Listening in

Acts 1:15-17, 21-end, John 17:6-19

When you were a child, did you ever go and sit at the top of the stairs when you were meant to be in bed -  and listen in on your parents talking? Did you ever do that while they were talking about you? Maybe you had that experience of listening in on them as they talked about you, and got to hear their hopes and fears for you and for your future. 

In chapter 17 of John’s gospel we get the opportunity to listen in on Jesus speaking to his Father.  They talk about their own heart-to-heart relationship, but they talk most about his disciples. What a glorious thought - that through Scripture, we are able to eavesdrop on the Creator of the world, and the Redeemer of the world, Father and Son, sharing an intimate conversation about the people that they love.  

But unlike those times when you sat on the stairs, knowing you really shouldn’t be there, this is a conversation we are absolutely invited to be part of. It’s like the parents noticing their child on the stairs, and inviting them to come and listen in. Jesus speaks to the Father, and as he does so, he beckons us in too - as if to say, come, pull up a chair and join in. Be part of this. 

And what Jesus shares with the Father are his hopes and his worries as he leaves his disciples. 

If you’ve got children, or grandchildren, you will know the experience of sending them out into the world for the first time.

You know the mix of anxiety and pride; pride that they’re ready to take the next step in life, and anxiety that something horrible will happen to them and that you won’t be there for them. Because we all know that the world isn’t always a nice place. And you’ve given your child all the love and care you’ve got, but now they’re on their own in a rough world.

Today we hear Jesus going through something similar. He has spent 3 years teaching, nurturing and challenging his disciples, and he knows he has to leave them very soon. And he knows - better than anyone else - that the world is a rough place.

Jesus knows that there are the challenges that everyone has to face; complicated relationships, financial struggles, illness. Jesus knows all those very human, very real struggles. And he also knows the particular challenge that will come to those who seek to follow Him. 

He knows that the world is full of distractions that try to draw our eyes away from the One who loves us; glittery, shiny, cheap distractions that promise to make life better, but which never do.

He knows that there is always a risk that the community of believers will divide and fall into conflict.

He knows that it’s easy to start thinking that God’s love is a matter of doing more, or behaving better or following the rules; that it is to be earned rather than received. 

He knows that those who choose to follow a different tune to the one played by the world, will have to stand out and be different and that they may be mocked, laughed at - or worse - for doing so. 

And so, as he prepares to let them go, Jesus does what he always does - he talks to his Father; he prays. And he prays for five things:

First, verse 11, he prays to the Father that He will ‘protect them in your name you have given me’. He asks that the shepherding he has provided will not end when he leaves them. That they will be protected with the same protection given them while he has been on earth. 

And secondly, in particular, he prays that this protection will be in place to ensure ‘that they will be one, as we are one’. He knows that one of the very real risks is that the disciples will lose sight of God, and that they will fall into conflict and dispute. He knows that unity is a fruit of God’s love - and that those who dwell in that love will always make unity a top priority. 

And for us, here in Goudhurst and Kilndown, that has always struck me as one of the great gifts we have received. Amongst so much difference in background, faith tradition, age and circumstances - we hold unity very dear. We recognise that it is only together that we are God’s people. That God’s truth serves the whole community, not any individual understanding or need. And Jesus knows what a precious gift unity is, and so he prays that his disciples will not lose it. 

And then, third, he prays - verse 13 - that the disciples might ‘have my joy made complete in themselves’. I am sure that, had we met Jesus in person, one of the things that would have struck us about him was his complete and overwhelming joy. Not a flip happiness that is there on a good day and gone the next, but that deep down recognition that life is to be fully lived and embraced in every second of every day; that at every moment his Father is smiling at him, so that, even when he is facing terrible pressure and stress, he knows a deep flowing river of joy within himself. And he wants that for all of us. Deep down joy in every situation - even when things are hard - especially when things are hard.

And then, fourth, he prays again for protection. This is verse 15. And this time the protection is specifically from ‘the evil one’. Jesus is very clear that he isn’t asking for his followers to be taken out of the world - that we’re not to be spirited off to some heavenly paradise where nothing goes wrong. He won’t be like the parent who hovers outside the nursery, ready to scoop their child out as soon as it isn’t perfect. We’re going to be right in the middle of the world, with all its potential and all its pitfalls. 

And he knows that prowling around is the evil one. The one who whispers in our ear, ‘it’s not really true, He’s not really here for you’, the one who beckons us off the path by promising an easier route to joy, through distraction rather than presence; through sexual pleasure without commitment; through acquisition rather than generosity. The world is full of temptations, and the evil one will use every one of them to break us away from our home, our safe home, in the Father’s love. 

And then a final prayer - verse 17 - Father, ‘Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth’. 

To sanctify is to make something holy, it’s to set something aside for a particular purpose. It’s to place someone under God’s authority, for God’s mission. In the Old Testament priests are ‘sanctified’ for the particular task of serving in the Temple; In the book of Acts, chapter 13, Paul and Barnabas are ‘set aside’ or ‘sanctified’ for mission to the Gentiles. 

And now Jesus asks his Father to set aside the disciples in word and truth. Jesus is the word. Jesus is the truth. So to be sanctified in word and truth, is to be made holy through relationship with Jesus. Jesus’ prayer is that we will continue to be caught up in the relationship with the Father, made possible through him - so that we can fulfil our particular purpose. What is that purpose? It is to show the world Jesus - because in doing so, we show people the Father and then they too can be part of that eternal, joy filled relationship of Father and Son. And so the circle extends. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves his disciples who are in the world, his disciples love their neighbours, so they too get to join the party; an ever extending circle of love - and we are sanctified in Jesus for that purpose.

What does that mean for us today? Three things.

First - great hope. If Jesus and the Father pray these things back then, he’s still praying them now; still praying for protection, unity, joy and sanctification. So we can have great hope in our lives that Father and Son are still doing that; that we are protected, bound together; that joy is available and that we have a divine task to do. So whatever’s going on, have great hope.

Secondly, I think it reminds us to be really realistic. The world is a hard place. Don’t become a Christian because you think it will make everything fine. That’s not what Jesus prayed for. He prayed that we would be right in the mix. So be really realistic and don't be surprised when tough stuff happens. 

And the third thing is tells us is that we’ve got a job to do. We’re not in the world because Jesus forgot to take us with him. We’re in the world because we are sanctified, set aside for a purpose. And the purpose is to show people what God is like. To do it through actions and in word - by telling people ‘This is the God that I know’ .

Hope, realism and a job to do.

And if that’s true. If Jesus is actually praying for those things right now, then we’re not on our own, and we never will be. 

Just like the child heading out into the world, loved and equipped for all they will face, prayed for by loving parents, ready to be welcomed home at the end of their big adventure - so we are protected, prayed for and welcomed home, in Jesus name. Amen

Going deeper

  1. Read John 17:6-19 aloud. What strikes you? What words stand out?

  2. In that passage, Jesus prays for five things -which are listed in the sermon. Which of them is most important to you at the moment?

  3. The sermon suggests that Jesus was full of joy. What is the difference between 'happiness' and 'joy'?

  4. How can we have hope in the middle of a messy and difficult world? What is 'hope' for you?

  5. The sermon suggests there are three things for us to take away from this passage; hope, realism and a job to do. Which of these do you most need today? Is there anything else the passage tells you?

Hugh Nelson