David A. Davis
March 21, 2021
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The 17th chapter of John, the last chapter of the Last Supper Discourse, is labeled by the tradition as Jesus “high priestly prayer.” Priestly, as in Jesus is petitioning God on behalf of the disciples. Lifting them up to the Lord in prayer. Priestly, as in Jesus is commissioning them, ordaining, sending them into the world on his behalf. If the setting of the prayer was transposed through time and place to the chancel of a sanctuary somewhere, someplace, it is as if the disciples would be kneeling before Jesus as he prayed. And as prayed, Jesus would be laying hands on each one.
Calling it the “high priestly prayer” also brings the preacher in the Book of Hebrews to mind. “Since, then, we have a great high priest”, Hebrews, chapter 4, “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Or in other words, Jesus knew the world. Not only was Jesus in the world, Jesus knew the world. He knew where he was sending them. “I am no longer in the world” Jesus prayed, “but they are.” The disciples and those who would come to believe in him through their word, they… we… are in the world.
“In the world but not of the world”. There’s a well-worn preacher’s phrase. Think how many of us had those words etched deep within by preachers, conference speakers, youth group leaders. “Be in the world but not of the world!” It functions as a sort of bible-like bumper sticker. It would come as an exhortation, an encouragement, or even bit of threat when it comes to behavior and choices. Because also, most often the expression would drip with implications for the moral life and the avoidance of sin. “In the world, not of the world.”
Indeed, there is clear biblical support for the phrase here in John 17. In fact, the King James and other versions translate v.14 with Jesus saying “they are not of the world even as I am not of the world.” And v.16, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” Both preceded by v. 11, “I am now no more in the world but these are in the world.” So, yes, in the world but not of it. It is easy and biblically justifiable it would seem to sum up what Jesus is saying with a call for his followers in generations to come to: “be in the world, but not of the world.”
I just don’t think Jesus thought it was all that easy. Quite that simple. At least the Jesus of John’s Gospel didn’t think it was all that easy. A reader only has to spend just a bit of time in these few chapters in John, or in all of John for that matter, to realize anything Jesus says here in the gospel is not all that easy nor can it be easily summed in a phrase. It’s just not that easy, not all that simple when it comes to what it means for the disciples of Jesus to be in the world. Part of that is just trying to comprehend the beauty and meaning of chapter 17. And part of that is acknowledging that it can’t be all that simple because Jesus was in the world. Jesus knew the world. Maybe that’s why this prayer is so long. So heart felt. So specific. Because Jesus knew that leaving the disciples in the world, that with him leaving and them staying, the challenge would be great.
The gospel of John uses the word “cosmos” a gazillion more times than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Easily more times than all three synoptics put together. In addition to the context of John’s philosophical and theological approach to the world that Shane Berg has discussed in adult (think Gnosticism and dualism), in addition to that, John is just chalked full of the world. So the relationship of Jesus and the disciples to the world, “the world God so loved” in John the relationship, let’s say is…complicated. This is the world that the Word who became flesh brought into being. The world that knew him not. Those who heard about Jesus from the Samaritan woman, who then went to listen to Jesus for themselves, they declared Jesus the “Savior of the World”. You remember Jesus declared himself “light of the world” in John. The world Jesus said, he came not to judge but to save. This is the world that will no longer see Jesus, he told the disciples. “But you will see me”. And Jesus promised them a peace, a peace not as the world gives.
And in addition, there is Jesus’ experience of the world, The experience of the Word made flesh who lived among us. No account in John of the baby Jesus being born into the world, but whole lot of Jesus in the world. Jesus knew the joy of a wedding and the grief of death in John. Jesus stood at the well talking to the Samaritan woman confronting the world’s hate and he went to the pool of five porticoes to see the world’s suffering with all the sick people gather just hoping to be healed. Yes Jesus was in the world and he knew the world, Jesus knew the ruler of the world, the darkness of the world, the evils of the world, the sinfulness of the world, and the violence of the world. After all, it was the world that brutally murdered him.
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me.” I am no longer in the world but they are in the world. Protect them. Protect them so they may be one, as you and I are one. Protect them and keep them whole so that their joy may be made complete. Protect them from the evil one and sanctify them in the truth of your word. Sanctify them in truth. And the prayer ends with this “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you: and these know that you have sent me. I made your name know 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.” Yes, “in the world and not of it” isn’t enough. No way it’s enough.
Whatever it all means, that though he is now absent from the world and the disciples are still in it, this prayer? This prayer? It sounds to me like Jesus is asking that his disciples would be drawn into the very heart of God. Not just in the promise of eternal life to come, but in the world right then. The world right now. That prayer language of protection, and complete joy, and oneness, and truth, and glory and love. It is Jesus asking God to draw them in while Jesus is sending them out. The strength of God. The joy of God. The word of God. The truth of God. The peace of God. The love of God. The heart of God and the disciples in the world.
In the world. It can be so hard, sometimes. That high priestly prayer. It’s so long. But not long enough. Because I hope Jesus is still praying it. He knows the world and he knows you and I are still in it. A world of darkness, evil, sin, and violence. A world that seems to find a way to remind us just about every day that it’s pretty much still the same as the world portrayed in the Gospel of John; working against the teaching of Jesus and his justice, his righteousness, his love, his peace at every turn. That world. That’s the world you and I are in. And if Jesus is still praying that high priestly prayer like I hope it is, that means he is still sending us into that world.
A while back we had some trees taken down in our yard and I asked that they leave the wood so I could chop it myself. After a few months weekend chopping bits a time, I finally decided to rent a log splitter. I distinctly remember driving home from the rental place up on Rt 27 after the guy basically showed me where to put the gas and how to start it and that was about it. I was driving home with a piece of equipment that could split logs and take off my arms and legs with out any instruction or training. I was just sent off without even a wave goodbye.
In one of conversations with our daughter and her husband who are expecting their first child, our first grandchild, Cathy and I were recalling how it felt to bring a newborn home from the hospital the very first time. While they do make sure the car seat is properly installed, every new parent feels like they are being sent off bringing a baby into the world without a whole lot of guidance. You get more orientation when you buy a new car!
Jesus is still sending his disciples out into the vast cosmos, a life so chalked full of the world. You and I sent out into the world feeling so unprepared, feeling so small, so prone to hurt others and hurt ourselves. But while Jesus is sending us out, he is asking God to draw us in. Draw us into the strength of God. The joy of God. The word of God. The truth of God. The peace of God. The love of God. The heart of God and you and me in the world. Jesus is praying for us, lifting us before the Lord, sending us into the world because God still loves the world. Jesus still yearns to transform the world, the world he has redeemed. One has to figure that God, and the Son of God, and the Advocate, that the Divine Trio could have worked all this out on their own, the transformation of the world. But in all the mystery of God, the wisdom of God, and what Paul called the foolishness of God, the Crucified and Risen Christ sends the disciples, sends his followers, sends us into the world to keep at it. For to be sanctified in truth, is to be send into the world with the trust and the faith that the very fullness of Christ goes with you. It is to go into the world with the faith and trust that Christ will transform the world through you. Because even as he sends you, he is asking that you be drawn close the very heart of God. Not just in the life to come, but now. Right here. Right now.
So no “be in the world and not of it” is not enough.
Be in the world, and transform it. Because God so loved this world and the Savior of the world is sending you and praying for you.
In the world, and in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, praying and working to make of this old world, a new one.