When we talk about Jesus ascending to heaven and sitting at the right hand of God, we describe prayer as part of his ongoing work in the world and for the world. It’s hard to imagine what those prayers might be like. At least for me.
I mean, I think about my own prayers, how rambly and disjointed they can become, and I only know a tiny percentage of people in the world. And I only know enough about their lives to pray for a fraction of those people. Meanwhile, Jesus is aware of the whole of creation. And cares about it all.
When I pray for my people (including you all, by the way) in the name of Jesus, I am promised that he hears and advocates on my (and your) behalf. Which means this is true of Jesus times how many billion?
Besides that, we don’t have all that many examples of how Jesus prayed. Partly because he would often go away by himself to pray. He does teach the disciples a model for how to pray privately, which we use frequently. And then we have this beautiful example in John’s gospel. If I were asked what sort of thing Jesus would pray for the church, I’d have to point to John 17.
We’re coming in slightly midstream with our passage today. It comes after a long discourse or talk with his disciples about what would be coming: his persecution, death and resurrection, and the coming of the spirit once he returned to the Father. He then turns his face upward and begins to pray. In this middle portion of the prayer, we hear three petitions:
First, Jesus prays that God will keep his disciples safe in the world. He asks God to watch over his friends, just as he watched over them during their time together. Second, Jesus asks God to protect his disciples from the evil one. He mentions the action of Judas as an example of the work of Satan in the world and in the hearts of men. And then Jesus asks that the disciples be sanctified in the truth.
Sanctified is similar to the word hallowed, set apart. holy… Jesus was sanctified – apart and distinct from the world, even as he looked like, talked like and walked among the people. He asks that the disciples would also be among the people, and yet not only in the world. He prayed that they would be part of bringing the Kingdom of God to the world.
All three of these requests point to the expectations Jesus has for the disciples. They were to carry on his mission in the world, once he was gone. The apostles are being consecrated – commissioned -through this prayer to take on that work.
In another of those mysteries that we must believe by faith, John describes Jesus as being God and being with with God in the beginning. Jesus is the Word through which all that is was created. And then, when the time came for God to institute a new covenant, Jesus was sent into the very world he created. And now, when his life and ministry on earth are coming to a close, he is naming his replacements.
He is turning over the work of reconciling humanity to God. The work of setting the captives free, of healing the blind and of restoring the outcasts to community. He is commissioning these men to the work of displaying the power and love, mercy and grace of God in 100, 1000 different ways. They were being set apart, as Jesus had been, dedicated to the will of the Father.
It’s important to recall that Jesus prayed for more than just his closest friends. God so loved the world that Jesus was born into it on ALL of our behalf. Thus Jesus longs to see all the world – Jews and Gentiles alike- come together as a beloved community. In his death, Jesus mediates the fullness of his holiness and sanctification to all those who believe and claim him as the messiah, the son of God.
The beauty of this prayer for us – since we aren’t standing there in real-time hearing our rabbi talk about what’s coming – is that we can see how God answered. The disciples became apostles – no longer just listening, learning, and absorbing…. they were empowered to teach, lead and carry the gospel to the world through the work of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And we see this empowering again for an unlikely apostle in Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, and again through the nudges and promptings we feel in our spiritual lives today.
Jesus prayed that as generation after generation heard and responded to the good news of God’s love for the world, all of his believers would be one in love. He prayed that we would be unified in our love for one another and for God, so that our eyes would be open to God’s deep love for us as part of the world.
Because of who God is and what God has given in love to the Son, we can trust that humanity is made holy in the truth of the Word made Flesh. That sanctification is all for the purpose of immersing ourselves in the world.
There was risk in this plan that God has put into play: The disciples might get it wrong. The world might not want to hear about Jesus. The messengers might be rejected. But despite the risks, that first community of disciples was sent into the world.
Spoiler alert –
They got it wrong.
The world didn’t want to hear.
And they were often rejected. Some even martyred.
