He Lives to Pray for Us - John 17.6-19
Does the name Keystone Cops mean anything to you? Actually it predates me by considerable. A comedy from the days of silent movies, bumbling idiots of policemen who never make it from point A to point B without bumping heads and tangling legs. Some uncharitable observer of the gospel accounts has characterized Jesus’ disciples as keystone cops, at least as the four evangelists picture them. They can’t do anything right. Or not much. I suppose it could be argued that just possibly the evangelists selected those bad moments for running the camera, and not the moments of glory. But be that as it may, looking at the disciples during Jesus’ last weeks on earth, a class about to graduate, charged with representing Jesus and his way to an extremely hostile world, you surely wouldn’t say they look very promising. So what do you do, when your kid is off to face his first day of school, or a job interview, or the first day on a new job? What can you do but pray? Our text for today is Jesus’ prayer for those bumbling disciples of his, before sending them off. Talking to his Father, in John 17, verse 6:
6 “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. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 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. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 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. 12 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.
13 “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. 14 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. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
His prayer for them begins,
6 “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.
Bumbling disciples? Maybe. But one charge that will not stick is that they were doubtful choices in the first place - hastily or carelessly selected, or poorly-screened volunteers. We make such mistakes all the time, we don’t accuse Jesus of making them. Jesus told them earlier that evening, You did not choose me, but I chose you. And it goes even deeper than that. Luke tells us how Jesus spent an entire night praying to his Father, and in the morning, having called his followers to him, he chose from among them these twelve. God the Father set these men apart for his Son. And at least in this prayer, Jesus doesn’t call them keystone cops. They have obeyed your word. Yes, the gospels record stumblings, any number. But God’s first commandment reads, You shall have no other gods before me. When Jesus asked them to lay down their nets for the kingdom of God, to close up their offices in order to follow him, they did – obedient to God’s word. He prays,
I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. . . . Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 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.
Recall one of the times when they didn’t stumble, though the ground was rough. Recorded in John chapter 6: Jesus has given some hard teaching, so hard that it not only antagonized his opponents, it sent his supporters looking for the exit. John says,
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus has always had his share of fair-weather friends. People willing enough to follow him, for awhile, for any of a number of reasons - the excitement, hopes of healing, maybe hopes that the loaves and fish would again be miraculously multiplied. In short, following him for goods and services, more than for truth. The prosperity gospel is enormously popular now, it was then.
Jesus acknowledges, these men, by contrast, really do believe. Their courage may waver, in foul weather, but not their faith, and not their loyalty. Peter would deny Jesus, he would not desert to the enemy. As to goods and services, Jesus said, seek first the kingdom of God, not stuff. And with all their warts, these had done that.
9 I pray for them. Jesus continues, I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.
Typically, in group prayer, we unite, it’s like we’re all praying through the one voice that’s heard. Not so here. The beneficiaries of this prayer, the Eleven, are there listening in. What do you suppose it meant to them, to be thus prayed for? They had looked on as a prayer of Jesus’ awakened Lazarus from the dead. And now Jesus turns his attention their direction: I pray for them. You’d hope it would mean a lot to them. But then look in the mirror: does it mean a lot to us? What does it mean to us that Jesus is praying for us – as he certainly is? Hebrews 7.25:
Because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
He lives to pray for you. I guess it needs asking, what’s he praying for, in praying for us? Goods and services? Prosperity? From the verse we read, complete salvation. Certainly, salvation from the flames of hell. And: from selfishness, greed and pride - from everything that would obscure the light that Jesus would have shine out before our neighbors causing them to praise God.
Jesus goes on:
10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them.
Glory, to Jesus, through them? Past tense? It would be easier to nod in agreement, if that statement had been made years or even months later when the apostles were working miracles in his name. How had they, as of this date, brought glory to Jesus? The gospels seem more concerned with showing the moments when they’d shamed him.
We do know that Jesus had on occasion sent them out to preach and heal in his name. He sent them saying, He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the One who sent me. Where they were welcomed, Jesus was welcomed. Their victories were victories for the Kingdom of God. Jesus was glorified – he’s glorified today - in the witness of his people. You and me. And they had witnessed for him.
11 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. 12 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.
What protection is Jesus praying for? Well, he’s told them earlier in the evening that the time would come when anyone killing them would do so imagining he was doing God a service. So, in this protection plan, apparently, violent death at the hands of religious fanatics isn’t covered. Indeed, of these eleven, ten were to go that way, and countless of their brothers and sisters in Christ as well, in their day and down to ours. When Jesus sent them out preaching (this in Matthew 10) he told them: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. The protection you really need is against the soul killers.
