Göttinger Predigten im Internet
ed. by U. Nembach, J. Neukirch, C. Dinkel, I. Karle

EASTER 7, MAY 28, 2006
A Sermon Based on John 17: 11b-19 (RCL) by David Zersen
(->current sermons )

Holy Father, keep them in your own care—all those you have given me—so that they will be united just as we are, with none missing. During my time here, I have kept safe here within your family all of those you gave me. I guarded them so that not one perished, except the son of hell, as the Scriptures foretold. And now I am coming to you. I have told them many things while I was with them so that they would be filled by my joy. I have given them your commands. And the world hates them, because they don’t fit in with it, just as I don’t. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from Satan’s power. They are not part of this world anymore than I am. Make them pure and holy through teaching them your words of truth. As you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world, and I consecrate myself to meet their need for growth in truth and holiness. (TLB)


In a class I occasionally teach at the university, students, both traditional and older, are invited to prepare a set of rules that they would like to see employed either in their family setting, or at work or in some kind of organizational setting in which they are involved. It’s interesting, often funny, to read the long list of rules they develop. They include everything from the boyfriend being required to clean up the coffee table after he finishes his beer and peanuts, to husbands picking up socks and underwear, to children straightening up their rooms after playmates have visited and turned things into a chaotic nightmare. I typically ask whether anybody was allowed to provide input into these House Rules, or whether the King or Queen is imposing them on the subjects. “You better believe it,” one mom said, “this was my chance to say it and this is how I want it to be!” Sometimes chaos calls for extreme measures, and while it may be questionable as to whether dictatorships will survive the inevitable revolution (smile), all of us have experimented with varying approaches to discipline with varying degrees of success.

It’s hard for us to imagine the kind of chaos which once existed in some areas in the early decades of Christianity, but current scholarship is attempting to show that scant records outside of mainstream Christianity (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hamadi manuscripts) and the Gospels themselves point to diversity and differences among emerging Christian schools or groups. The Gospel according to John, itself a puzzling contrast to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), seems either to be based on unique sources or to be providing a corrective to certain perspectives, written long after Jesus death, but claiming to be faithful to his intention as well as relevant to the needs of the time.

In Chapter 17, the Evangelist or some school of thought following in the wake of the Evangelist, portrays Jesus offering a long, rambling, rather mystical prayer, somewhat in the fashion of a Last Will and Testament. In these words, probably in the midst of controversy which has arisen in the emerging Christian community, a good 50-60 years after Jesus’ death, concerns are being raised about chaos in the church. “If Jesus himself would have said it,” desperate voices are reflecting, “he would have addressed it in this very way.”

Fortunately for the readers, and certainly interesting to us today, on this last Sunday in the Easter season, the one whom we also call Lord, does not condescend to his new family members as some dictatorial King commanding their obedience. Instead, in the portion of the prayer designated as today’s text, he pleads lovingly and longingly for followers who will create the new kind of servant community for which his life was given into death. And, interestingly, the four requests he makes in this portion of what has come to be called the High Priestly Prayer, can easily by summarized in some well-known words of the Nicene Creed. Jesus prays that we might all be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” as we live out our lives together, far removed from his time, but very much a part of his spirited community.

So that they will be united just as we are

The first petition is for unity. As his followers struggled to understand not only what he was calling them to be, but also who he was, there were many points of view. Some may have thought he only seemed to be divine, and others that he only seemed to be human. Others had notions that he represented a good side of God, and Satan the evil side. These groups wrote down their various theologies and circulated them. Debates arose as to who was right and who was wrong. People wondered what Jesus would have said about this. As they remembered the stories of what he was like, they knew that he would have prayed for them to focus on unity rather than controversy—that just as he was one with his Father in Heaven, he would have sought that they seek unity among themselves.

You see, when people are focused on who is central and what is important, they are prevented from falling off at the periphery, from dropping out of the community—as happened to Judas, referred to in this Living Bible paraphrase as the “son of hell.” This is so well known to us today. The story of Denominations is a fascinating one, but it is also a depressing one. According to Frank Meade’s Handbook of Denominations, there are many hundreds of Christian groups. One could use the analogy that they are all like different powers in eyeglasses, simply looking at Jesus in a rich variety of different ways. Typically, however, this diversity becomes a controversy as each group explains the errors in the other, and, in many cases, denying the Christian character of the other. We know all too well the truth of such statements, through our own personal experience. For that reason, it’s important for us to hear, almost two-thousand years later, this plaintive plea, “Holy Father, keep them in your care, so that they will be united just as we are.” And it’s just as important that when we confess the Nicene Creed, we reflect on the meaning of one of those words, as we say, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

Make them pure and holy through teaching them your words of truth

Next, the community remembers Jesus calling them to be a holy community, one set apart, and specifically, set apart by their being rooted in the word of God. After all, the community remembers, Jesus was not a part of this world—it rejected him. And they, also, as they seek to live the new life, centered in the word of God, will find themselves rejected. Already, Jesus’ followers found this to be true. They were being thrown out of the synagogues. The Romans regarded them as atheists, because they wouldn’t express their loyalty to the Roman divinities. Rejected by Jews and Romans, they became for Christ’s sake, what Paul himself had called refuse, rejects.

To what degree is this true in our society today? Surely, it is true in parts of the world. In Sudan, it can be dangerous to be a Christian. In some parts of India, it can be dangerous to be a Christian. However, in the United States, we have made peace with the powers that be. Sometimes, misinterpreting the Constitution, we claim that this is, and has always been, a Christian nation. And religious minorities must submit to Christian perspectives.

