This morning, we are reading from John 17:6-19. It’s a prayer of Jesus to God the Father. All of John 17, in fact, is a prayer that is broken into three sections. In verses 1-5, the first section, Jesus prays for himself. In verses 20-26, the last section, Jesus prays for all believers. But in this middle section, verses 6-19, Jesus prays for his disciples. It’s important for us to know that because we are disciples. That means that this prayer is for us as well as the disciples who followed Jesus 2,000 years ago. That’s why it’s important for us to read and understand this prayer. The other significant thing about this prayers is that it is the last prayer that Jesus prayers as a free man. At the beginning of the next chapter John 18, Jesus is arrested by the Roman soldiers who have been led to him by Judas. So keep that in mind. Jesus prays these prayers knowing that he is about to be crucified and that the disciples will soon be left on their own.
Let’s begin with John 17:6-10 (NIV) which says this:
I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them.
In this section of his prayer Jesus is emphasizing that everything begins with and comes from God. Jesus affirms that the disciples are his because the Father gave them to him. And in verse 7 he says everything that Jesus has given to his disciples came from God. In verse 8 he goes on to say that even the word that he shared with them came from the Father. And then in verse 10 Jesus says that all he has also belongs to the Father and that all the Father has belongs to him. And so, the Father and the Son share all of these things in common.
The second section of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples is found in John 17:11-12 (NIV) in which he prays these words:
I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.
In this section, Jesus affirms what we all now know, that he is about to leave the world. What he is referring to, of course, is the crucifiction which is literally just around the corner. In this prayer, Jesus speaks of the need for his disciples to be protected once he is gone. The world is not always a friendly place for people of faith, especially for those whose message is counter cultural to the standards of the world. Jesus says that, while he is with he disciples, he is able to protect them, but what is going to happen to them once he is gone and they remain?
The final section of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples is found in John 17:13-19 (NIV). This is what Jesus prays:
I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
In this section, Jesus reiterates that he is leaving this world and going to the Father. And then he says something very interesting. He says that because he has given them the word – which is the gospel that he shared – that the world will hate his disciples. That makes sense because, again, Jesus’ message is counter cultural and the culture in Jesus’ day didn’t like to be challenged any more than pop culture likes being challenge today. And make no mistake, Jesus’ message is just as counter cultural today as it was 2,000 years ago.
The strange thing, however, is that much of the church is anything but counter cultural. So often, we see churches, even entire denominations, just going along with the flow. Whatever popular culture picks up, the church embraces. Let’s be honest.We’ve seen it with issues of income redistribution, marriage, assisted dying, the welfare state, climate change and any number of sexual or gender issues. And note that I’m not seeking to debate right now where the church should stand on any of these issues because there are discussions to be had with all of them. But I do get concerned when the church just willy nilly embraces the newest social cause with little or no attempt to engage the issue from a biblical standpoint but rather just goes along with the flow of where everyone else is going. That is not counter cultural and that is not the way of Jesus. His word is foundational and it is authoritative for those who claim to follow him.
Jesus hints very strongly that, if the church is faithful, it will not have an easy time of it because the world will hate it – his words. But then listen to what he says in verse 15: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” Jesus does not ask the Father to take his church out of the world. Why would he? What good is the church if it is taken out of the world? If that happens, how would the church engage society? How would the church be counter cultural? If it is to critique pop culture and the ways of the world, then it has to be in the world. It has to be visible in the world. It has to engage society and culture in such a way that the message of Jesus will be heard and appreciated. The church cannot do that from the outside looking in. It has to do it from within the world.
Jesus does not ask the Father to take his people out of the world. All he asks is that they be protected from the evil one. The evil one, of course, is Satan and those who follow him. They will make it difficult for the church. They will make it difficult for Jesus’ disciples. They will threaten and persecute. The people of God will be tempted to give up and give in but they cannot because the message of Jesus needs to be shared whether it is popular or not.
THE CHURCH IN THE WORLD
Here’s something that I have witnessed throughout my ministry. Churches that go along with the flow of the world seldom face any significant challenges from society. They just do their thing and get together on Sundays, have their worship, take up their offering, pay their staff and their bills and carry on as nice as you could please. It’s all very comfortable. And it’s all very worldly.
