Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 17th, 2015
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan
(I ad-libbed quite a bit more for this sermon than I usually do. I think it worked well live. I tried to transcribe some of the parts I ad-libbed. It may not work as well on paper so: wham)
Not too long ago there was a story in the papers about a mother in England who left her three very young children by themselves so that her and her new Australian boyfriend, whom she met online, could go off on a three-week island get-away. You gotta do what you gotta do for love these days, I guess. But, in all seriousness, it is hard to believe that a mother could do such a thing. Leave her three, four, and five year-olds completely alone for weeks. We might wonder what she thought she would find when she got home.
As it turns out, the children were found days later, not by their father--who was also nowhere to be found--but by his parents. When the mother returned from her romantic getaway, the police were waiting for her and she was convicted of willful abandonment.
Suppose this mother had had loving parents who were only too glad to look after the children while she was away. That may have made all the difference. She could have entrusted her little ones to them, safe in the knowledge that they would care for them. We might imagine a mother in that situation giving her parents detailed instructions as to how each child should be looked after, not because she didn’t trust her parents to look after them but because she did. (H/T Tom Wright, John for Everyone Part 2)
In this morning’s Gospel reading from John there is a lot going on, but one thing that is clear is that Jesus is going away. He’s not off on a three-week island getaway with Mary Magdalene. No, He’s headed to the Cross to do the work he came to do: to liberate us from the powers that enslave us and to take away the sins of the world, before returning to his Father. Jesus is not abandoning his disciples. He is not leaving them as orphans. He is entrusting his own to his father, his father whom he knows will care for them every bit as much as he has himself. Jesus prays to his father for his own because they need protection. Because they are at risk.
But what is the risk? What might the disciples need protection from? Well, according to John they need protection from the ’evil one,’ the personification of evil. The one John earlier described as “the ruler of this world.”
Knowing who or what the disciples need protection from helps us to understand how John is using the word translated as ‘world’ in this passage. For John’s use of the word here is unsettling. It appears that there is a strict dichotomy between ‘the world’ and Christ’s own. It seems that he’s saying he loves his disciples and hates everyone else. But this is not what John means. When John uses the word ‘world’ here he is not being tribalistic. We know this because he uses the same Greek word in a very different way in John 3:16, that most famous of all Bible verses that shows up on a cardboard box at every major sporting event (it reads this way), “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “God so loved the world.” Here John uses the term to say who he’s about to die for, those whom he loves. ‘The world’. You and me and everyone else. Sinners and saints, and all those in-between. Insiders and outsider. Us and them. Here he makes clear that he wants all to be his own.
The truth of John 3:16 is actually even seen in the passage here this morning when we begin to realize that the purpose of Jesus’s prayer of protection for his disciples is not merely for their own benefit, but also for the blessing of the whole world. Jesus is praying for his own so that their mission to the world--to everyone--will go smoothly, that not be stifled. This is a mission to all those who are held in bondage by John’s use of the ‘world’ here or the powers of Sin and Death. The realm or the sphere that enslaves and keeps us from doing the good that we would do. The ‘world’ as John uses it here is seen in that stuff we see on the 10 o’clock news that can’t be real, and yet there it is. But more than that, even more than something on tv that seems far removed, the ‘world’ is also seen in those times when you and I are confronted with something in ourselves that horrifies us, we find ourselves doing something or thinking something or feeling something that we thought we were incapable of, but there it is.
For Jesus is not merely praying for protection for his own against some external evil that is opposed to the purposes of God (that is also true). But in praying that his disciples be one as him and the father are one, he is also praying to the father for protection for us from ourselves. He is praying that his own, including you and me, to be shielded from our own propensity to really mess things up. From our propensity to hurt other people.
