I had the experience, years ago of sending my daughter off to her first day of school. I watched my little one, who seemed to have only celebrated her first birthday, gather with the rest of her classmates and enter their first classroom. Some may have had the experience of sending a child away to college, or maybe to serve in the military. Some might have put a child who has grown up much too fast on a plane or bus and watched it depart and leaving us alone. We may have felt we won’t be there with them to protect them or even remind them of simple life things that need to be done.
We may have prayed: “Dear God, these children you gave me are growing up so fast; and I can’t be with them to take care of them all the time. Lord, please protect them. Keep them safe as they travel. Bring them back in one piece. Guard them from anyone who would hurt them and take advantage of them. May they remain faithful believers in you in the face of everything the world throws at them.” (1)
Sadly, this may also be the same for a person who is going to die and leave loved ones behind.
This is what we hear in our Gospel reading for this seventh Sunday of Easter. Jesus is in the garden and prays for his disciples knowing that he is about to be arrested and eventually crucified.
What we hear is part of what theologians call Jesus’ High Priestly prayer that Jesus offers up in his role as mediator between God and humanity. It’s plainly a prayer for those who had become followers of Jesus during his ministry, but equally clearly it extends to encompass all who would become followers of Jesus in the future.
Jesus prays to God to enable his disciples and us to be in the world without his physical presence to be witnesses of his Good News: The Good News that God loves us; and God sent his Son for our sake.
In his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus was praying to the Father to take care of the disciples and us after he was gone.
Jesus prayed for God to provide protection, unity, joy, and sanctification for his disciples and to all of us who follow; We can’t fully protect ourselves, or create true joy, or sanctify ourselves, or build unity from within ourselves. We need to entrust ourselves to the prayer Jesus made to God on our behalf.
Jesus specifically prays to his Father not to take us out of the world but to protect us and guide us in the world so that we may continue the work Jesus started on earth. Jesus prayed that that he is not of the world but in it, so likewise are we.
While I was growing up I would be told from time to time that I am in the world but certainly not of it. I kind of understood what it meant, but it was mostly used to encourage me to behave like a model Christian boy and stay away from the bad things and behavior in the world. I have to say it probably didn’t always have the intended effect, but that’s a subject for another sermon.
What distinguishes the disciples and us from the world is very simply that we belong to Jesus and do not belong to the world. In other words, we don't conform to the world's values, our ultimate loyalties are not those of the world.
We don't bow down to the idols the world worships, we might say that we followers of Jesus are not seduced by the idols of greedy individualism, hedonism, and consumerism.
What Jesus is even now praying for us, among other prayers is that we should be protected from those things.
The 'world' here means something like a structure of values and life-commitments that opposes God and God's values. Jesus' disciples are different because they belong to Jesus. Belonging only requires that we believe in the Gospel of Jesus. Belonging is something the culture of our day is rather ambiguous about.
Belonging doesn't mesh well with the kind of freedom and autonomy people want and value. Belonging isn't the kind of relationship you can opt in and out of as you please. It insinuates commitment and being identified with.
It clashes with the individualism of modern society. But there are also plenty of signs that - within the contemporary breakdown of community, family and committed relationships - people still long to belong. We were not made for freedom from belonging, but for freedom in belonging.
Jesus also prayed that his disciples be made one as he and the Father are one and furthermore be made one with him.
This is what we find in belonging to Jesus is that it entails belonging to one another.
As the disciples, we also find our identity in belonging to Jesus, this is a primary thing that distinguishes us from the world.
By this we share in the joy of the Holy Spirit that binds the Holy Trinity and that binds us into the Body of Christ, the church in the world. We are one in Christ as He is one with The Father.
This certainly doesn’t mean that we are all made identical, we still have our personal identities. The Church has a sense of a variety of personal charisms or gifts to make Christ’s gospel known to the world.
In his prayer Jesus reiterates over and over that his disciples are in the world, meaning his church is in the world. We are now Jesus’s arms legs eyes ears and mouth in the world that bring good news of salvation to the world.
It is understandable that because the world is sometimes such a disagreeable place we would like to withdraw from it, having glimpsed what is holy and good in hearing God’s Word, worshiping Him, and receiving Communion.
The history of Christianity is filled with accounts of such human arrangements: reform movements, communal living, utopias, retreat centers, small groups centered on prayer and piety, attempts to reclaim the practices of primitive Christianity as interpreted by charismatic leaders.
While each of these developed its peculiar shape and ethos, all of them have been efforts to create a space, unencumbered by the world, that would allow for a fuller realization of a faithful, holy life. But as good and righteous as some of these efforts are the church is called by Christ to interact with the world.
Even now the church is a balancing act. On the one end we see a church that would withdraw from the world and concentrate only on personal piety, spiritual development and withdraw from the world’s cares. On the other end a church that endeavors to uphold the achievement of personal prosperity and political gain to create a theocratic rule.
The church that Jesus calls us to be is one that cares for the world, especially the poor and the helpless. One that works for the protection of God’s creation and one that reflects the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflects the praises of all creation back to its maker.
As C. K. Chesterton said “We do not want a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.” Amen.
(2)David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 18988-18989). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.