But God persists – because the world is a place where people don’t know and haven’t heard about God’s deep and persistent love for them. And because the world is the object of the Father’s love. Not only as part of the creation that God pronounced good, but as billions of individual people whom God loves uniquely. Billions of people with whom God longs to be reconciled.
Now, the disciples had no choice but to exchange the presence of the Word made flesh for God the Spirit. But the Word that they had been taught went with them into the world. The same Word that has been handed down to our generation of believers.
It’s also important to recall that Pentecost was not an individual experience… it was plural. Moses experienced the bush that burned but was never destroyed on his own. Alone. The followers gathered in the room in Jerusalem shared experience of wind and flame as the Spirit came upon them. And while Peter’s sermon was the one captured in Luke’s account, we know that all of them were speaking in tongues, and all were confessing Jesus as Lord.
Pentecost is the considered the birthday of the church, but not because of the thousands of converts. The birth of the church happened as this first group of followers left the room and went out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit to preach the truth of Jesus as the Son of God.
Over time, pockets of believers started growing in numbers. Peter and Paul in particular began helping these groups learn what it meant to be community, to live in community in the way of Jesus. The letters in our new testament describing those efforts are foundational in our understanding of how to be the church even today.
One of the most enduring images from scripture is our understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. We embody the will and work and legacy of the one in whom we place our faith. We can understand this individually, since we do each have arms that can hug, a voice that can correct or console, and eyes that can see people who feel like they’ve become invisible. But we are made to be in community, and when we bring our individual skills, gifts, talents, passions and resources together, we become so much more than the sum of our parts.
Paul writes that we are all to be honored, all to be celebrated, all to be supported, in the love of Christ. It is only as we learn to depend on one another and on the power of the Holy Spirit that we can take our place in the long line of disciples who go out into the world as apostles to continue the mission of Christ.
As Presbyterians, we place a very high value on the statement that the church is the body of Christ, with Christ himself at the head. Our understanding of the church universal, denominational relationships and the work of particular congregations flows out of that understanding.
I know, we’re heading into Presbynerd territory here, but it can’t be helped. THat’s who I am… hang with me…
There are a handful of statements at the beginning of our Book of Order that provide a framework I’d for like us to use over the next few weeks to explore what it means to be the Body of Christ together. It may surprise you to find that this Foundations section of our constitution is actually quite beautifully written… poetic in places.
There are four statements which echo the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, as they call upon the church to be a community of faith, a community of hope, a community of love, and a community of witness.
You might recall Paul’s statement that when each member in the Body is attuned to its role, and living in the love of Christ then faith hope and love abide. These three remain, they endure. And they abide in the body precisely so that together we might bear witness – unified witness – to the world. Proclaiming the truth about faith, hope and love in Christ.
We will also take a look at the heart behind what have historically been called the Great Ends of the church by the Reformed family of churches. These are foundational for us as well. As the church in this time and place, we have the freedom and the responsibility to identify the means by which we will attempt to achieve those ends.
During the next several weeks, I invite you to join me for conversations about the practical application of these concepts. We’ll meet in Ranson Hall from about 9:30-10:30 , where we can explore these ideas together. I hope to learn from you how First Pres Apopka has lived out its calling in years past, as well as what you have experienced in other congregations. I’d like us to describe together what is happening in this neighborhood, in this community today. And I want to hear how you hope to see this particular congregation being the Body of Christ in the years to come.
Now- I know that not everyone can get here for that hour, and some are in Sunday School. But all voices are important in this conversation, so we will also schedule some brown bag lunches and dinners on the days I’m in town.
Here’s the thing- The time and place we gather is less important than a commitment to pray and trust God to reveal to us what we are called to be and do.
Oh and one more set of spoilers for you –
We will get it wrong, at least partly.
The world still isn’t sure it wants to hear about this Jesus fellow.
And we’ll sometimes find ourselves rejected.
God takes that risk in every generation
The church is called to take that risk in every generation
It’s all part of being the body.