The churches, on the other hand, that are persecuted, that are put under the light, that are examined – these are the ones where something significant may be happening for Jesus. These are the churches that Satan attacks. These are the churches where Satan sews division, discontent and disunity. Satan, you see, doesn’t give a fig about churches that go along with pop culture because they are no threat to him. He can ignore them because they really don’t matter. That leaves him free to focus all of his considerable power on those churches that continue to be counter cultural and faithful to the gospel of Jesus.
A friend of mine was telling me this story just last week. She has a beautiful dog, a golden retriever, a very personable, well-tempered and well-mannered dog. But it seems a momma bunny decided that their back yard was the perfect place to make a nest and so she did. And then she had a litter of little bunnies right there. My friend didn’t know how her golden retriever would respond to this event – this invasion of their back yard – but the dog actually took it very well. In fact, she watched with great interest as the bunnies were born and began to grow. Surprisingly, the dog took up guard duty outside the nest and began to protect it from any and all other predators. These were her bunnies. She even protected the nest when momma bunny went away to forage for food and the babies were quite safe. This went on for a number of weeks as the baby bunnies grew in size. They became quite used to the large dog that was often stationed outside of their nest protecting them.
But one day, however, something interesting happened. The bunnies had grown to the point where they were big enough to venture out of the nest – and one of them did. That triggered something in the mind of the retriever who – if you know anything about dogs – is bred for hunting. And now the bunny which was protected while in the nest, once out of the nest became prey. Within a matter of seconds, everything changed and the dog was chasing little bunnies all of the yard as my friend – who happened to see all of this unfold – chased the dog in an effort to save the bunnies. Fortunately, my friend was successful and all of the little bunnies made it safely under the fence where they were reunited with momma bunny and they moved on. So all ended well.
But it reminded me of Jesus’ prayer to the Father to protect his people from the evil one. Think of the Jesus’ followers as the bunnies and think of the nest as the church. As long as Jesus’ followers stay within the safe confines of the four walls of the church, Satan (or the dog) will leave them alone, won’t bother then, might even protect them. But the moment Jesus’ disciples seek to leave the church building and engage the world outside, they become prey that will be hunted by the forces of darkness. The last thing Satan wants us to do is for the church to engage the world and challenge the culture in which we live. He wants free reign and he tolerates no opposition from us.
That being said, I must add a caveat at this point. It is not true that every time a church is faced with persecution that is from the devil. Contextually, I refer right now specifically to those few churches that refuse to follow the Covid-19 guidelines. We’ve all heard of those that seek to stay open and carry on despite the repeated warnings of health officials and police and despite the fact that some of them have already been responsible for numerous infectious outbreaks.
Those churches are coming under pressure but it’s not for sharing Jesus’ message and it’s not for being counter cultural. They are coming under pressure because they are being irresponsible. Covid-19 restrictions are not targeting or persecuting churches. They have nothing to do with taking away our freedoms or stopping us from worshipping. The restrictions are simply short term measures designed to keep people safe and try to limit the spread of a pandemic. That’s it. That’s all.
Besides that, there is nothing in the New Testament that demands that Christians gather in big buildings with choirs and worship bands and PowerPoint projectors. In fact, the churches of the New Testament were more likely to be small house church of no more than a dozen people who met together and worshipped God in very simple ways. Ironically, what we are doing now, worshipping online from our homes, is probably closer to the New Testament church’s experience that anything we’ve done in the past 500 years. And don’t get me wrong. I am looking forward to the current restrictions being lifted so that we can get back to worshipping in our sanctuary on Sunday morning. But until that happens, we need to abide by the reasonable restrictions that are being placed on us to keep everyone safe. That beings said, let’s move on to the next point.
DEMONSTRATING THE TRUTH
Jesus asks the Father to protect his disciples as they share the good news in their communities. That leaves us with a challenge. Jesus says that the world will hate us for sharing Jesus’ message because what it proclaims is often contrary to what society teaches. That, of course, leaves us with a dilemma. How do share the message of Jesus with people who hate us?
I think it’s true that people tend not to listen to those whom they hate. That’s because to hate someone is to cut yourself off from them. If you hate someone, then why would you even want to listen to them. So, by extension, as long as the world hates us, it will remain closed to the gospel of Jesus. How do we get around that barrier?
