Picture This (sermon 5/17/15)

here is the world - buechner

[Jesus prayed,] “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 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. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

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. 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. 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. 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. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”  – John 17:6-19

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A couple of weeks ago, Lydia _______ mentioned to me that she’d be interested in creating some custom artwork for our bulletin covers, and we’ve been trying to find the right time to make that happen. We thought that maybe this would be the first week we’d try it, but while I was out in Denver, I got an email from her telling me that she was having some difficulty coming up with something for this week’s gospel Lectionary text. There just didn’t seem to be much of anything in it to offer much inspiration for artwork. It was all just verbalization; it didn’t really evoke much definite imagery that you could sink your teeth into. It was just a really tough passage to get any creative traction with or to come up with some kind of a picture to convey its meaning.

Lydia was right. This is a difficult text to get some creative traction with, for either a graphic artist or for a preacher. From the graphic side, that fact was easy to see when, after I assured Lydia that we could start another week, I did some quick googling for stock artwork related to this passage and there were far fewer for it than there typically are for Lectionary passages in most other weeks. And from the preaching side, it’s difficult because it’s just a relatively small snippet of a much longer passage, and the whole thing, including this snip, is full of a lot of circular-sounding language that’s hard to follow: you to me and me to them and them to you; yours and mine and mine and yours; and now it’s theirs and on and on. It can be hard to get underneath all the words and really get at their meaning.

This is part of what’s known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse,” the thoughts and the prayer that he offers on the night of his arrest. We heard some of this same discourse last week. His prayer here is long – very long. It prompted one person to joke that you never want to ask Jesus to say grace before Thanksgiving dinner if you ever expect to eat. As you read through this whole discourse, what you find here is that this doesn’t seem very likely to be the actual language, the wording, vocabulary, or thought patterns of a first-century Jewish builder, even a relatively well-educated one. Almost every phrase in the whole discourse addresses really complex theological themes. It isn’t being disrespectful to either Jesus or the authority of the scriptures to recognize that it’s most likely that these words attributed to Jesus are based on his teachings, but they’re put together here by the writer of this gospel in order to emphasize a number of theological issues that he wanted to stress to his original readers; and by extension, to us.

Because this prayer has such a difficult language, and because it’s designed to address so many things, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it, so I want to think about just two things that it addresses. The first is that as Jesus is praying to God on this night, what does he pray for? Not that things would be easy for his followers; he knows that they won’t. This world is full of motivations and influences and traditions and interests that are completely at odds with God’s ways. Fear and self-centeredness, and all of the sins that are just variations of those things, create people, and a world, that are going to be dead-set against the ways of the kingdom of God – against the all-encompassing, sacrificial love for one another that we see modeled in Jesus and that Jesus tells us to model, too.

So instead of praying that this wouldn’t be the case, that everything would be easy, Jesus simply prays that God would be with them and would support them and lift them up in the midst of all they were going to have to endure. And he prays that they would always maintain unity with one another, having fellowship with one another through the common bond of their one faith. In fact, maybe that’s one of the most significant ways that God will provide the support that Jesus asked God to provide to the disciples. And he didn’t just pray for this kind of unity for it for them; he prayed it for us, too.

Just focus on that thought for a moment: Jesus prayed, and is continuing to this day to pray, for us. He is praying for your needs, for our needs, including our need to be held together in this bond of unity in our common faith and our fellowship together as the church, whether you think about the entire church universal or just our church – our congregation – held together in the bond of love, in all of our similarities and differences; all of us committing to uplift and support one another in that unity. Jesus is praying for these things, for each of us, right now. That’s really an amazing thought.

In light of that thought, I want to ask you: what would you want Jesus to pray for for you this week? When you come up with an answer to that, I want you to take the piece of note card that the ushers handed you when you came in, and I’d ask you to write down what it would be. It doesn’t have to be a long, complicated thing, you could just write down a single word or two, just something that you’d be able to look at and remember the whole thing that you’d want Jesus to pray for on your behalf. …

Now, if you’ve done that, I’m going to ask you to do something else. If you aren’t comfortable doing this, that’s OK, don’t worry, you don’t have to do what I’m going to ask. But as a sign of the unity, the idea that we’re all here to be part of the support system that Jesus asked God to provide us with, I’d ask you to share with a person sitting next to you, or near you, whatever your single word is. The person you give it to might not even be able to understand the whole aspect of the prayer that your word or two represents, but that’s OK, too. And later in the service, when we offer the prayers of the people, I’d ask that during the moment of silence, if someone shared their word with you, that you’d pray for whatever that word was, for the person who offered it to you. I know that might be a little discomforting, and as I said, there’s no penalty if you don’t; many of our prayers stay on our hearts – but I’d invite you to try it. Consider stepping into that little area of discomfort and share your single-word prayer request with someone. Just take a moment to do that. …

Now I’ll ask you one final thing. Take your card, with your one- or two-words written on it, and carry them with you throughout the week. Put it in your wallet, your purse, stick it in your pocket. And every so often, take it out this week and think about the good news, the amazing news, that Christ is praying on your behalf for that very thing for you.

So to close, just remember this; that embedded in this passage, in all the complicated and sometimes confusing language in this prayer of Jesus, is the simple but incredible underlying point that all those years ago, at this most crucial moment in his earthly ministry, surrounded by his disciples, men, women, and probably a few fidgeting children, and the remnants of their meal, the leftover lamb and the breadcrumbs and half-emptied cups of wine, and the lengthening shadows have now turned to dusk and the aroma of the burning lamp oil is starting to get thick and sweet in the air, and the noises from the street below are starting to taper off but can still be heard through the windows, and the cool of the evening is starting to set in, and Jesus’ heart is breaking knowing that he’ll never do this again and he’s saying goodbye to his friends and he’s in agony over what he knew what was about to happen, and in his agony he starts to pray – and in this moment, in all of its sights and sounds and smells and emotions, he was praying for you, and for me. Now that’s a picture to imagine.

Thanks be to God.

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