Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for this week, the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  My podcasts are available wherever you listen to your podcasts.  Search on your podcast app for: Ross Royden.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 17:6-19

At the end of chapter twelve of St John’s Gospel, Jesus realizes that his ‘hour’ has now come. In the first part of St John’s Gospel, St John has described Jesus’ public ministry, that is, his ministry to the ‘world’ that God has sent his Son into. In the second part of the Gospel, St John will describe the events of Jesus’ ‘hour’ and Jesus’ time with his disciples before it.

St John concludes his description of Jesus’ public ministry with these words:

‘After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.’ (John 12:36-37)

On the night of his arrest, Jesus meets with his disciples for a Meal one last time before leaving them. Famously, he washes their feet and tells them that they are to serve one another, not seeking power and position for themselves. Jesus then tells them that one of them will betray him. It is not turning out to be the happy occasion Passover meals normally were! St John captures the atmosphere brilliantly in just a few words. After Judas leaves them, St John writes:

‘And it was night.’ (John 13:30)

The dark mood continues with Jesus telling Peter, his leading disciple, that Peter will betray him. This, then, is the setting of what is known as the ‘Farewell Discourse’: Jesus’ last words to his disciples. Given how the evening has gone so far, it is not surprising that Jesus begins it:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’ (John 14:1)

Jesus wants to reassure his disciples and prepare them for what lies ahead, not only on that night and the days immediately following it, but also into the future as they continue his work on his behalf. Jesus tells them:

‘So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.’ (John 16:20)

Jesus explains to them that he and the Father will make their home in the life of the believer through the Holy Spirit, who will be given to them. Not only will the Holy Spirit live in them and make the presence of Jesus real to them, he will give them the power they need to serve him in the world. Jesus is absolutely clear of the challenge they face. He says:

‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.’ (John 16:18)

So intense will the hatred of the world be towards them that people will think that by killing them they are ‘worshipping God’ (John 16:2).

The disciples struggle to understand what it is Jesus is telling them. Who can blame them? We ourselves still struggle even now to understand what Jesus meant. There is, however, hope. As Jesus is coming to the end of his words to them, the disciples say to him:

‘Now we know 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)

The disciples are moving to the light, but they are not there yet. Jesus goes on to tell them that they will abandon him and leave him alone. Jesus does not end his words to them on a note of defeat, however. Although they will leave him alone, his Father will not; Jesus will complete the work he has come to do. Jesus closes what he has to say to them with the words:

‘I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face affliction. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ (John 16:33)

Having said what he has to say to his disciples, Jesus prays to the Father. In every service, we pray the prayer universally known as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’: ‘Our Father in heaven …’ This is not, however, a prayer which Jesus ever personally prayed himself. It is the Lord’s Prayer in the sense that our Lord taught it to his disciples; it comes from him. The Lord’s Prayer, however, in the sense of the prayer our Lord actually prayed himself, is this one in St John’s Gospel, chapter 17. In this prayer, Jesus will pray first for himself; secondly, for his disciples; and thirdly, for us.

I have stressed the context of Jesus’ prayer, because to understand it we need to see the emotion that Jesus and his disciples were experiencing. Jesus is about to be betrayed, denied, and abandoned. He will undergo terrible suffering and death. And it will soon be time for his disciples to experience the same. This is not a relaxed prayer, detached from the events about to take place, but one made all the more urgent by the time that has now arrived.

Jesus, then, begins his prayer by praying for himself. He asks the Father to ‘glorify him’ that he may glorify the Father. This was exactly the same prayer he had prayed at the end of his public ministry (John 12:28). Jesus knows that the Father will answer his prayer, not by saving him from the Cross, nor even after he has been through the Cross, but by the Cross. The Father will not save him from this hour for this is the hour for which he has come. It is this that is to be his moment. As Jesus' blood is shed and he dies an agonizing death, it is at this very moment that the Father is glorified. Looking forward to the Cross, Jesus prays:

‘I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.’ (John 17:4)

Jesus’ work will be finished on the Cross. St John writes:

‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ (John 19:30)

In the Church’s calendar, we have now reached the Sunday after Ascension Day, and, not unnaturally, we think of Jesus as being glorified when he ascends to heaven and takes his seat at the right hand of God, ruling over all things. And it is true that our Lord’s ascension does reveal his glory, but his glory is not to be seen separated from the Cross or despite the Cross, but rather as he is nailed to the Cross. We sing in the hymn, ‘Crown him with many crowns’, the words ‘those wounds yet visible above in beauty glorified’. St John, in his vision of heaven, sees a ‘lamb standing as though it had been slain’ (Revelation 5:6). There is no escape from the Cross; no leaving it behind and regarding it as a thing of the past; the Cross remains the defining moment in human history.

