Series: The Other Lord’s Prayer
#4: Sent to the World
John 17:14-19 (New Century Version)
Have you ever walked into someplace that was new to you, only to have the overwhelming feeling that you had been in that place before? Or have you been talking to someone and suddenly had the feeling that you’ve had that same conversation before – so much so that you already know the exact words they will say to you before they say them? Psychologists call these kinds of experience, “déjà vu.” They tell us that it’s a trick our minds play on us, and that it’s completely normal – but it can sure give you the willies!
Well, if you’ve been in worship over the past few Sundays, you probably have begun having déjà vu flash-backs. Each week during this Sermon Series, we have been looking at a few verses from the 17thchapter of John’s Gospel, as we continue our study of the longest prayer of Jesus – his prayer at the Last Supper when he prayed for his Disciples, and through their witness, for you and me. As we read each new section of the prayer, you may have said to yourself, “Hey, I think I’ve heard that before.” And that’s because, you have. As that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said, “It’s déjà vu, all over again!”
Like a composer of a great symphony or opera, Jesus skillfully weaves several beautiful themes all throughout this great prayer – motifs that keep resurfacing over-and-over-again, that bring a unity and harmony to the entire prayer.
Nowhere is this more true than in our scripture this morning. Here Jesus is recapitulating a theme he has already introduced – what it means to be in the world, but not of the world. In fact, just so we don’t miss it, throughout these six verses, Jesus uses the word “world” eight times. Whenever Jesus repeats himself, it is for emphasis – he doesn’t want us to miss his point. In as many ways he can think to say it, Jesus lifts up one of the main themes of his prayer: how we, as his disciples, are to relate to the world around us.
Since, in his prayer, Jesus places so much emphasis on how we should be relating to the world, it is important that we understand what Jesus means when he says, “the world.” When the word “world” is used in this context, The Reformation Bible defines it this way: “The word ‘world’ in the New Testament … designates humanity as a whole, now fallen into sin and moral disorder, radically opposed to God”1 In other words, it refers to the world after the Fall of Adam and Eve, when sin gained a foothold and began spreading like wildfire until all creation has become tainted by sin.
In a sermon preached at First Baptist Church of Powell, Tennessee, the pastor described the “world” that Jesus was referring to like this:
“In this context the world is not a geographical place; it is society that has fallen into sin and leaves God out, and that has a value system that is the direct opposite of God’s values revealed in the Bible… The world doesn’t necessarily deny the existence of God; they either re-make him as they want him to be or see Him as being irrelevant – except for days when terrorists attack, the country faces war, or you discover you have terminal cancer. So much of this prayer that Jesus prays for His disciples has to do with our attitude toward, and our time spent, in the world. For every generation of Christians, this has been a critical issue. What in the world are we to do?”2
He raises a great question: What, in this fallen and broken world, are we to do? How are you and I as Christians supposed to relate to the sinful world around us? How can we interact with a world whose value system is so diametrically opposed to the ways of God?2
There are really only two options for us as Christians or as the Church: we can retreat from the world, or we can engage the world.
We could do what some believers down through the centuries have done – we could retreat – we could run off into the desert or climb up to some remote mountaintop so that we can make certain we don’t allow ourselves to be contaminated by the sin of the world. There we can put the sinful world out of our minds and just wait for Christ to come and take us home to heaven. After all, didn’t we just read that Jesus said we are not of the world? When we look at the mess our world is in, it’s tempting to pray for the rapture and sing “I’ll fly away,” and write the world off as a lost cause. Yes, our first impulse is to escape the world. Lots of people have chosen to retreat from the world.
But, that’s not practical for most of us. We can’t just drop everything and retreat from the world. So, what should we do? Should we be like the Amish or other groups who live in enclaves that shun the world and its ways? Should we, as Christian parents, shield our children from our society’s bad influences? Should we home-school them, not allow them watch television, go to movies, or go on the internet, and lock them in their rooms until they are 18 – or better yet 21? Is that what Jesus is telling us to do? As a disciple of Jesus struggling to remain pure and untainted by sin, it’s hard to know what to do.
