28 May 2017

Jesus' Prayer for the Kosmos

John 17:1-19

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Here in John 17, we overhear Jesus praying for his disciples, his friends.  In this chapter, known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, John wants us to see Jesus as a priest, our priest.  By priest, I mean one who “mediates,” that is, who stands between humanity and the divine. A priest is a mediator, someone who mediates the blessing of God and speaks to God on behalf of the people.  A priest stands in the middle.  We don’t have priests in the Reformed tradition, of course.  Scripture tells us that there is only one priest, there is only one mediator between God and humanity, and that is Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). This is why Reformed ministers are not referred to as priests.  Martin Luther (1483-1546) advocated for the “priesthood of all believers,” in that we each have the capacity to mediate God’s presence.  Although, the English word priest has its roots in the Latin word, presbyter, which has its roots in presbuteros, which means elder (or, literally “old man”).  In some Catholic traditions a presbyter is a priest and a presbytery is where a priest lives, which sounds a little strange for Presbyterians.  Here in John 17, Jesus is as our priest, our priest in prayer.

Let me say, this is a tough passage to preach on.  How does one preach on a prayer?  The same is true for the psalms, which are prayers and songs offered directly to God.

And prayer is so personal and intimate.  Isn’t it?  We’re given a conversation here between Jesus and God that is personal and intimate.  We learn a lot about Jesus and his relationship with God in this prayer.  It’s personal, yet it’s very public.  As far as we can discern from the text, John isn’t giving us an account of what Jesus said in a silent prayer.  Jesus prays aloud, very publicly.  He strikes up a prayer, begins a conversation with God for all to hear and the disciples—and John’s community and all of us—get to listen in on what he says.  We might want to avert our eyes or blocks our ears or just leave the scene.  This is Jesus’ personal prayer, after all.  Should we be privy to this?  Just imagine if you started to pray publicly, out loud, sharing your intimate hopes and fears, and we all listened in. 

But we are meant to (over)hear this.  John wants us to see the close, intimate relationship that Jesus had with his Father.  John wants us to hear how Jesus viewed his life and ministry.  John wants us to discover something about the nature and purpose of God.  All through this prayer.  And in overhearing this prayer John wants his community and, by extension, all of us to know something else, as we shall see.

Now, John could have just told us these things directly, I guess.  But what he gives us is a prayer.  And we need to proceed with caution here; we need to ensure that this prayer remains a prayer between Jesus and God.  A prayer is a prayer, not a teaching tool.  For example, when a pastor prays, the object of the prayer is God, not the listeners.  I know an associate pastor who often discovered the pastoral care concerns of the week (who was in the hospital, who was home from the hospital, etc.) by paying close attention to the pastoral prayer given by the pastor.  The pastor announced things to the congregation or the associate pastor through the prayer.  That’s not the purpose of prayer. 

What we have in John 17 is a good example of the power of indirect communication.  Indirect communication is an extremely effective way to communicate.  When we think that we’re not being directly spoken to, when we think a conversation is not about us, we let down our defenses and we hear what we previously would not have heard.  It’s one reason why it’s sometimes said to pastors, “I often get more out of your children’s sermons.”  The message is for the children, of course.  Supposing that the message is not for adults, we let down our defenses a little and hear a message indirectly.  Similarly, pastors are taught in seminary that children's sermons should be addressed to the children, not to the adults; don’t use children to get to the adults.

What we have here in John 17, however, is a good example of indirect communication. In the conversation between Jesus and God, a message is given to us indirectly.  We overhear the gospel.

And, what do we discover about Jesus in this prayer?  Jesus is clear about his identity in God.  He knows the reason for his life.  He has purpose, conviction.  He knows why he was sent into the world.  He knows what he can do.  He knows his capacity to offer life.  Jesus knows that he was sent to offer God’s life to humanity, “to give eternal life to all you have given him” (Jn. 17:2).  Eternal life, in John, doesn’t mean living forever with God.  So, what is it?  John has Jesus tell us directly, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3). 

And what do we know about God? What do we know about Jesus?

We see, once again, that Jesus cares for his friends.  These friends, these disciples, were given to him by God.  He passes onto them what he received from God.  He loves them.  He has concern for them. He wants to make sure that when he leaves them, they will be okay.  

He asks God to protect them. Jesus wants them to maintain unity. Will the flock scatter when the shepherd is struck down? He prays “that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn. 17:11). Jesus was their protector. He was the good shepherd (Jn. 10:11-14).  He was their way, their truth and life (Jn. 14:6).  He was their joy.  He was life abundant and they found abundant life in him (Jn. 10:10).  And he wants them to have his joy.

Jesus asks that they be “sanctified.” To be sanctified is to be set apart. To be set apart is to be holy, set apart by God, set apart to do a particular task or work. Just as Jesus was sanctified, so he asks that they, too, be sanctified in truth—that they be set apart in truth, set apart with truth, set apart for truth. God’s truth.

We discover, again, that God is interested in relationships—between God and Jesus, between the Holy Spirit and Jesus, between Jesus and women and men, and the way women and men relate to one another as we exist within the being and identity of God.  Jesus trusts God, implicitly. God trusts Jesus with the work of God. God and Jesus, together, trusts the disciples, you and me, with this work.

And, now, this last point is critical, especially given the fact that Jesus is praying for his disciples knowing that he will soon be going away.  Jesus doesn’t want to take them with him.  In fact, Jesus doesn’t ask that they be taken out of the world.  All he asks is that the disciples be protected from the evil one or, simply, evil.  Jesus prays, “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 that you take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” (Jn. 17:14-15).