What – who – wars against the soul? Let’s listen to Peter. He was the most visible of those eleven, and often their spokesman. He experienced both protection and martyrdom. He wrote to the Christians in Asia Minor about peril and martyrdom and protection. 1 Peter 2.11
11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
And in the 5th chapter:
8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith,
Christians in Asia Minor are still in peril, and some are being murdered, for bearing Christ’s name. Are they, in their suffering, being devoured by our enemy the devil? That’s not at all the sense of that verse. What kills the soul is listening to the tempter, who will dangle in front of our eyes a sinful desire, or fear of persecution, or hatred toward the persecutors, or ill will toward brothers who have fallen or wavered in the face of persecution.
Protect them, Jesus prays, by the power of your name. Jesus has said, I pray for them, for they are yours. We opened this service with hymns of protection: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. The protection is precisely in that word our - our God. We bear his name, and he defends his kids. Children of the Heavenly Father safely in his bosom gather. Bearing his name, we’re on the prayer list of the one who always lives to intercede for his own.
12 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.
The point is not that keeping eleven out of twelve was, considering the enemy, pretty good. No, the departure of Judas was the unveiling of a wolf, not the loss of a lamb. And his treason was foreseen hundreds of years beforehand, lest it be thought that God can’t keep track of his own.
Jesus goes on:
13 “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. 14 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. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.
That they may have the full measure of my joy within them . . . What do we know of Jesus’ joy – the joy that he experienced? We can imagine him rejoicing at any number of occasions, but I found one direct reference, remarkable for Jesus and his disciples sharing joy. Seventy two of his followers have been sent out on a mission, to preach the kingdom of God. He’s sending them out, he says, as sheep among wolves, their only defense being his mighty name. And they come back rejoicing. Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name. Jesus replied,
I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on sakes and scorpions, and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
Reminding of a second occasion of Jesus’ rejoicing. The Hebrews author says: Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross. For the joy of writing the disciples names, and yours and mine, on the rolls of heaven.
The prayer for them wraps up:
16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
We’re warned sometimes about using words that may not mean much to the man on the street, and apparently the editors of my Bible were concerned that sanctify might be such a word. Hence a footnote: to set apart, for sacred use.
So what does that mean: set them apart, for sacred use? There’s a fun object lesson we’ve used. Put a charcoal briquette and a piece of white sidewalk chalk together in a paper bag. Give it a good shake. Look inside and see who’s won. Do you have white charcoal, or black chalk? (I won’t spoil the suspense; try it yourself at home.) But you could easily understand this being set apart as being taken out of the bag, dusted off, and kept clean. That was the sanctity of the Pharisees, practicing it themselves and expecting it of Jesus. Jesus countered it with a whole other idea. A physician, Jesus said, whose place and mission are precisely among the sick. Put him in the bag with sick folks where he’ll do some good. He’s set apart for healing. Peter told Jesus, You have the words of eternal life. Those words could be bitter enough to drive some to the exit doors, but the physician wouldn’t withhold them or artificially sweeten them. By means of those words Jesus took twelve sick men and turned them into healers. As he set himself apart for a healing mission, he sets them apart, equipped with the words the Father gave him. As the Father sent him into the world, Jesus sends us. Sending us off with a prayer, Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name.
So it is that Jesus prays for his disciple, us included. He wasn’t asking them to do anything. Indeed he’s not even talking to them, he’s just letting them listen in. So, what good will listening in on Jesus’ prayer do us? I don’t know that I’d want people to listen to my prayers and conclude from them what’s important to me. But I think you can listen to Jesus’ prayer and conclude what’s important to him.
- One: it’s important to him that we be protected from the one who can really harm us. He prays that it might be so.
- It’s important that we be united – That we be one, as he and the Father are one. One as a healthy body is one, with all the members working together in harmony and not at cross-purposes.
- It’s important to him that we be filled to overflowing with his joy. When he gave them peace, he added, This peace I’m giving to you, it’s not like what the world gives. And maybe his joy isn’t precisely what the world calls joy. But he wants to fill us with it.
- Finally, it’s important to him that we be sanctified: that is, fitted and motivated for God’s mission of mercy. Important enough to him that to make it happen he went to the cross and died, and rose again, and ascended on high to send us his Holy Spirit, and to sit at the Father’s right hand to continually pray on our behalf.