June 5, 2011

Holy Father, Protect Them

Passage: 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.

The headline of a New York Times article from last Tuesday read: Strauss-Kahn's Departure Is Europe's Loss.  Dominique Strauss-Khan was the managing director of the International Monetary Fund who resigned his post following accusations of sexual assault on a hotel maid in New York.  The article bemoaned the loss of this man’s leadership that “could hardly have come at a worse time for the European Union, as it struggles with a deepening debt crisis and a spreading wave of angry nationalism.”

Other press coverage trumpeted Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that Strauss-Khan was perhaps set up; the victim of a conspiracy to sideline him.  Some articles talked about the differences between French and American judicial systems; a few focussed on the legal team assembled and the defence strategy.  Questions about fidelity or character seem far removed from anyone’s attention.

As I read stories like these I experience a disconnect; I find that I have very little in common with the thinking that shapes the news media take on events.  It seems increasingly so.  The news coverage of this story is for me a living illustration of what scripture means by "the world"; how the world thinks, what it espouses, what it pursues, how it reacts -- a living illustration too of how everything about the world contradicts the truth of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

“But they are in the world” prayed Jesus.  He was praying to the Father for his disciples—he also had in mind all those who would believe through the Apostles’ witness, even you and me.  As Jesus contemplated his disciples remaining in the world he prayed, “Holy Father, protect them...”  It would appear that Jesus long anticipated this disconnect between the mind of Christ that the church is to embrace and the thinking of the world.  I invite you to reflect with me about the danger Jesus senses for his people; his prayer for our protection.

1. “They are in the world”; what is this “world” in which Jesus senses we need protection?  In John’s gospel he uses this word in principally two ways.  In one or two places only the word "world" means "the entire creation". For instance, when John tells us in the introduction to his written gospel that the entire “world” was made by the Word of God he means that God "spoke" the entire creation into being. Everywhere else "world" has a narrower focus and a negative meaning as well. The world is the sum total of men and women who do not know God; men and women who, in the words of John, are not "born of God"; men and women who are unknowing servants of the one whom John calls "the prince of this world".

On Sunday, May 15, 2011 thousands of Syrian civilians breached the Israel-Syria border near the Israeli village of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights; similar coordinated protests occurred at Lebanon and Gaza borders with Israel.  According to news reports 10 rioters were killed by the Israeli army as they resisted these border incursions.  Almost as if on cue, on the Monday following, Michael Williams, the U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, said Israel had used "disproportionate, deadly force" during the demonstration by Palestinians.  In another story, according to Amnesty International, over 700 Syrian people who protested against their government have been killed by Syrian security forces in the past two months.  It is instructive that no U.N. pronouncement has been issued condemning Syrian use of  “disproportionate, deadly force.”

To condemn the killing of 10 while overlooking the killing of over 700 is to advertise one's inability to apprehend the actuality of the world.  What grasp of radical evil—its subtlety, its power, its intransigence—what grasp of this can we expect our world to have when such inability to apprehend comes from what is considered as venerable an institution as the United Nations?  Such falsehood is all too common. T.S. Eliot said, "Humankind cannot stand too much reality."

John cannot be doubted when he writes, "We know that...the whole world is in the power of the evil one."  Jesus would go on to pray for the church, “protect them from the evil one”.

You see, John insists that the earth seethes with spiritual conflict. In this conflict the evil one is "prince". Needless to say, John knows that while the evil one is prince Jesus Christ is King.  Some of our social customs confirm John's insight concerning the world and its lying in the hands of the nefarious prince. Think about the courtroom procedure of having witnesses swear on a bible to tell the truth. Plainly it is assumed that apart from a special oath to tell the truth people regularly do not tell the truth and apart from the special oath are not expected to tell the truth.

2.  When you think of Jesus praying for your protection does protection from the falsehood of the world come to mind?   This prayer offered by Jesus comes at the conclusion of that last meal with his disciples.  There in the upper room, where he had washed the disciples’ feet, he offered a series of discourses over the course of an evening meal; discourses aimed at preparing the disciples for his departure.   Now Jesus prays for the essence of what these discourses were aimed at securing in the disciples.

In this prayer he prayed for himself, his disciples, and those who would believe in Jesus through the Apostles’ word—namely the church.  The Apostolic witness is critical.  Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me.”

What is this “protection in your name” that Jesus asks of the Father?  In his prayer he said, “I have made your name known to those you gave me from the world (disciples) ... 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.”  Making the name known to the disciples and giving them the words God gave to Jesus to give the disciples are in some measure coterminous (describe the same reality).  “Knowing the name” or “receiving the words Jesus gave” also speak of the reality Jesus defined as “eternal life”—“that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ who you have sent.”  Recall that knowing in biblical thought is to have intimate acquaintance with, not mere knowledge about something.

“God’s name” means: God present among humanity.  It is said of the Temple in Jerusalem that God “made his name dwell” there.  Israel would never have dared to say simply: God lives there.  Israel knew that God is infinitely great and beyond all human attempts to contain God; that God surpasses and embraces the whole world.  And yet God was truly present: he himself.  This is what is meant by saying: “He made his name dwell there.”  God is truly present, yet always remains infinitely greater.

This is the understanding of God’s name that lies behind Jesus’ words.  When Jesus makes the name known to the disciples he is speaking of a new mode of God’s presence among humanity, a new way in which God makes his home with people.  In Jesus, God gives himself entirely into the world of humankind; whoever sees Jesus sees the Father.