It’s essential to know here, and elsewhere in John’s Gospel, “the world” doesn’t mean the created order or creation. I know this might be a little confusing.  Let me try to explain. When we sing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” we think of the collective, everything, everyone, the world existing within God’s hands.  However, the word kosmos, “world,” in John refers to something very specific. Instead of saying/writing “world,” I prefer to use the Greek word, kosmos, to help differentiate the two understandings.  You see, John understands the kosmos as a force within the created order, within creation, a force that is at odds with God’s hopes and dreams for creation.  The kosmos works against God’s vision of love and grace and justice and healing. Kosmos is a force within creation that binds us, holds us back, that alienates us from God.  Those who are being shaped by this anti-God force belong to the kosmos.

We see this use most profoundly in John 3:16 and 17. With this particular understanding of kosmos, the significance of these verses and, indeed, Jesus’ entire ministry take on deeper meaning.  “For God so loved the kosmos (i.e. – that which is against God) that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the kosmos to condemn the kosmos, but in order that the kosmos might be saved through him.”  The kosmos needs to be saved.

The Son was sent in love by God to redeem the kosmos, so that the kosmos itself can be transformed as the dwelling place of God.  This hope is expressed in Revelation 11:15, “The kingdom of this world (kosmos), has become the kingdom of his Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” The kosmos will become the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ disciples do not belong to the kosmos.  Jesus doesn’t even ask that we be taken out of the kosmos, only that we be protected from the work of the evil one.  His disciples don’t belong to the kosmos, even as Jesus doesn’t belong to the kosmos.  We live in the kosmos, but not of the kosmos.

But Jesus, like God, loves the kosmos and seeks its redemption—as should we.  That’s why Jesus was sent by God.  And that’s why Jesus gathered up disciples, students, who would learn from him. And that’s why Jesus then sent his disciples, his students, out to continue this work—because there is more work to do!  Jesus prayed, “As you have sent me into the kosmos, so I have sent them into the kosmos” (Jn. 17:18).

This is a remarkable prayer.  It’s a sending prayer. A commissioning prayer.  A missional prayer.  Jesus is sending them—sending us—out to face the kosmos, to continue the redemptive work of God!  He’s sending us into the fray!  He’s sending us toward the enemy.

Who or what is the enemy?  Everything that resists God’s redemptive love and mercy.  Everything that is evil, destructive, and demonic.  Everything that breeds hate and fear.  Everything that divides and alienates us from ourselves, one another, and from God.  Everything that dehumanizes us.  Everything that kills.  Everything that resists resurrection.  Everything that hinders mercy and grace and forgiveness and healing.  All this is the kosmos.  The kosmos is everything that questions or denies or pushes against the power of God’s love.  Jesus is sending us out to wage love in the kosmos!  For all of it is to be redeemed.  And Jesus entrusts us with this work and trusts us. 

And if we’re going to be effective in this work then prayer—lots of prayer—is required, as Jesus knew.  We’re not sent to do this work relying on our own personal, emotional, even physical resources.  We can’t do this work on our own.  Jesus knew in his ministry that he needed to pray.  Jesus knows that we need to pray.  Jesus invites us to abide in him.  To trust in him. To rest in him.  He reminds us in John, “I am the vine you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).  

I take great comfort and receive considerable assurance knowing that Jesus is praying for all of us. Even when we don’t know how to pray or what to pray, Jesus is still our great high priest, who prays on our behalf.  Doesn’t Paul write to the Romans, “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ended on Friday in Edinburgh.  It was an historic week for the Kirk, and a challenging week as the Kirk responded to the horrific terrorist attack in Manchester last week and the attack against Coptic Christians on Friday.  The new Moderator of the Kirk, the Very Reverend Dr. Derek Browning, is a good friend, someone I’ve known for twenty-seven years.  On Friday, he said to the commissioners and delegates, “Without prayer, none of us is anything. With prayer, we have a world to bless in the name of Jesus.”[1]

Without prayer, we can’t do anything.  "With prayer, we have a world,” I would add a kosmos, “to bless in the name of Jesus.”  Without prayer, we can’t be the church.  Without your prayers, Dorothy Boulton and I can’t do what God and you have called us to do.  But with prayer, everything changes.

Jesus’ prayer is that we know ourselves loved and equipped and sent into the kosmos, to bear witness to God’s redeeming love, the power of resurrection, the abundant life that God gives us, life touched by eternity, divine life. 

All of this means we can face the future with confidence and trust.  The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, “The original attitude for prayer…was to stand with outstretched arms, open face, and wide-opened eyes, the stance showing a readiness to go or leap forward.”[2]  He’s right.  This is called the Orantes posture.  Go to Rome, go down into the catacombs, go to some of the oldest churches in the city.  You won’t find crosses.  Instead, you’ll find a variety of symbols and images, including frescoes and carvings of both women and men standing with outstretched arms, eyes wide-opened, praying. Being at prayer is an essentially Christian image.

The orientation of Jesus’ priestly prayer is toward the future, looking ahead with confidence, expectation. Knowing that Jesus prays for us, we, too, are ready to go, to leap forward into the future God is preparing for us!

1. Life and Work: The Magazine of the Church of Scotland, May 26, 2017. http://www.lifeandwork.org/features/view/264-general-assembly-2017.
2. Jürgen Moltmann, The Living God and the Fullness of Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 173.

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