Sometimes I wonder about passages like this. I mean you read scripture about the ‘evil one’ and our own sinfulness and our own propensity to mess things up, and I think, most of the time I think I’m doing pretty well. And I think that other people are actually mostly all good too. But then I go and I visit people around the time of a death, and when I go and visit someone around the time of death--and you wouldn’t believe how often this occurs--(maybe you’ve seen it in your own family; it’s happened in my own family) but when you go and you visit someone around the time of death, you start to realize that a lot of the family members are kind of gearing for this family member’s money. These family members, these siblings, who really get along otherwise all of a sudden become vultures. They're going after this money, or the family members who aren’t going after this money become very suspicious of the executor of the will, namely their sister, who they then take to court to try to get what’s theirs. This is that propensity to really mess things up--that propensity to hurt other people. The thing that on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s I’m not really sure I believe in, but then I remember that I’ve seen it and that I should believe in it even on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s. This is what John is talking about when he talks about the ‘world’ here in this passage. This is that evil that we’re all so suspicious of.
Jesus is praying for protection for his followers for stuff like this. From what theologians have classically called original sin. The former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, described this slippery doctrine well. He said “that the line between good and evil does not run clearly between ‘them’ and ‘us’ but through every human heart.” The line between good and evil does not have the disciples on the good side and the outsiders on the bad side. For the ‘world’ that the disciples have been liberated from, pulled out of, is never far away. In fact, it’s always close at hand. Martin Luther said it best in that Latin phrase Jake often likes to throw around to show that he’s smart: simul justus et peccator. Which means that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. We are simultaneously of the kingdom and the ‘world’ as John here puts it. And so we need protection. Not just from external evil, but from ourselves. And not just for our sakes, but for the sake of those He seeks to save. For the sake of those we’re to deliver this radical gospel of inexhaustible grace to: The world. The outsiders. The sinners. The people not so very different from you and me.
You and I need protection because the world needs this message. The message that Jesus has sanctified himself on the Cross for us because we couldn’t do it ourselves. We need protection because we are prone to do things that will distract others from the comfortable words of the Gospel. We are prone to divide and conquer. Just look at how many denominations there are out there. We’re prone to abandon like the mother of the story at the beginning of the sermon when times get tough or we just want what we want right now. In fact, when I first read that story I thought to myself that ten years ago I would have thought something like this was unthinkable, but now it doesn’t surprise me so much. I realize that when I want what I want when I want it, I too tend to do some things that I wouldn’t want to tell you in public.
This is why he prays for us. Not because our forgiveness, or that his finished work, or that our standing before him is in question, but because bad things happen. Divisions arise and people--including his own--do very hurtful things. Jesus prays for you and me for our benefit, but also for the benefit of whole world, for the other. Ultimately, Jesus is praying that we be sanctified--to be made holy--not so that we’ll be “good with God”, but so that we’ll be decent human beings when we tell others about the good news of the gospel not total jerks, total turn offs to the message.
At the end of chapter 17, Jesus is betrayed and arrested to go and do for us what we couldn’t ourselves. But he is not leaving us behind. He is not abandoning us like the mother who left her young children to run away with her lover. He’s not abandoning us like I abandoned my good friend when he needed me most but I couldn’t handle it because what he was dealing with was too close to home for me at the time. Maybe you’ve experienced this. Maybe you know someone who was diagnosed with cancer, maybe it was someone close to you, and there very best friends stayed away but they just had no idea what to say or do. And so that friend completely withdrew. And your friend or loved one knows this. When you withdraw from someone they realize it. My friend realized I was suddenly nowhere to be found and was very hurt by this. I wasn’t subtle. These are the kind of things that we need protection from. And this is the type of thing that Jesus is not doing when he goes to be with his Father to be seated at the right hand of God. For Jesus goes to be with the Father to continue to intercede for us on our behalf. For when Jesus goes to be with the Father he hands us back over to him, but not only that but he goes in order to be made present to all of us through the power of the Holy Spirit. But I don’t want to jump the gun and steal Jake’s thunder because that is what next week (Pentecost) is all about. But his week is all about the fact that he has not left us, he has not abandoned us, he’s here to stay. Thanks be to God.