A week ago I preached for the first time at my new church, on the Gospel reading for that week. The service is neither livestreamed nor recorded, so I thought I would put the text up here. I’m not a very ‘scholarly’ preacher, even though I find a lot of scholarly issues and certainly the history fascinating; but I study literature, which many Biblical scholars seem not to have studied very much. Someone called my sermon a spiritual meditation, which I hadn’t been calling it, but it seems appropriate.
“I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, 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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.”John 17:20-26
More and more these days, the darkness and chaos of the world moves into our field of view—we didn’t want to hear about a sudden invasion or yet another school shooting. Not only do the failures and brokenness of society inspire fear, but also the fragile nature of earthly life stampedes over our dreams for the future—we didn’t plan on needing hospitals anytime soon. [Some in our congregation have had health issues lately.]
Some of us—maybe more of us than we realize—also struggle with personal, inner darkness and chaos; the lies we’ve learned to believe about ourselves, the despair and anxiety that hums in the background of our days.
We believe in a loving God who sees and hears us. We trust in a saving God who promises to be with us. But when darkness of all kinds overwhelms our senses, we cry to God: Where are you? Don’t leave us. Don’t forsake us.
Where is Jesus?
To find an answer, it’s best to go to the source, so we’ll turn our attention to the Gospel reading for tonight from John 17. A passage that’s traditionally known as the ‘high priestly prayer’, and why is going to become clear. Jesus’ prayer is the culmination of His final teachings to His disciples on the night He is betrayed and arrested, in the small upper room where they’ve eaten together one last time. The prayer repeats and lifts up themes and ideas that He’s been giving them; Jesus teaches His disciples and then He prays to the Father that what He teaches would come true. This short passage is from the very end of the prayer.
Jesus begins His prayer asking that the Father would now glorify the Son—Himself—and bless the work that He is about to do: namely, die on the cross. Then He prays for the disciples, that the Father would protect them and bless the work that He has already done: namely, reveal God’s truth to the disciples. And now He prays for the fruit of all His work, both on the cross and in the disciples: namely, the Church that will arise through the spread of His good news. That includes us.
Where is Jesus, in our darkness and our chaos? Jesus is praying for us.
His prayer is repetitive, which makes it challenging to read or listen to; it can be easy to lose the train of thought if you go quickly. But when you slow down, you notice that each petition builds on what comes before. With each line, something new gets added to the picture of what He’s praying for. It repeats, but it also expands and deepens.
He prays: “I ask not only on behalf of these”—the disciples—“but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word,that they may all be one.” In the midst of our social brokenness, our division, the discord that even splits Christians from each other, Jesus prays for our unity. We long to be made whole, and Jesus longs for the same. So He prays that as the disciples teach about Him, their teaching would bring people together in friendship around Him. The message of Jesus has spread not only throughout the world, but also comes down to us, and Jesus asks that all who believe in it, wherever and whenever they may believe in it, will be made one. Time and space don’t define this unity—only He does. Time and space are only how we experience it.
C.S. Lewis writes about how, in practicing friendship, we can be deceived into thinking that we’ve chosen our own friends, or that at best they’ve come into our lives by accident. “But, for a Christian,” he writes, “there are…no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say to every group of Christian friends ‘You have not chosen one another, but I have chosen you for one another.’” Jesus creates the friendship that makes us one.
He also keeps praying, and revealing more about the one-ness that He desires: “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.” What Jesus asks for is not simply unity between us, but our unity with the Triune God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—because it’s through being united to God that we also become united to each other. We long to be made whole, and in that unity, we find our wholeness. But more than ourselves, our unity and wholeness is a witness to the rest of the world about Jesus.
I find an echo at this point in Jesus’ prayer of one well-known part of the teaching that’s led up to it: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Fruit. That’s an interesting image. Fruit of course carries seeds so that a plant can reproduce, but it’s also more than that. It’s something that feeds, that nourishes. To be one in God, to abide in Him and Him in us, is to be connected to something living and generative—and through us comes something that feeds others. Fruit. The question is: what does that fruit taste like?
