patty asks her friend Marcie. Marcie offers this theologically sound response, “I promise there’ll be a tomorrow,” she said. “In fact, it is already tomorrow in Australia.” It is already tomorrow. Another day follows another day as the world turns moving into God’s future. There will come a time when our sun will burn out and the earth will be no more, so we’re told. That shouldn’t be of concern to us, because in the meantime there is still plenty of work left to do – there are people who need to be cared for and loved and healed. There’s injustice to fight and people enslaved who need to know liberty. There are people in need of redemption and resurrection. For God so loved and loves this world and will continue to love the world and send us into the world. A disciple of Jesus never gives up on this world. We do not wait for raptures. To those obsessed with trying to work out a timetable for Christ’s return, Presbyterians say, “Only God knows, but God has given us important work to do in the meantime.” And so Jesus prays for us.
Indeed, as Calvin himself knew and encouraged the Reformers to see, this world is the object of God’s love. We need to see the kosmos as on the way to being redeemed and reformed and loved into the kingdom – and it’s the job of the church to help work for it, to reform the church and reform society. And if we’re not going to work for it in the world, then for God’s sake don’t stand in the way—indeed, get out of the way, so that the world and its people can be loved. How many times has the church throughout its history stood in the way of social justice and the work of the kingdom? It grieves me to no end to see the way the church obstructs the love of God. Oh, that we would be given new “spectacles,” as John Calvin (1509-1564) would have said, to see the sparks of God’s glory everywhere, glittering every blessed thing. “The world was no doubt made, that it might be the theatre of divine glory.” This means that even the parts of the world or kosmos that are against God’s vision of redemption and grace might be loved and equipped to serve the glory of God. Nothing is beyond redemption; no one is beyond redemption.
Jesus shared a meal with the disciples; prayed for them; and then sent them out into the world. He shares the same meal with us—invites to his table—and prays for us and through us and with us, and then sends us to love kosmos into the kingdom. May it be so.
Image: Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue on Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
 The New Yorker, June 6, 2011, 47.
Cited in W. Eugene March, “The End of the World,” Presbyterians Today, What Presbyterians Believe issue, June, 2011, 56-59.
 W. Eugene March, 59.
 Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “Correctly then is this world called the mirror of divinity; not that there is sufficient clearness for man to gain a full knowledge of God, by looking at the world, but…the faithful, to whom he has given eyes, see sparks of his glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing. The world was not doubt made, that it might be the theatre of divine glory.”