Talk for 19th May

Reflection for Sunday 16th May 2021

By: Rev Steve Painting


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Acts 1:15-17, 21-41 & John 17:6-19


On Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day. Ascension Day was the last time Jesus’ followers saw him. Jesus, at this point, completed his earthly ministry and handed it over to his disciples; those that followed him during his life as well as those that would come after them, the Church.  

On Friday of last week, the church remembered St Matthias. Little is known about Matthias and the only reference to him in scripture, is the one in the passage from Acts that we have just read. His appointment was necessary, said Peter, ‘to become a witness with us of his resurrection.’ The role of witness was then, the ministry that Jesus gave his apostles at his ascension. Here in the passage from Acts, we see that Peter is keen to restore the designated number of apostles to 12, the number, in Jewish tradition, that symbolises completeness.

But I want now, to go back a step, to the last supper and the night when Jesus was betrayed and arrested. Before leaving for the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays, presumably out loud, firstly for himself, that he might complete his mission, then for the disciples gathered around him who would take up his mission, and finally for those that would come after those first apostles.

The section of the prayer that we read today is that in which Jesus prays for his eleven closest friends and disciples. Jesus begins his prayer by affirming their identity and character. Much of what he prays connects with the conversation he has just had with them. This says something, I think about how we pray and the things that prompt prayer within us. Prayer is a sharing with our heavenly Father of what is uppermost in our thoughts and lives. For the believer it is quite natural to bring the important matters of the moment, immediately to prayer. I think that was how it was here for Jesus too.

Jesus begins this part of his prayer by recalling that the relationship he shares with his Father is also shared with these particular friends. Jesus prays to his Father ‘I have revealed you to those you gave me out of the world’. In this, he picks up on the words he spoke earlier to Philip. ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9) and later to all of them ‘I have called you friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you’ (John 15:15b). Jesus continues to affirm his friends in the prayer, stating that they are the ones who have heard his words and obeyed them. This should remind us of Jesus’ frequently repeated words in that earlier conversation; ‘If you love me, keep my commands’. As Jesus processes his prayer in this way it seems that he is clarifying just who he is praying for. He continues, ‘I pray for them, I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me for they are yours.’ (John 17:9).

At this point we need to be clear about what Jesus means by ‘the world’. It is a term that the writer, John uses liberally in his gospel. When Jesus and John speak of the world, they are not referring to the creation itself but the spiritual forces that oppose the ways of God. The world they speak of is the realm in which the values of self-interest and pride prevail over God’s ways of love and humility. Jesus’ apostles have proved that they no longer belong to such a world.  Like Jesus himself, they are of another order, that of the kingdom of heaven. Yet they still find themselves in a society dictated by the principles, attitudes and behaviours of the worldly order. As Jesus prays, I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world’ (John 17:11a). Yet they must remain in that world because they are now required to take up Jesus’ mission to transform it. Theirs is an incarnational mission to a world in which they do not belong. They are to lead people out of one realm and into another, as they themselves were led by Jesus, for they were not always of the heavenly order. The opening statement of Jesus’ prayer speaks of ’those whom you gave me out of the world.’ All this leads us to the main point of this section of Jesus prayer. The apostles, because they lived by values that conflicted with the prevailing culture, were vulnerable in the same way that Jesus himself had been vulnerable. They needed the Father’s protection. Jesus expressed this in two ways:

‘Holy Father protect them by the power of your name’ (verse 11b).

In a biblical context a name is much more than that which is given to people in order to identify them. It’s perhaps closer to the idea of reputation. When someone has a particular reputation, we say that they have made a name for themselves. In the biblical context a name should define the very essence of a persons’ being, character, and nature. The Father’s name is a powerful name. Jesus is here calling upon the Father to exercise the power attributed to his nature and being to protect the disciples. The Father is a loving God who delights in all that he has made. It is in his very nature to protect and preserve and it is to the power of this attribute that Jesus makes his plea.

‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one’ (verse 15).

The apostles cannot be taken out of the world, for as we have seen already, they are called and sent into the world to transform it. Jesus here is asking that they might be protected from the lure of the evil, yet seemingly irresistible forces of the world that would draw them back into its ways. They need to know the Father’s love and the power of the Spirit if they are to continue to live by the ways of the kingdom of heaven. We should be in no doubt that the temptations of the world are compelling, but they are no match for the power of our heavenly Father.

In the final part of this segment of Jesus prayer he asks that his followers be sanctified, ‘Sanctify them by the truth, Your word is truth’ (verse 17). To sanctify means to make holy. The kingdom of heaven is the realm of the holy. God is holy and those that are bound to him must also be holy. Jesus through his life, death and resurrection, has made his followers holy. This is the truth of the matter, the truth by which sanctification comes. Jesus adds, I sanctify myself that they too may be truly sanctified. There is then, a holiness that is imparted to all who accept Jesus, but the lives of his followers, drawing on the empowering Holy Spirit within, should also demonstrate holiness in the way they live. Their lives must mirror the holy nature of Jesus himself. In this way they show themselves to be of a different kingdom.

So this is Jesus’ prayer for his closest followers, that whilst they exist in an essentially alien culture, they will not get sucked into living by the values of that culture, but instead transform it to extend a different kingdom, the one to which they now belong, the kingdom of heaven. This though is not where Jesus’ prayer ends. His next statement in his prayer is this, ‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message’ (verse 20). The relevant matter for us is that what Jesus has prayed for his disciples up to this point, also applies to future disciples including us and those that come after us. We must also recognise that there are other important things that Jesus prays for us in the rest of his prayer, but reflection on those things will have to wait for another day.


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