A Prayer for Dangerous Disciples
This is a sermon on John 17:11b-19 that will be published in Proclaim during the Easter season next year.
NRSV John 17:11 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, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
For those with an interest in Jesus Christ, it is worth pondering any prayer that has survived the ages. You can tell a lot about people by listening to their prayers. A person’s prayers make transparent his or her ultimate cares and concerns. This is even truer for a person standing in a position of grave danger or desperation. In John 17, we have an extended petition to God that Jesus makes mere hours before his arrest and execution. This prayer gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of Jesus. Perhaps surprisingly for our day in which we tend to exalt self-interest above all others, Jesus focuses not on his impending death or a desire to avoid it, but rather he thinks beyond the Cross to the time in which his present and future followers would face the world on their own. His prayer is for dangerous disciples.
Red River Gorge State Park in the hills of eastern Kentucky is one of hidden gems in the United States. Its scenic hiking trails and rugged cliffs are favorites of outdoor enthusiasts, particularly rock climbers. During a recent trip to tackle a daunting formation known as Paradise Lost, my friend Rob was struggling to make it to the top when another climber, dressed in black except for a bright yellow X embroidered on his back, literally blew by him. By the time, Rob reached his destination the mysterious man in black was gone. Rob inquired about the manâ€™s identity from another group of climbers resting at the top. â€œThat was X,â€ said Jen. â€œX?â€ questioned Rob. â€œYes, no one knows his name. He never talks to anyone. He just shows up and makes the rest of us look like beginners. He may not be very friendly, but as a rock climber, he is down right dangerous.â€
Of course, Jen meant the word â€œdangerousâ€ as a compliment. X was not a physical threat to the other climbers; he was a threat to rock formations. He was so skilled and death-defying that he made allegedly challenging climbs appear routine. It is in this sense of the word that Jesus desires his disciples to be dangerous. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus sought to unleash a world-changing movement in which his followers would reveal to the world Godâ€™s transforming love and invite others to a community shaped by the values and lifestyle modeled by Jesus himself. It would involve a daring life in which Jesusâ€™ followers would engage a world that would not always welcome Jesusâ€™ message. Yet rather than withdrawing from the world into â€œsafeâ€ enclaves, Jesus followers were to remain in the world just as Jesus himself did during his earthly life.
The knowledge that his disciples would continue his ministry drove Jesus to his knees in prayer to God the Father during his last hours on earth. Our text today picks up the middle section (John 17:11b-19) of a longer prayer (John 17:1-25). The key to understanding Jesusâ€™ prayer occurs in this wider context. Verse 23 reads in part, â€œâ€¦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.â€ In other words, Jesusâ€™ prayer for his disciples is rooted in mission. It is a daring and risky mission for God because its success or failure depends upon the disciples who will remain on earth after Jesusâ€™ death and resurrection. If the world is going to know the truth of God as revealed through Jesus, it will be through the witness of the community of disciples.
Jesus knows that such a mission requires divine assistance. If his present and future followers are to be successful, they will need to be transformed from mere women and men into a band of dangerous disciples who will model the reality and truth of God through their visible love for the world and for one another. Toward this end, in our text, Jesus makes two requests of God.
Guarded for Truth
In verse eleven, Jesus implores God to protect them. The crucial insight in understanding Jesusâ€™ request is the recognition that this is not a prayer for mere safety or security. In the Western world, too many individuals have elevated mantras such as â€œsafety firstâ€ and â€œbetter safe than sorryâ€ to extremes.
Most adults have fond memories of a childhood in which they played outdoors from dawn until dusk. Most of us can tell stories of how we walked miles to school without our parents or roamed far and wide from home on our bikes in search of a wooded area to explore or for parks to play. In an era that lacked easy communication tools such as cell phones, we rarely even checked in at home except to grab a quick snack or to have a parent apply a bandage to a skinned up knee. Fast forward to modern suburbia. Today many parents would never allow their children to do what we did as youngsters. Todayâ€™s generation of parents walk their children to their schools and even stay at bus stops until the bus arrives. Instead of allowing children to venture out into the neighbor to make friends, we find friends for them by arranging play dates at which one or more parents are always present. We seek to protect our children by insulating them from every potential danger.
This is by no means an indictment of parents. It is important to take sensible precautions to keep children safe. I only paint this contrast to draw attention to Jesusâ€™ prayer. When we hear Jesus asking God to protect us as his modern day disciples, we need to realize that Jesus is presuming that we are actually venturing out into a potentially dangerous world and not living in a carefully constructed cocoon.
If Jesusâ€™ prayer assumes that the disciples will continue to risk engagement with a world that may or may not accept its message, what sort of protection does Jesus have in mind? Jesus is asking God to preserve the visible unity of his disciples before the watching world. In verse fifteen, Jesus requests protection from the â€œevil oneâ€ while they are in the world. This testifies to the reality that, although the goal of Jesusâ€™ mission is to demonstrate Godâ€™s love for the world and offer true life to those who turn from its darkness to the light that Jesus brings (John 3:16-21), the world remains â€œenemy territory.â€ In the conclusion to his First Letter, John writes, â€œWe know that we are Godâ€™s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil oneâ€ (1 John 5:19). Yet despite this reality, it is in the world that followers of Jesus will encounter persons who are desperately longing for the freedom, purpose, and meaning that are found solely in a vital relationship with God. These persons will never be reached unless we become dangerous disciples who are willing to risk our personal security that the world may know.
What does the world see when they look at us today? Do we make Jesus known through our visible acts of love as Godâ€™s unified disciples?
Set Apart and Sent
Becoming a dangerous disciple is not act of the will; it is accomplished solely through divine action. Thus, Jesus prays secondly in our text for the sanctification of his disciples. To be sanctified is to be set apart or dedicated to God. It is to embody the cares and concerns of the One to whom we are set apart; it is to reflect the character of God in our lives. Jesus knows that he will be returning to the Father after his death and resurrection, but his disciples will remain in the world. If his past, present, and future disciples are to fulfill Jesusâ€™ mission to transform the world, then they will have to reflect his character and embody his way of life before a watching world. To make this a possibility, Jesus gave his own life so that those who follow him may be reborn as children of God (John 1:12-13).
Jesus is praying that God will make the possibility of a transformed life a reality in the lives of those who follow him. What is the ground for this request? Jesusâ€™ own willingness to surrender his life so that others may truly live.
Jesusâ€™ model of a self-sacrificial love also implores us forward into the world with a message of hope and acts of love in order to make real the truth of God so that others will join us in this divine mission with which Jesus has entrusted us.
In this season of Easter, may we begin to dream about the future that God sought to create through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. May we open ourselves so that God may answer Jesusâ€™ prayer for dangerous disciples by beginning a new work in each of us.
May we live by faith, be known by love, and serve as a voice of hope in the world. Amen.
How would your life be different if Jesus’ prayer were to become a reality today?
How would our individual congregations be different?