The Seventh Sunday of Easter falls between Ascension and Pentecost. It’s a kind of isolated, awkward Sunday – caught between the promises of what was and what will yet come to be. Similarly, we live in an ”in-between” time, this time between Christ’s ascension and His return. We live squarely between the promises of what was and what will yet come to be. We can feel isolated, alone, and out of place living as Christ’s people who are ”in the world” but not ”of it.” We live out of sync with those around us who do not remember the promises of God given when Jesus came 2000 years ago. We live at odds with those who do not look forward to the promises of God to be fulfilled in the return of our Lord. We may be caught in-between, but we are not alone. Today our Lord prays for us and prepares us to live in the world during this ”in-between” time.
(14) I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Friends, we live in a hostile world. I cannot state it any more plainly. The world hated Jesus’ disciples. We see examples of this in the New Testament and the history of the early church. Each of the apostles Jesus was here praying for was persecuted. All but John died a martyr’s death. Sometimes we like to think that things have changed – that our world is more Christian now – but really it hasn’t.
The world still hates Christians today. We see examples all around us, in the news of the day. Persecution is intensifying. As Dr. Paul Maier writes in his book The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction “A vast double standard overhangs Western society today that is totally deplorable – namely, you dare not attack any of the religious systems of the world … except for Christianity. To criticize the polytheism and caste system in Hinduism or to fault Gautama Buddha for leaving his wife and son to meditate in the forest provokes charges of intolerance and bigotry. To question aspects of the prophet Mohammad’s life is not politically correct in a pluralistic society – and it can even be dangerous (as witness think back to the incident with Salmon Rushte or the cartoon furor of this past year!) To identify any Jewish role whatever in the Good Friday trial of Jesus raises instant charges of anti-semitism. But to skewer Christianity? Caricature Christ and present falsehoods about the church he founded? No Problem! Join the crowd! It’s the in thing – politically very correct and high fashion to boot!”
Why does this frustrating double standard exist? Why is Christianity the only one to be so shamefully mistreated in the name of tolerance and inclusiveness? Why is it that people are cheered on if they are “spiritual” (read anti-church) but vilified if they are religious (read church-going folk)? Jesus has already given us the reason. I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. The world hates Christians because the world hates the Bible. To put it another way, the world hates Christians for claiming to have the only truth, the only way to God.
And so we must face repeated specials on TV claiming to find what “really” happened in the days of the Bible. We must contend with regular Easter appearances of new gospels that the church supposedly tried to stifle (the implication being they were more true than the word we have). We must forever try to defend ourselves in the face of wild conspiracy theories, but without ever making a big deal about it. And then there are the just plain belligerent notions like “the church only wants your money and they will make you feel guilty until they get it” Is it any wonder that we can feel alone and unprotected. We lose heart and give up – or worse yet, give in. If you can’t beat ’em join ’em. Either we walk in the world’s ways or we walk in danger all the way. And it’s a long walk from the promises in Baptism to the day we go to be with God in Heaven. It is a walk that cannot be made alone. The voices of the world are just too loud and incessant.
But it is a path that we do not walk alone. Jesus has been praying for His church! (11) And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. Our text here in John 17 is part of our Lord’s ”High Priestly Prayer. Before He returns to His Father, Jesus prays for His disciples. This small group of men sandwiched awkwardly between the promises of the Lord’s Supper and the agony of the cross. These blessed saints who will one day take the message of the God’s Word out into the whole world, but now are huddled together in fear and anxiety in the face of that same world’s opposition.
(15) I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. Jesus prays that they (and we) would be protected – not taken out of the world, but protected from the evil one. The danger is not so much that we should endure sufferings – but that we would lose our faith. Sufferings befall the pagan as well as the Christian. It is only faith that makes a difference in the end.
Further Jesus prays (17) Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. He prays that they would be ”sanctified,” set apart for God’s service, by the truth of God’s Word. He prays that the one thing that this world doesn’t want to hear, would be the source of life and salvation and perseverance for his disciples in this world. By God’s word our faith is strengthened. By God’s Word our sins are forgiven. By God’s Word our religion is defended. By God’s word our resolve is hardened. By God’s Word, God’s people are sanctified. Jesus prays this even as He sanctifies Himself for us.
(18-19) As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth. Jesus prays all these things in that upper room on that Maundy Thursday evening just as he is about to go out and be arrested, tried, crucified, killed, and buried. This is the night in which He was betrayed. This is the central message of the Bible. Jesus Christ and Him crucified, risen, and ascended. This is what the whole of Scriptures looks forward to or points back upon. Jesus set Himself apart (sanctified himself) to complete the service for which the Father had sent Him into the world … To go to the cross for us!
And because he walked that in-between time of Gethsemane and Golgotha alone, no one is ever left to walk the road of life alone ever again. Let the world rage on against us as it did against our Lord. In the end it will always lose. Jesus is more powerful than all who would seek to crucify him, then or now. The Father glorified Jesus by raising Him from the dead! Christ has won the victory! Christ has given us that same victory through His Word of the Gospel.
The Father has heard Jesus’ prayer. The result? We have joy! The joy of sins forgiven! The joy of eternal life! Easter joy! We are protected by the power of God’s name. We are sanctified by the truth of God’s Word – sent into the world to live as those not of it. Jesus prays for His church, and this strengthens us to live as His people, in the midst of a hostile world, during this ”in-between” time.