Jesus keeps praying: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
The Gospel of John keeps calling Jesus’ passion “the hour of His glorification.” He has not yet ascended, He’s not yet enthroned, but He is glorified even in His suffering, His cross, His death. Men sitting on thrones is a pretty common sight. Men hanging on crosses—suffering and death of all kinds—is a pretty common sight. A crucified man sitting on a throne, that’s weird. But what it reveals is the Love of God. For God has loved the world like this: He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send His Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
That’s Jesus’ glory. That’s the vine of which we’re the branch, the life-giving, generative root we’re tapped into. Jesus meets a hurting and hurtful world with Love, and that Love displays the glory of the Triune God. By His body and His blood He makes us one with God and with each other. Our wholeness is the fruit we bear to feed the world, and Love is what it tastes like. Not simply a list of terms and agreements they should click OK on, not simply a set of beliefs they have to sign off on—but a Love that is freely offered for them to receive.
And Jesus prays: “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
The Love that Jesus shares with the Father, the Love that we share in through His sacrifice, predates creation. It is the first law of the universe. It is, to borrow from C.S. Lewis again, the deeper magic from before the dawn of time. This world is broken, this world is divided, this world is in pain, but Love is still the foundation on which this world was built.
“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.” This Love, foundational and life-giving, is in us; it binds us to God and to each other. Without Love, nothing that is made could have been made.
More and more the darkness and chaos of our world moves into our field of view—the injustice of war, the murder of children, the division of society almost up to the point of total disintegration. Some think that democracy is what preserves our society, or free speech, or the rule of law. These are good things. But we have these things and we seem to be watching our society slowly unravel nevertheless.
What I learn from Jesus’ prayer, from His desire for us, is what Paul the Apostle also learned and taught to the Corinthian church: without Love, I am nothing.
If everyone has the vote but no one has empathy for people who vote differently, then democracy becomes a sham. If everyone has the right to speak but no one has the will to listen, then free speech becomes poison. If we seek and fight for justice but never seek for the chance to show mercy, then the law becomes oppression. If we cut ourselves off from the source of Love and life, we will perish. If Jesus is not in us and we are not in Him then we might as well stop breathing. In Him is life, and that life is the light of all people.
Love is so much more than an emotion of affection. Love is the help and service we offer one another, even unasked. Love is the willingness to imagine why someone else feels and thinks so differently from us. Love is the humility to recognize that we might be wrong and to repent and make restitution when we discover how wrong we’ve been. Love is to show, at the very least, a certain amount of mercy even to those who would show no mercy towards us. Beyond liberalism and conservatism, beyond democracy, beyond freedom of speech or religion, beyond law and justice, Love is what undergirds the goodness of life.
Where is Jesus, in our darkness and our chaos? Jesus is praying for us. Some might not find that a good enough answer, but to me it’s the answer that carries the most hope. Because what Jesus prays for is also what He longs for.
We know our brokenness and we long to be made whole, and Jesus longs and prays for our hurt and pain to be made part of His glory, that we would move from failure and division and brokenness to victory and unity and wholeness. He longs and prays for our one-ness with Him and the Father and all who believe, for it is in our relationship with God and each other that we can begin to find wholeness. Jesus asks the Father that this relationship happen even now, in the midst of our suffering. That even now God’s glory will be revealed through the Love with which we meet a hurting world and our hurting selves. That even this dark and chaotic world may be able to see it and know that Jesus is here, that Jesus has been sent, and that Jesus receives and brings the Love of the Father for His world. The light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not, cannot, will not overcome it.
I find a great deal of hope that Jesus prays His longings. For in the Love that they share, what the Son asks the Father, surely the Father will give. He gives it at the cross. This is called the ‘high priestly prayer’ and with good reason: Jesus stands metaphorically at an altar, offering Himself as a sacrifice, interceding on our behalf, a bridge between us and God—and He prays for communion to be the fruit of what He is about to do.
They used to say ‘All roads lead to Rome.’ I’ve come to believe that eventually all sermons wind up at the communion table and altar. Because here is we get to encounter the Love that is the heartbeat of all creation. Here, like Jesus, we lift up our hearts and hands and our whole selves to join Him and the Father through the Spirit. Here we learn to love ourselves. Here we learn to love each other, all in the light of the Love of God. We offer ourselves to Love, let it fill us and feed us, let it bear fruit in us to feed others. And then go out and live by the Love that gives us life itself.
And we do all this in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.