At the end of this prayer Jesus said, “I have made your name known to them, and I will make it known.”  The self-gift of God in Christ is not a thing of the past: “I will make it known”.  In Christ, God continually approaches people so that they can in turn approach him.  Through our encounter with Christ, God approaches us, draws us to himself, in order, as it were, to lead us out beyond ourselves into the infinite breadth of his greatness and love.

To “protect them in your name” is a prayer to protect believers in their relatedness to Christ.  The falsehoods that lead us away from the truth found in relationship to Christ are to be rejected; the Holy Father’s protection is ever to preserve our knowing him.

3. Evangelist and pastor J. Wilbur Chapman (1859-1918) observed: "It's not the ship in the water but the water in the ship that sinks it. So it's not the Christian in the world but the world in the Christian that constitutes the danger."

It is obvious that the "world", in John's sense of the term, collides head-on with Jesus Christ and therefore with Christ's people. Think for a moment about our world’s preoccupation with success, status, and privilege.  These are blandishments which the world offers; allurements that coax people to pursue them which in turn lend enormous force and power to the blandishment.  Across our country thousands of graduates have listened to graduation speeches over the last month.  I have heard enough graduation speeches to know that success, status, and privilege are appealed to for motivation as the graduates heads off into the world.

Success? Anyone who reads the gospel stories knows that Jesus is pure failure. Born into a despised people, raised in the boondocks, misunderstood by his family, betrayed and deserted by friends, executed in the company of criminals at the city garbage dump. To be his follower is to dog the footsteps of someone whose failure is compounded by suffering.

Status? When two of his disciples ask him for places of honour in his kingdom Jesus tells them (and their mother) that they are asking him for something he does not traffic in. Privilege or pre-eminence?  Jesus summons his people to servanthood.

At the end of the day all success, status, and privilege are empty; I suppose that such pursuit might mean affording a better casket or lengthier eulogy for publication.  When John insists that we not love the world or the things of the world he means that we are not to be enticed into the world's agenda; we are not to be seduced by the world's blandishments.

The New Testament authors warn everywhere of false prophets or teachers; the influencers who popularize the blandishments of the world aren’t the only prophets confirming the world in its falsity.  Note the insistence of the Apostles on the God who is truly God and Jesus Christ whom he sent.  If Jesus Christ is king, then the false prophet is anyone at all who suggests, explicitly or implicitly, that the ultimate ruler of the earth is something else.

In this prayer Jesus reveals his agenda for making God’s name known in the world; he gave his word to the disciples and through their word all that came after and believed.  The testimony of the Apostles’ now written is the means through which the living word, Jesus Christ, makes himself known; to  make the name of God known.  Sadly, religious teachers from within the church mislead people.

One of the things that troubles me is when theologians will use common theological terminology and redefine them such that its trajectory leads in a direction completely counter to the gospel.  I think of those who define themselves under the title “progressive Christianity”.  When you hear that it sounds appealing because you certainly don’t want to think of yourself as regressive Christian.  What you find when you read their theological commitments is neither progressive nor Christian.  It looks to me like second century Gnosticism all over again and the Christianity espoused isn’t anything the Apostles would recognize.

In any generation theology must always adapt itself to the self-understanding of the world so we can communicate the gospel; however, it must not adopt the world’s self-understanding which renders the gospel no longer the gospel.  It is admittedly a challenge to find that balance of adapting while not adopting.

4. Yet we are left in the world.  Since the world is blind to God and hostile to the Son of God, what does God do about the world?  He does precisely what no one would expect: he loves it until he could not love it any more. Blind, defiant, hateful as the world is, God loves it to the point of giving for it everything that he has to give: his Son. Surely the world's disdainful dismissal of God's love is like rubbing salt in the wound of his sacrifice. Nevertheless love is poured out upon the world, and continues to be poured out without letup, until the world is saturated in God's love; so soaked in it that the world's icy indifference renders the world inexcusable even as it renders the kindness of God incomprehensible.

As Christians, as those who walk in company with Jesus, while we are not to love the things of this world we are to love the world; in it but not of it.  John insists that as surely as hatred is characteristic of the world, love is characteristic of the Christian.

5. Do you think the Father is answering Jesus’ prayer for us; Holy Father, protect them...?  Think of all the things stacked against anyone believing in Jesus.  Think of the many voices daily calling to us confirming the world in its falsity, the societal bigotry against Christian faith, the sometimes off-putting behaviour of believers, the bitter irrationality of hurts great and small, the distractions of wealth that promise happiness—yet here we are.  That anyone believes is a miracle—indeed Jesus is both the author and object of our faith.

We read today of two instances of Jesus talking with his disciples of his departure.  The first on the night of betrayal and desertion; the disciples were in full panic mode and would not be consoled.  The second on the day of the ascension when Jesus withdraws from their sight; they are at peace and in a state of anticipation as they commit themselves to prayer.

The disciples come to know that the risen Jesus withdrawn from their sight is not the same thing as Jesus withdrawing from them; they still know him present; he has not abandoned them. In my faith experience I cannot remember a time when I did not believe.  For some it was a dramatic turnaround, for others it was a process of growing into the faith and coming to realize I do believe.  Indeed the Father is answering Jesus’ prayer.

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.