This is the transcription of my sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter on May 24, 2020.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
• 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5.6-11
• John 17:1-11
We have been looking at our Lord’s Farewell Discourse in the past two weeks. The Farewell Discourse is Jesus’ last words to his disciples on the night he was arrested. This week’s Gospel reading is the opening prayer of our Lord after he has finished speaking these words to his disciples. We often refer to the prayer beginning, ‘Our Father in heaven,’ as the Lord’s Prayer. However, what we now know as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ was, in fact, a prayer that our Lord taught his disciples to pray. Here, in John chapter 17, is the prayer that really deserves the title, the ‘Lord’s Prayer’.
The disciples have responded to all that Jesus has had to tell them by saying:
‘Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ (John 16:30)
Jesus’ last words to them before he prays for them and for us who will believe through their words are:
‘In the world you have trouble and suffering. But take courage; I have overcome the world!’ (John 16:33)
When we read Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17, we are struck by how Jesus prays that his followers will all be one as he and the Father are one. Something we miss in the prayer, however, is what Jesus specifically says he is not praying for:
‘I am praying on their behalf; I am not praying on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.’ (John 17:9)
These words come as something of a shock. Jesus goes on to say that while he is no longer in the world, his disciples are in the world (John 17:11). The world has hated them, Jesus says, because they are not of the world, even as he is not of the world (John 17:14). Jesus does not pray for the Father to take them out of the world, but to protect them from the ‘evil one’ (John 17:15). He has sent them into the world as the Father sent him into the world (John 17:18).
Jesus prays for us who follow him now not only that we too may be one with each other as He and the Father are one, but that we also may be one in the Father and in him (John 17:21). This is so that the world may believe that that the Father sent him. His desire is that we whom the Father has given him may see his glory, for his Father loved him before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). The world has not known the Father, but Jesus has known him, and we know that the Father sent him (John 17:25).
Jesus, then, does not pray for the world, but he does have quite a lot to say about it. While we mostly pass over these words of our Lord about the world, which we are in but not of, they were clearly about something that was important to him. It is not the first time either that Jesus has spoken like this. Why is it so important to him and why won’t he pray for the world?
Earlier in the Farewell Discourse, one of his disciples, Judas, (not Iscariot) has been shocked by what Jesus says about the world, and asks Jesus directly about his attitude to the world:
‘Lord, what has happened that you are going to reveal yourself to us and not to the world? (John 14:22)
It is a good question and you can sense Judas’ surprise. Notice how Judas assumes something must have happened and that there has been a change of plan. Surely the whole point of Jesus’ life and ministry has been to reveal himself to the world. After all, wasn’t this why Jesus came? What is different now? Judas’ question is one that we too need to ask and take seriously.
Much of our thinking as Christians today is based on the assumption that Jesus does still want to reveal himself to the world. In fact, we go further and assume that Jesus is revealing himself to the world, and that our mission and purpose as the Church and as his followers is for us, by our life and teaching, to reveal Jesus to the world. Jesus’ refusal to reveal himself to the world or even to pray for the world before he dies for the sin of the world challenges us to rethink what it means to follow him today.
We need to start the beginning and, very briefly, ask what is meant by the ‘world’ in John’s Gospel.
St John began his Gospel by telling us that the world was made through Jesus (John 1:3; 1:10). However, something fundamental had clearly gone wrong very early on in the history of the world because despite Jesus being the one through whom the world came into being, St John tells us, the world did not know him (John 1:10). St John gives us a clue as to what it was that had gone wrong. The first words said by anyone in his Gospel about Jesus are the words of John the Baptist. John the Baptist says when he sees Jesus:
‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29)
St John does not tell us how it happened, but he makes clear that the world has fallen into sin and darkness. Although the world deserves to be judged, God did not send his Son to judge the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:17; 12:47). Jesus is the Light of the world who saves anyone who comes to the Light and who believes in him and follows him (John 8:12; 12:46).