And, this issue isn’t just something only individual disciples are concerned about. The church, as a whole, faces the very same dilemma. Is the church simply to turn inward, gathering together for worship, sharing in the sacraments, engaging in Bible study, upholding one another in prayer, and comforting one another in our sorrows? All those things are good and important. No one could fault us if we retreated behind the cloistered walls of Mims United Methodist Church.
After all, the world out there is a dangerous place – it’s risky business standing up for God in the world “out there.” No one knew that better than Jesus – his stand for God would end in a bloody cross. And as the disciples who were in the room with him that evening took their stands for God, they too (all but one) would face a violent end.
Jesus says that the world will hate us because, when we live as his disciples, the light of our lives will shine a spotlight on their sin, and they will lash out at us. We’re not sure we want to risk the wrath of the world. The world around us is so corrupt with sin, isn’t it best that we in the church just insulate ourselves as much as possible so we aren’t tainted by the world and just wait to “go home to heaven?” That’s what lots of congregations choose to do.
That same pastor in Tennessee said this: “The greatest challenge for the church today is to determine how it relates to and responds to the world. Jesus is praying for individual disciples, and also churches, that we will know what in the world we are to do.”2
What in the world ARE we to do? In our verses this morning, Jesus gives us the answer. He tells us that, “Yes, because we belong to God, we are to remain unstained by the world – but isolating ourselves isn’t the answer. While we are to keep our lives pure, we are also given a mission – we are sent into the world to win the world for God.” Jesus is calling us to dive head-first into this messy world of sin.
How are we supposed to swim in a world awash in sin, and still remain pure ourselves? In these few verses, we find the answer.
The first thing Jesus reminds us is that we have been sanctified.
In the translation we read this morning, verses 17 and 19 are expressed like this: “Make them ready for your service through your truth…I am making myself ready to serve so that they can be ready for their service.”
I like that translation because it says what Jesus meant in plain English that anyone can understand. But other translations may be more helpful in uncovering the full meaning of what Jesus is saying here. In them, Jesus asks his Father to “consecrate” his disciples, or to “dedicate them,” or to “make them holy.” In other words, Jesus is asking that God “sanctify” them.
So, the first thing to remember is that you and I have been sanctified or made holy. But what does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean what most people think of when they hear those words.
To be sanctified or holy doesn’t mean you are more “religious,” or that you are better than anyone else. Being sanctified does not entitle you to have a “holier than thou” attitude or to arrogantly pass judgment on other people’s sins.
Being sanctified simply means to be “set apart for holy purposes.” In the Old Testament, as the tabernacle (the place of worship) was being established, all the special furnishings were sanctified, along with the priests who would serve God. They were “set apart.” The dishes and utensils used in the tabernacle were consecrated for holy uses – people were not to take them home and use them to cook their dinner! They were “set apart” for holy purposes. They had been “sanctified.”
In his prayer, Jesus prays that he (Jesus) might be sanctified – That seems to an odd thing for Jesus to ask. He wasn’t asking God to purify him or make him more holy – he was already pure and holy. So, what was he asking of his Father? As he prepares to face the cross, he asks that he might be “set apart” and consecrated to fulfill God’s purpose for his life – and he is praying that God might also “set apart” his disciples, including you and me, that our lives might be devoted to fulfilling God’s purposes, as well – that you and I might be made holy.
As the New Revised Standard Version translates these verses, “Sanctify them in the truth… For their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
The challenging question is this: Are you and I willing to allow God to “set us apart” for God’s purposes – to sanctify us that God’s will for our lives might be done? If we want to be his disciples, we must join Jesus in asking God to use our lives as he sees fit. We must invite God to sanctify us – to set us apart.
So, as sanctified people who God has set apart, doesn’t that imply that we should also set ourselves apart from the world? We are called to march to a different drummer than those in the world – we are to live by a different world-view – we are to live holy lives that give glory to God.