Having prayed for himself, Jesus prays for his disciples. He knows that the work he is giving them to do is not going to be easy for them. He knows that the world will hate them as it has hated him. He asks the Father, therefore, to protect them. But he doesn’t just pray for the disciples who are with him, he continues by praying for those who will become his disciples through them: in other words, you and me.

There is so much in the Farewell Discourse and in the Final Prayer of Jesus to think about and reflect on. In the prayer, Jesus famously prays, both for his disciples and for those who believe through them, that ‘they may be one’ (17:11; 17:21). When reading or listening to Jesus’ prayer, we so focus on the phrase ‘that they may all be one’ that we often miss both the context of Jesus’ words in the prayer and what else Jesus says in it. What is more, the type of unity we normally talk about in the light of these words is not the same type of unity that Jesus himself is talking about, legitimate though it may be to apply his words to it.

The context of Jesus prayer is the opposition that Jesus has told his disciples they will face in the world. Not unsurprisingly, then, Jesus refers a great deal in his prayer to the disciples’ relationship with the world, and, indeed, this is main focus of it. In the course of his prayer, Jesus says some very challenging and, indeed, shocking things. For example, in praying for his disciples, Jesus specifically says he is not praying for the world (John 17:9). Jesus closes his prayer by saying that the world does not know the Father (17:25).

Listening to Jesus praying in chapter 17 of St John's Gospel, we learn a lot about what our relationship to the world as believers both is and should be. Jesus says that his disciples have been given to him by the Father from the world (17:6). They are still in the world and the world hates them, but they no longer belong to the world, just as Jesus does not belong to the world (17:14). Jesus doesn’t ask the Father to take his disciples out of the world, but he does ask him to protect them from the devil. For emphasis, Jesus repeats that his disciples do not belong to this world (17:16).

So why, when Jesus is so emphatic about his disciples not belonging to this world, does Jesus want his disciples to stay in this world to which they do not belong? It is because of what he wants them to do for him in the world. Jesus prays that the Father may ‘sanctify them in the truth’ (John 17:17), that is, set them apart. As the Father sent him, Jesus says, so now he sends them (John 17:18). These will be the words Jesus will also use when, on the Day of his Resurrection, he commissions the disciples for the work he is giving them to do and breathes on them for them to receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-22).

In praying for those who will believe through the testimony of his first disciples, Jesus asks the Father that they may also be one with him and the Father, so that the world may know that the Father sent him (17:21). This is not simply so that more people may come to believe in Jesus (if it is about that at all). Jesus continues to pray that they may be with one with him and the Father, not only so that the world may know that the Father sent him, but also that the world may know that the Father has loved them even as he has loved Jesus (17:23). This is irrespective of whether it leads people to believe for themselves.

The key to understanding Jesus’ prayer and what it means for us today is to see that it is all about relationship.

First and foremost, it is about the relationship between the Father and the Son. Jesus has glorified his Father on earth, he now prays that his Father will glorify him with the glory he had in the Father’s presence before the world existed (John 17:5). Jesus’ relationship with the Father is a relationship of love that he has had with the Father since ‘before the foundation of the world’ (John 17:24).

In a couple of weeks’ time, we will be celebrating the Feast of the Holy Trinity. Our faith in God as ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ is foundational. Jesus did not come as simply a prophet or teacher, although he is both, he came as the ‘Word made flesh’ (John 1:14), and in him we see the Father: this is what God looks like. He who has seen Jesus has seen the Father (John 14:9).

It is this central conviction that distinguishes our faith as followers of Jesus from all other religions and belief systems. Jesus is not just another significant religious figure. He is the human embodiment of God himself. This is hard for us to understand, and it is one of the reasons why we are more comfortable talking about Jesus as a good man, prophet, and teacher. While we may prefer to talk about our Lord in ways that are easier for us to understand, we must resolutely resist the attempt to reduce our faith to just one more religion amongst many.

It is now common for people, both in the Church and outside of it, to say that there is ‘truth in all religions’. Jesus, however, claims that all truth resides in him. He is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6). It is only when we see Jesus for who he is that we can appreciate what he has done and what he has to teach.