Tragically, though, most people do not believe in Jesus, and refuse to come to the Light. They love darkness because what they do is evil, and they don’t want their evil lifestyle to be exposed (John 3:19-20). In refusing to come to the Light, St John writes, they pass judgement on themselves. In his last words in public before he is crucified, Jesus says:
‘I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge …’ (John 12:47-48)
This helps explain apparently contradictory words of Jesus. After healing the man born blind, Jesus says to the Pharisees:
‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ (John 9:39)
Jesus didn’t come to judge the world, but because of how they react to him, people in the world bring judgement upon themselves.
The world in St John’s Gospel, then, is, firstly, both the physical world in which we live and all those who live in it and, secondly, the society and structures that those who live in it create. It is a world which is in sin and darkness.
St John also tells us something else that it is crucial for us to know about the world. Its ruler is the devil himself. Jesus refers to him specifically as the ‘ruler of the world’ (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and shockingly tells those who do not believe in him that they are of their ‘father, the devil’ (John 8:44).
This is all too brief; however, it is, I hope, enough to help us understand why Jesus won’t reveal himself to the world and why he won’t even pray for it. In his answer to Judas, Jesus makes plain that he will now only reveal himself to those who love him and who keep his word: to those, in other words, who believe in him. Jesus has given the world every chance to believe in him, but the world has rejected him and made plain what it thought of him by crucifying him. There can now be no further revelation to the world.
What does this have to say to us today?
1. Judgement is a reality
The idea of judgment, that is, that there will one day be a day of reckoning when everyone will have to give an account of their life and how they have lived it, is one that has been an integral part of Christian faith and teaching since the ministry of our Lord himself. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus describes this day of reckoning as the ‘Last Day’. Throughout his ministry, Jesus warned that there would be consequences for our actions and, in fact, spoke of judgement more than anyone else in the New Testament.
There may have been times in the Church’s history when the Church majored too much on the theme of judgement, and medieval depictions of hell can certainly be graphic, but they are based firmly on the teaching of our Lord and the New Testament writers in general. The Church simply took this over, and there was never any question of whether there would be a Day of Judgement, only the basis on which judgement would take place. It was this question that was to be a cause of contention at the time of the European Reformation.
It is only in comparatively recent times that the idea of judgement was first challenged and is now largely abandoned by the Church. Even the Pope has been quoted as saying that while he believed in the existence of hell, he didn’t think there was anyone in it. Whether the Pope actually said it or not, it is what most Christian leaders now believe.
But if Jesus came to save people, the question that arises is: ‘Save them from what?’ Most people in our Churches don’t think they need saving. What they look for in the Church is not salvation but affirmation. They want to be told how much God loves them, and accepts them regardless of the barriers and boundaries that people create between themselves. The idea that God might hold us to account and even reject us with the words, ‘Depart from me I never knew you (Matthew 7:23),’ to quote our Lord, is not even something we are willing to consider.
Jesus, however, came not to be our life coach to tell us how wonderful we are; he came to be our Saviour on account of how awful we are. We need to rediscover the doctrine of judgement if we are to understand the words of Jesus that alone can save us. Otherwise, the words of Jesus will be our judge, in the way that he said they would.
2. Separation is a requirement
St John, in his first letter, draws out the practical application of Jesus’ teaching about the world. He writes:
‘Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world - the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches - comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever.’ (1 John 2:15-17)
St James the brother of our Lord wrote:
‘Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.’ (James 4:4)
The New Testament writers all got it. Why can’t we?
In the past, not being worldly was defined not simply as avoiding doing wrong, but also as avoiding doing anything that could be considered unspiritual. When I first became a Christian as a teenager, for example, we were encouraged not to drink, dance, or do anything that everyone else our age did. TV, films, and non-Christian music and literature were mostly avoided.
But this was all changing and a new emphasis was coming in that saw involvement with the world as preferable to separation from it. The doctrine of the incarnation was used as the basis for encouraging Christians to become fully engaged in the world. With the result now that now Christians are indistinguishable from the world around them.
