[Jesus prayed:] 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.John 17:17-18
Every year on this seventh Sunday of Easter, which is the last Sunday of Easter before Pentecost, our gospel reading is taken from this very famous prayer in John 17. It is a beautiful, inspiring prayer offered by Jesus for his disciples, and for all “those who will believe in [him] through their word” (John 17:20). Which, of course, is us.
Amazing, isn’t it? That Jesus prays for us? Just stop and think about that for a moment. It is such a gift and blessing to be prayed for. I know that I personally appreciate everyone who prays for me, and I consider it a privilege and calling to remember you in my prayers, too. Prayer is a remarkable gift, because it opens us up to God’s promises, and invites God to help us, and those for whom we are praying. Every prayer is heard by God; which means that every time we pray, or are prayed for, something quite wonderful happens. I believe that.
But today, we are reminded that Jesus actually prays for us. What better gift is there? And not only that, but we get to actually listen in on this prayer. John heard this prayer and faithful recorded it, so we actually know what Jesus was praying for.
It is a long and beautiful prayer, but it can be a little confusing. So I want to break down into a few key pieces this morning, and help us to better understand exactly what Jesus is praying for, when he prays for us.
Why Jesus Prays
And to start, let’s remember why Jesus is praying at this particular point in his ministry. This prayer occurs right before Jesus is arrested. Jesus knows what is to come. We hear him say in this prayer: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” So, Jesus knows that he is going to the Father, but his followers are not. He will no longer be with them in the same way, which leads to this prayer. “While I was with them,” he prays, “I protected them in your name that you have given me … But now I am coming to you.”
This makes me think of dropping off my children at college for the first time. Lots of prayers, of course. (And maybe a few tears, too.) Entrusting them to God, knowing that we will no longer be with them. Praying that God will protect them. We’ve taught them, prepared them, as best we could. But now, it is time for them to be on their own.
To me, this is what Jesus is doing here, as he gets ready to go to the cross and ultimately to return to heaven. It is time for his disciples to do this without Jesus right there with them. At least physically.
What He Prays for: Protect Them
While Jesus was with his disciples, he could protect them. But now, things are changing. And so he prays: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one.” And the reason he is praying for their protection is important: it is “so that they may be one.”
A little later in this same prayer, he prays specifically that we would be protected from the evil one. Protected, so that they may be one.
The truth is that the evil one wants nothing more than for us not to be one. Because he knows that a house that is divided cannot stand. I have often said that the devil doesn’t care what churches argue about, just as long as we are arguing. In the first congregation that I served as a pastor, our council argued for quite some time about whether or not we should purchase a new vacuum cleaner. The devil, I am sure, was delighted. Because if we are arguing about something – anything! – then we are not able to give ourselves fully to the task of being the church in the world. And we are not one, which Jesus wants for us. So he prays, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one.”
What He Prays for: Sanctify Them in the Truth
But then Jesus goes on in this prayer to ask for something else for us, that is also very important. “Sanctify them in the truth,” he prays. There are two key words in this part of the prayer: sanctify, and truth.
First, sanctify. Which literally means to be set apart. Jesus is praying that we would be set apart. We do not belong to the world, he says in this prayer, just as he does not belong to this world. We do not belong to the world, but we are sent into the world, he also says. So, we are set apart from the world in order to be sent into the world.
Make sense? It’s a little confusing, but the picture I have is a bunch of people tossed into the ocean from a capsized vessel. They are all struggling to stay afloat. A few of them make their way onto lifeboats, and now they can help those who are still treading water. We, as followers of Jesus, are on the lifeboats. We have been set apart in that way. We no longer “belong” to the ocean. We are still in the ocean, but not of the ocean. And so, we are in a unique position to help those still in the ocean, struggling to stay afloat.
The world can be a tough place to try and stay afloat. Even without a pandemic, there are many trials and tribulations in this world. As it has been famously said, we ought to be kinder than necessary, for everyone is fighting some sort of battle. And in my experience, that is exactly right.
The world is full of battles. But we are not of this world anymore. We follow Jesus. We know that our God loves us and all this world, and that makes all the difference. We have made our way onto the lifeboat, or more accurately, Jesus has lifted us onto his lifeboat. Now, we are in a unique position to help others.
“Set them apart in the truth,” Jesus prays. That we would be set apart, lifted onto his lifeboat. But also that we would be set apart “in the truth.” But what is the truth? It is said that we live in a “post-truth world.” If you look it up, what that means is in our world there has been a “disappearance of shared objective standards for truth.” We all have our own truth in today’s world. We no longer share an objective standard truth. The slogan of our time is “live your truth.”
But I don’t believe that Jesus would agree with this. In fact, what he says in this prayer is what I believe he would still say to us today, he would still pray for us today: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” God’s Word is the truth. It is our shared objective standard for truth.
We might quibble about how to interpret parts of God’s Word, but there should be no argument about its basic point: that God created us, and loves us; but without Jesus, we are all drowning. We are treading water in the ocean that is this world, and it is pulling us under. And everything that this world might offer for help is also sinking. There is only one lifeboat, there is only one savior. But he wants nothing more than to save us, all of us.
“Lord, Save me!”
Do you remember Peter’s famous attempt to walk on water? He did it, for a few steps. We can live in this world on our own for a little while. But then he noticed the storm, and the waves, and he began to sink. It happens to us all, eventually. When Peter began to sink, he cried out to Jesus: “Lord, save me.” And “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him” (Matthew 14:31). Jesus wants nothing more than to reach out his hand and save us and all this world. And that is what he has done for us.
And now, now that we have made our way onto his lifeboat, now that we have been saved from this world by Jesus, he sends us back into the world. The words of this prayer immediately after “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” are these: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” We have been sent into the world, in the same way that Jesus was sent into the world. Not to save the world, of course. But to introduce the savior to the world. To remind the world of God’s undying love for all this world. This is the truth that anchors us in the storms of life, and that fills us with hope and faith. It is the truth that makes our joy complete, in the beautiful words of this prayer. It is the truth, our shared, objective truth, that has a name, and his name is Jesus.
Jesus. Our way, our truth, and our life. Who loves us, who died for us, and who prays for us. Then and now. Praying that we would be protected from evil. Praying that we would be one. And praying that we would be so secure in his truth, that we would be able to rescue those around us, who are struggling to find a truth on which to rest, and to build a life of meaning and hope.
Jesus is that truth. And he asks that we share it with the world. Let us do so faithfully, to the glory of God. Amen