Jesus Prays for Evangelists

I’ll spare you a long rant about the RCL and its oddball usage of John’s Gospel, and simply note that on Sunday, like every Seventh Sunday After Easter (see A and C) we will hear a portion of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, ripped from its context and nonsensically placed on the final Sunday of Eastertide.  As such, we hear Jesus using pronouns for which there is no direct antecedent.  As the preacher, I’m privy to the larger story, as I should be, but since we, like many Episcopal congregations, have no Bibles in the pews, those who show up on Sunday, will only get a small glimpse into Jesus’ prayer, and will likely be left wondering what Jesus is talking about when he says:

“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”

Asking what, exactly?  The pericope appointed for Year B skips what Jesus is asking for.  As we look back to the opening verses of John 17, we note that despite the section heading that has been inserted into the text, “Jesus prays for his disciples,” what Jesus is really praying for in this moment is that the Father might “glorify the son, so that the Son my glorify you.”  In John, this language of glorification is a clear reference to the crucifixion.  In being lifted up on the cross, Jesus is raised upon his throng as king.  Paradoxically, through his brutal and embarrassing death, Jesus is glorified as the Savior of the World and the King of the Jews.

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With that context in mind, we return to the appointed lesson for Sunday.  When Jesus says that he is asking for his glorification, it isn’t so that world, which in John’s Gospel is synonymous with sin, will see it and be changed, but rather, that those who already believe might be further empowered.  As the disciples will soon look upon the glorification of Jesus, it is his hope that they might be encouraged, rather than dejected.  In verse 18, Jesus makes hope this overt, when he prays to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have them them into the world.”

If those words sound familiar, it is because they appear almost verbatim in the much more popular John 20:21, which we hear every Easter 2 and on the Day of Pentecost in Year A.  There, the now resurrected Jesus enters a locked room where his disciples were gathered, clearly dejected and afraid, having failed to live into his prayer from a few days before.  He breathes upon them, and essentially answers this prayer for them in saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In praying for his glorification, on behalf of his disciples and not the world, Jesus prays that the Father might encourage future evangelists.  His prayer is that those who have experienced relationship with God through Christ might have the ability and desire to share that Good News with a world that is evil and fallen.  In praying for the disciples to be empowered through his death, he prays for us as well, that we too might be sent, as the Father sent his only Son, into the world, empowered by the Spirit, to tell the story of God’s saving love.

Where do you belong?

Before Paul made it famous in Philippians 3:20, Jesus had already made it clear to his disciples that though they might be Jews living in a Roman occupied land on the eastern edge of the known world, they were neither citizens of Rome nor Israel.  Followers of Jesus do not belong to this world, but rather they belong to the Kingdom of God.

This is a timely lesson as a blog post by Tony Jones makes the rounds on Facebook.  In “There’s No Traffic Jam on the Canterbury Trail” Tony suggests that the recent conversion by famous Evangelical author turned Episcopalian, Rachel Held Evans is a chance for the [former] Mainline to reevaluate is citizenship.  In post-WWII America, the burgeoning Mainline was the American Establishment at Prayer.  It was so deeply tied into American politics and the capitalist machine that kept it all running that it lost the Gospel message as its members took up citizenship not in the Kingdom of God, but in the Kiwanis Club, the Country Club, and ultimately, the comfort of a Middle-Class lifestyle.

The downfall of the Mainline can be traced to the relative comfort of its members, and the same will ultimately be true of evangelicalism.  In order to claim membership in the comfortable things of this world, we must first renounce our citizenship of the Kingdom of God.  That’s Jesus’ main message to his disciples in the high priestly prayer: things are about to get really uncomfortable, but that’s OK because that’s what it means to live counter-culturally.

To be clear, I’m not saying that we all have to give up our houses, cars, and jobs and move to inner city Birmingham to preach the Gospel to under-served populations, but I am saying that following Jesus doesn’t assume a big house, a nice car, and cushy job.  For a disciple of Jesus, the goal of life isn’t cushy material things and political power, the goal of life is the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God: a place where the Good News is shared with reckless abandon, where the poor and the outcast are tended to, where the comfortable give sacrificially, and where the only language spoken is love.

I’m not there yet.  On my best days, I strive to help bring the Kingdom of God into my circle of influence.  Most days I end up worrying about the rat race.  Every moment offers the choice: where do I want to belong?