We forget that Jesus never called us to power or authority or empirical rule. He called us to holiness, to purity, resulting only from faithfulness to God’s word. If we are in fact a “holy” people, we are set apart from the common culture. Our lifestyle should challenge, even at times reject, what many consider popular, acceptable, or true. As Christians, we should abhor the culture that implies that affluence, style and class are valued more than servant-hood and stewardship. In our time and place, as well as in the earliest church, followers of Jesus are called to center their lives in God’s words of love and justice and peace. Only through such focus are we truly set apart. Only with such a perspective do we understand the meaning of the second word in the Nicene Creed when we confess, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

I have told them many things… I have given them your commands .

Next, the Johannine community remembers the teachings Jesus passed on to his followers, the very truths that allow them to claim identity. Over the course of many years, I have been privileged to travel to scores of countries and to meet people of many religious persuasions. I have some friends who are Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist. I have numerous friends who claim to have no religious beliefs at all. However, as I have stayed at Christian hostels and guesthouses around the world, I have met people whose ultimate friendship was cemented by virtue of our common faith. We knew that our allegiance to Jesus and his teachings were our common identity. I remember worshipping one Sunday morning in a Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. The language of worship was Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language still used by the church, so I understood not a word. It was a strange environment. The women sat on the right side with the children under puberty. The men sat on the left side with their older sons. During the course of the service, people kept getting up and going into private chapels and reverencing icons. At only one point did I understand what was happening, when suddenly, they all arose and began to “pass the peace.” It was very moving to me, because, suddenly, I knew that I belonged, as they greeted me in love. Suddenly I knew that we had a common identity.

This universality which belongs to Christians is often lost to us. The great ecumenical movements within Christendom are something of the 1960s. The names of legendary leaders who tried to help Christians celebrate together are typically names of the past. Today’s great names, plastered on covers of Time magazine, are TV preachers, people known for the crowds they draw in their private auditoriums, preachers who love to rally their admittedly large audiences by telling what’s wrong with all the churches “out there.”

Recently I read a letter to an editor explaining that people should respect the American flag placed in the chancel of Christian churches because it reminded those gathered there that veterans had served their country faithfully and had often died to preserve freedom. While such symbols often arose from wartime passions (and the United States is at war again), Christians have never met in worship to rally around the flag. We meet to celebrate the heritage of faith we have in a common Lord and Savior who died to set us free from sin and assure us of eternal salvation through our trust in his merits.

There may be many that think that on July 4 th or Memorial Day, worship services in our respective countries should focus on national interests. But you and I, in the quiet of our confession, can say together with millions of people all around the world, whom we have never met, that we share a common identity called Christian. We can say that we believe together in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” and that Jesus himself gave us the teachings by which we know that we are family. And that this family, although shocking to some, supersedes all our national and political allegiances.

As you sent me… I send them

Finally, the earliest church also struggled against the problems with “navel gazing” and “inner-directedness.” Very popular in religious circles today is a return to mysticism, which allows one to focus on internal concerns—and sometimes to get stuck there. There are negative sides to the history of monasticism that uplift inner-directed spirituality as not only personally fulfilling, but of value somehow to the greater good of humankind. In that connection, it’s worth knowing the meaning of a good Greek word. The Greek verb apostelein means to “send out.” Mark and Paul and Barnabas did not have those titles as first names, as in “Apostle Paul.” The word “apostle” designated their status as emissaries or ambassadors for Jesus. They were the sent ones! They didn’t stay at home and pray. They hit the road, Jack! Jesus had told their kind, early on, that there would be times, when those dusty sandals just had to be shaken clean, in the face of those who were inhospitable to them.

We have become, in many senses, a sedentary Christianity. Couch-potato do-gooders! In some very real and physical sense, this is true. It is easier for affluent Christians to make a donation, buy “stock” for a youth event, pay for a new communion set, etc. It would be good for our buns, and our whole body, if we found more active forms of stewardship—working on the church grounds, serving as a counselor at a retreat, canvassing the neighborhood, or delivering meals on wheels. However, our text is thinking of far more than that. The ingrown Johannine community is remembering how easy it is to stay at home. They are all too aware of the legendary stories told already in their lifetimes of men and women, sent out to share the Good News in unknown lands and climes. They remembered that Jesus himself had sent out his followers, and now he was sending them too.

In our own time, some of us have become involved in bigger challenges than we ever dreamed possible for us. Recently, I heard of a woman going to work as a volunteer at a Christian mission in Palestine; another at an outpost in Kazakhstan. Some help conduct a VBS in the inner city. Others reach out by printing Braille Scriptures for the Blind. Many are the ways in which we can be “sent ones,” apostles for the Lord, giving credence to fuller meaning for our Christian community. Some may consider it crazy when people pack up and head for Cambodia, as a husband and wife team I know recently did, but perhaps they just got tired of saying “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” and wanted the personal assurance that that last word, “apostolic,” really applied to them.

Perhaps in each of our lives, there are ways in which words like “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” could take on more meaning. Perhaps each of us can come to sense that the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus in John 17 has its application not only for people in the primitive Christian church, but for us as well. Perhaps these four little words, often rattled off perfunctorily, can start a fire where no one expects one.

Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus
Concordia University at Austin
Austin, Texas