In our desire to become friends with the world, we didn’t stop to ask whether the world wanted to be friends with us. It turns out that it didn’t and having forgotten God, we find ourselves alone and comfortless in the world.
We have allowed ourselves to be completely compromised by the world. In our desperation to get the world to like us, we apply the promises of the Bible to society in general and offer people reassurance, regardless of whether they are believers or not, using words and promises that were spoken specifically to God’s people in the past.
In mission, it is common to hear Christians talk of how God is ‘for the city’ meaning that God wants the places we live in to thrive and prosper with the implication that Christians should be involved in the life and politics of the city working as citizens for its good. But in the book of Revelation, for example, God is not ‘for the city’, he is actively against the city.
‘In the world you will have trouble and suffering,’ said Jesus. ‘If they hated me, they will hate you,’ he warned them. Of course, the world will not hate us if we tell it what it wants to hear. It will not bother us if we fall in with its philosophy and outlook and amend our message, worship, and lifestyle to accommodate it. It will leave us alone if we pose no challenge to its priorities, attitudes, and values. But if we fail to listen to it or in any way challenge it, then the wrath of the beast will be kindled against us as it was against the first Christians.
This explains why Jesus is so concerned that his disciples should love one another. It is a command that he repeats throughout the Farewell Discourse. Jesus’ emphasis on his followers loving each other is something that has been much commented on. It sounds exclusive, as though we are to love one another and ignore everyone else. That, of course, is not what Jesus means. Jesus does know, however, that the world will not want his followers love and will hate them as it did him. They believe in Jesus, and because they believe in him, they cease to belong to the world. Jesus tells them:
‘If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world - therefore the world hates you.’ (John 15:19)
Their love for one another is to give them strength to face the hatred of the world and the trouble and suffering that they will have in it. Jesus wants us, his followers, to build an alternative community. He wants ‘a home’ he can live in with us. A place where we are one with the Father and the Son and one with each other. A home where his words are listened to and his commands obeyed, and which serves both as a witness to the world and against the world.
3. Going is a responsibility
Separation from the world does not mean that we have no responsibility to the world. The Risen Christ said to his disciples that as the Father sent him so he sent them (John 20:19). But he sends them and us with a warning:
‘Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.’ (John 15:20)
What does it mean, then, to be sent as the Father sent Jesus? There is one verse about the world in St John’s Gospel that I have not referred to. It is, in fact, one of the most well-known verses not just in St John’s Gospel, but in the Bible. We have heard it already in our service:
‘For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)
Understandably, we focus on the opening words, which we mistranslate as ‘God so loved the world’. He did, of course, love it very much, but St John is not trying to write a Valentine’s Day style of greeting. St John wants to bring home to us how God has loved the world and why. How he loved us was by giving us his one and only Son. Why he loved us in this way was so that we would not perish if we believed in his Son. We stop at the fact of God’s love and miss its purpose.
Our task is to tell it as it is so that people might come to believe that the Father sent Jesus into the world and come to believe in him. We are so casual about this. The reason people need to believe in Christ is so that they won’t perish. But we need to remember that if they don’t believe, they will perish.
St John’s Gospel is written with the express purpose of bringing us to faith in Jesus. St John writes:
‘But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:31)
As we too are sent by Jesus, we his followers, who believe in his name, are given the authority to forgive sins and to retain them (John 20:23). Jesus has made sin central to the Church’s mission because it is sin that is the problem, and to die for our sin was the reason why Jesus came, why he was sent.
'Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ The sin, that is, that traps and destroys people and keeps them in darkness. The sin that makes them blind. The sin that is used by the Devil to keep people in his power and prevent them experiencing the life of God.
As Jesus’ followers, offering forgiveness of sin in Jesus’ name to those who believe is, or should be, central to what we go to do. It is our responsibility.
And so, as we are sent into the world by Jesus, we are sent as those who have been chosen by God from the world and have been given eternal life by him. In the world we will have trouble, but even as we are rejected, hated, and persecuted we know he is not only with us but in us.
We go, but we do not go alone.