I think that the way to get around the hate is with truth. In verse 17, Jesus prays, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” The way that we get past the hate of the world is by showing the world that what we believe is actually true.
We have a message – the good news of Jesus – and it is a message that can change the world by having a positive impact on people’s lives. I believe that is true and I expect that most of you think it’s true too. The message of Jesus is life changing. It is a message that the world needs to hear because it is true.
But how do we convince people that it is true? We convince them by letting them see the change that it has made in our lives. We do that but reaching out the community around us with the love of Jesus. There are all sorts of needs that exist in our communities. Some of those needs are obvious and some of them are harder to see. But if we, as Christians, can identify those needs and then do something to alleviate them, then we begin to open doors for the love of Jesus to enter into people’s lives.
As the church, we need to do things that make a positive difference in our community. A recent example of this is our prayer garden. Living right across the street from it, I can assure you that it gets used all of the time by all sorts of people. It is not at all unusual for me to look out my front window and see people sitting on the benches or children riding their bikes along the spiral pathways. Earlier this week, Rebekah and I were out in the front part of the garden doing some much needed weeding. Two people stopped by and said how much they loved the garden and what a difference it has made to our community. That is a sign that people appreciate what we are doing and, when they appreciate it – when they see that we care about our community – they become more open to hearing the truth of the gospel of Jesus.
Here is something else that we’ve started doing. Whenever there is a new business in town, we use our sign out front of the church to welcome that business to our community. So far, we’ve done it twice, with the Cottam Pharmacy and with the new OG Pizza restaurant. I can tell you that those businesses really appreciate it. It builds bridges and let’s them know that we support them. Something as simple as this pays dividends because not only do the business owners see the sign, so does everyone else who drives by and it help them to see that we care about our community. We are going to continue to do this for any new business that opens in Cottam.
There are other things that we have done in the past to let our community know that we care. Before Covid-19, we entered floats into the Cottam Horse Show parade. Unlike some churches we make our building as open as we can to our community and hope to allow the community even greater access once Covid is over. During the Cottam Yard Sale we have sold hotdogs and there are thoughts of starting to provide entertainment in the downtown area during the yard sale in years to come. We will see how that works out. All of these things break down barriers in people’s hearts and open their minds to hearing the truth of the message of Jesus.
The bottom line is that the best way to get past the hatred that may exist towards the church is for the church to love the community in which it operates. The church needs to be one of the hubs of the community where people gather to plan, to celebrate and sometimes to mourn. When we do things that make a real and positive difference in the lives of real people, we open hearts and minds to hear the good news of Jesus’ love for them.
The odd thing is that there are churches in this world that are afraid to do that. They are afraid to reach out into the community. They are afraid of what they might find. Or they are afraid of rejection or they are just afraid that they will make mistakes and do the wrong things. But Jesus tells us not to be afraid. He has prayed to the Father to protect us and we can trust God to do just that. God is great. God’s protection is real and endures. There is not need to fear for God is with us along every step of the way.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, we welcome you this day, remembering that you are our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We depend on you for all things, knowing that you are faithful and just to meet our needs and sit by our sides.
We thank you for sunshine and warmth. We thank you that farmers have been able to get onto their land this spring. We pray for good planting and adequate rainfall during the growing season. We are also bold to pray for good prices and even better crops.
We offer thanks for the youth of our congregation. Enable us as adults to raise our children in the faith of Christ that they may know the wonder of his love and the amazing power of his Spirit.
We pray for those of our congregation and community who are sick at home or in hospital. We remember, especially, Richard, Angela, Gary, Chris, Mark and Rachel as they seek healing and wholeness.
We would be bold to ask that you would open the hostile nations of this world to the truth and peace of your love. Only you can change hearts for the good and we would ask that you would mould them into images of your being so that needless bloodshed and violence may cease.
Heavenly Father, it is a comfort to know that you understand our ways. You understand when we succeed, and when we fail. Help us to trust you at all times, for we know that you look upon me with compassion. Enable us to trust in your unfailing love. Remind us that we can bring any need to you without hesitation or fear of rejection. In you all things are possible. We lift our prayers in Jesus’ name. Amen.