Throughout St John’s Gospel, and in the Farewell Discourse in particular, Jesus says that he and the Father are ‘one’. For those to whom Jesus first said these words, they would have had a shocking impact. There was a prayer that every Jew at the time of Jesus prayed twice a day. It is known as the Shema, and it is still prayed by devout Jews today. We ourselves say a version of it in every service here at Christ Church. It begins with the words of Moses in Deuteronomy:

‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ (Deuteronomy 6:4)

This is an absolute assertion that there is only one God, and it is why Judaism rejected all other gods as idols – and, incidentally, why we should as well. Jesus’ claim that he and the Father are one would have been seen as nothing less than blasphemy, and it is why people tried to stone him when he spoke to them of being one with the Father (John 10:30-31).

The early Church was to spend many years thinking through what Jesus’ words meant for what they believed and how they thought of God. The conclusion they came to is expressed in the words of the Nicene Creed, which we say together in our services. We need to remember when we say it that what we are describing is a relationship within God himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is from this relationship that all else comes.

Secondly, however, as if this is not amazing enough, Jesus not only reveals to us the nature of his relationship with the Father, he invites us to share in it. This is what Jesus is praying for when he prays that we ‘may all be one’. Jesus prays:

‘ … that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (John 17:21)

The phrase ‘that they may all be one’ is often used when members of different churches come together at what are known as ‘unity services’ and on those occasions when discussions take place between the churches. And yes, the divisions in the Church are tragic, and we ought to do what we can to find ‘unity in truth’, but the unity that Jesus prays for here is the unity that believers have first with him and his Father, and then, and only then, as a consequence, with each other. The unity that believers have ‘in Christ’ exists regardless of the man-made divisions that exist in the churches. We should, as followers of Jesus, seek to overcome our divisions, but we should not confuse organisational union with our relational unity with the Father and the Son made possible by the Spirit.

Thirdly, the relationship with the Father that we enter through Jesus radically changes our relationship with the world. As we have seen, Jesus says that we have been taken from the world, so that we no longer belong to the world. And yet, having been taken from the world, we are now sent back into the world. But to do what?

St John tells his readers that he wrote his Gospel so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God and that through believing we may have life in his name (John 20:31). In John chapter 3 verse 16, St John tells us that the way God loved the world was by giving his Son. His purpose in doing this was that so that ‘everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ Eternal life is clearly one of the major themes of St John’s Gospel. In his prayer, Jesus tells us what eternal life is. Jesus says:

‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)

As the Father sent him, so Jesus now sends us (John 17:18; 20:21). We are sent into the world by Jesus to introduce people to God, so that they too may experience eternal life. Our mission is to bring people to know God in Christ. Again, we often reduce what it means to follow Christ simply to following a religious teacher with the result that we focus on Jesus’ ethical teaching and separate it from having a relationship with him.

We will, however, never live the way Jesus teaches we should live without first coming to know him. How we live reflects the relationship we have. Telling people to live as Jesus teaches without first bringing them to know him, completely misses the point and risks them missing out on eternal life.

Our faith can only be seen in this limited way as being purely about how we should behave towards each other when it is separated from the relationship with the One who makes it possible to live the teaching Jesus gives. It is one thing to tell people what is good and how they should live; it is another altogether for them to be able to do so. Outside a relationship with him, we are what Jesus describes as slaves of sin’ (John 8:34). It is only by entering a relationship with him that we are both forgiven our sin and freed from it to live the life God wants us to live.

As followers of Jesus, we are not only freed from sin, which holds us captive and prevents us from being the people we were meant to be, we also enter a community of people who share this relationship with God in Christ. It is a community separate from the world sent to welcome people to join us and to share with us in a relationship with the living God.

One way of understanding our relationship with the world as those who belong to God is to think of ourselves as forming an expatriate community. Expatriates are those who live in a city while being citizens of somewhere else. As we know here in Hong Kong, expatriates, while sharing in the life of the city in which they live, will maintain the language and lifestyle of the place they originally came from. They may live in the city, but it is not their real home. They live in the city, but their heart is elsewhere. ‘Home’, as the saying has it, ‘is where the heart is’.

As followers of Jesus, this means that while we are not indifferent to the world that we live in, we are no longer part of it. Already this world has been judged and our prime concern now is to save people from it, so that they may not suffer the judgement that has been pronounced on it.

For us to be effective in the mission Jesus gives us, it is essential, then, that we don’t once again become part of the world. As St John warns us in his first letter:

‘Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world …’ (1 John 2:15)

This world is not our home. So where is our home? Jesus said that he and the Father would come and make their home with us who believe in Jesus (John 14:23). This he does through the Holy Spirit whom he gives to all those who believe in him.

We may be in the world, but our home is elsewhere. Our home is with the Father and the Son. Our task now is to invite people into our home to meet the God who lives there. The God who reveals himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


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