That seems like a very good reason to pull away from our world that is so mired in sin. And if that were all Jesus said in this prayer, then the Amish are right – we shouldn’t be concerned about the world, but should insulate ourselves as best we can from the world, lest we be dragged down by the world. You can see how some Christians can come to that conclusion.
But that’s not all Jesus says, is it? He prays to his Father, not that God might take us out of the world, but that we might be kept safe from the evil one as we live in the world. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that the purpose of our being set apart or sanctified, is not so that we can avoid the world, but so that we are better prepared to be sent into the world to win the world for him. We have been set apart for a mission. We have been sanctified for service.
That is the other aspect of what it means to be made holy. Sanctification is also God’s way of equipping us so we can succeed in our mission.
A pastor friend of mine was sharing with me one day about how proud he was of his son, who volunteered for the Marines. At that time, his son was training for the elite Special Forces unit. These are the brave highly trained soldiers who are sent on the most high-risk missions. From what my friend told me, if his son made it through all the rigorous training, he and his comrades would be dropped behind enemy lines with a dangerous mission to accomplish. Our military wouldn’t think of sending a Marine who hadn’t been properly trained on such a hazardous mission. They would do everything they could to equip him succeed.
Well, in these verses, Jesus is reminding us that, as his disciples, the world is not our home. We are aliens in the world. Because of our faith in Jesus, we are already citizens of heaven – and while we are on earth, we are on a mission for Christ. As members of God’s Special Forces unit, God has dropped us behind enemy lines with a vital and dangerous mission to accomplish – to win the world for Christ. We can’t face the world, we can’t stand up for Christ in our own strength and power, but only with the strength God gives us. He knows we will need all the protection and training we can get in order to succeed. In this prayer, Jesus tells us how he will equip us, so we can engage in spiritual warfare in the world, without ourselves becoming corrupted by the world. He names two things available to us to help us accomplish our mission:
First, Jesus tells us to hold fast to the Word of God. “Make them ready for your service through your truth; your teaching is truth.” Jesus assures us that one way we can be equipped to succeed in our mission to win over the sinful world is by claiming the truth of God’s Word.
Without immersing ourselves in Scripture, we won’t have the foundation we need to remain true to our own faith while we confront the evils of the world around us. If we don’t feed on God’s word, we will faint in the battle because we have allowed ourselves to become flabby and spiritually malnourished. And we will be vulnerable to allowing the sin of the world to take root in our lives.
If we are to engage a sinful world without allowing our own lives to be tainted by sin – if we are to be successful in winning the world for Jesus, then we need to immerse ourselves in the Word of God so that we know we are on the right track.
So, first of all, Jesus reminds us that God’s Word is a resource available to us. The other thing we can count on is the protection of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus knows that when the people of God stand up for what is right and proclaim the truth of God, Satan will fight back with a vengeance. If we attempt to engage the enemy in our own strength, we are either going to go down in defeat, or are going to allow ourselves to be enticed by the world and let sin gain a foothold in our lives. But Jesus promises that God’s Spirit will protect us, just like the armor that protected the knights of old. With the Holy Spirit as our shield, we can fight the good fight of faith. With God by our side, we can boldly speak the truth to a world filled with lies. We don’t need to be afraid of the evil one when we have God watching over us.
Jesus doesn’t send us to do spiritual battle in our sinful world without the resources we need to succeed. He promises us his presence and protection through his Holy Spirit, and he gives us our training manual through his Word.
So, there you have it, the answer to the riddle the Pastor in Tennessee posed: What in the world are we to do? Are we to retreat from the world, or are we to engage the world?
I said those were the only two options. But it’s actually a trick question. It’s really both/and. We retreat so we can engage.
In his prayer, Jesus tells us what we must do: We are “set apart” from the world, to serve the world, so that the world might come to faith in Jesus. That is his prayer. And that is our mission.
Friends, there is no higher calling than that.
1The Reformation Study Bible, Page 1732
2The pastor of First Baptist Church of Powell, Tennessee. “What in the World are We to Do? Preached 10/18/09.