None of today’s readings are particularly easy to understand, perhaps especially the Gospel reading. First we have to give the passage some context. Jesus’ prayer, that is our reading for today, comes between the Last Supper and his arrest at Gethsemane. It is part of his last ‘lesson’ to his disciples – like all last words these are to be valued and pondered – Jesus is saying something important.
Here Jesus is praying for his disciples. He’s telling God all about his time with them, how the disciples have come to believe that he is God come amongst humanity. And, I think, how he’s worried for them because he knows he’s not going to be around for much longer to look after them and guide them; ‘I am asking on their behalf’ – v9. But what Jesus is actually asking for comes in several places in the second paragraph.
In verses 11 and 12 Jesus prays for their protection so that they might be one, and that they may not be lost. In verse 13 Jesus prays that they might have his joy. In verse 15 Jesus prays that the disciples will still be in the world, but again, that they will be protected from evil, and in verse 19 that they will be sanctified – made holy.
As disciples many generations on, I think we must take it that this prayer is also for us – we are the fruit of those first disciples’ mission after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and after the Spirit came in new power at Pentecost.
So: for our protection so that we might be one and may not be lost. Globally the church is not one – we’ve had division after division. In some senses this is inevitable – churches have adapted themselves to their circumstance and the needs of very different people. Even within the church of England, parish churches and cathedrals provide very different worship suiting very different people.
But there are aspects of our division which are not acceptable and which go directly against this, Jesus’ last prayer before his arrest. That we are not able to share Communion with our fellow Christians of some denominations is shameful: we need to be praying and working to change this. It is easy, also, for us to find ourselves working against other churches, competing for our share of limited resources, and limited numbers of people who may come to church. How can we, here at St Oswald’s, build trust and companionship with churches around us? This is something that needs to occupy our thinking and praying.
We’re good, aren’t we, at condemning others: down the years it’s been single mums, women in general, people who lived together without being married, then divorcees, and now homosexuality. It becomes infectious so that every time there’s something new we treat it with suspicion as if we might catch something from it. Where’s the joy gone? Where exactly do we follow Jesus’ example – someone who rejoiced in all kinds of people, who revelled in and embraced the richness and variety of God’s creation? Before we condemn, moan or mutter, maybe think about Jesus, whom we follow – and smile instead.
Next, that we will be in the world but protected from evil. It’s very easy indeed for churches to become inward facing, to be places of retreat from the world and communities around them. But if we think of Jesus and his disciples, how often do we actually hear about them being inside a building? Only a very few, and one of those involved Jesus turning the furniture upside down and driving people out. Mostly he was outdoors with people, where they were. And his prayer for us is to be the same – to be in the world as Christians where he will intercede to his Father for us to be protected from evil – from being lost to the evil one, which is to deny our faith and use it for our own ends.
And finally Jesus prays that we might be sanctified – made Holy. Jean Vanier who founded L’Arche where adults with and without physical and learning disabilities live together in community, says this: this holiness does not come as we stretch out towards God but as we welcome the Holy One who comes to dwell in us. As we make space for this welcome we gradually become emptied of our inner darkness and selfishness, and the walls around our hearts are slowly dismantled. But this holiness is always a gift rather than an achievement. All we have to do is to be ready to received that gift which God longs to give us.
And this is really the key to everything else in the prayer. Those who are truly holy are not exclusive but are open to encounter with others, whoever they may be, and so are in the world as Jesus was. These holy people are liberated from the walls that divide humankind, even if that means they are more vulnerable themselves: we invest in walls of all kinds for good reason – they keep us safe. In 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, the man we now know as St Francis of Assisi walked in to the camp of the Muslims whom the Christians were fighting and asked for a meeting with the Sultan – here was a man who had demolished his inner walls. You can read about this meeting on the internet if you want to know what happened next.
Jesus had just shared his last supper with his disciples and washed their feet. At the heart of this holiness he asks for them is this willingness to serve, this preparedness bow to the needs of others and to live this life not of entitlement but of openness and love. Christianity, in other words, is not about what’s in it for us, but about reaching out in love, openness and service to those we meet – even if they’re in the enemy camp. This is not easy, and sometimes we fail or can’t manage what we’re asked, but unless we’re brushing up against the impossible we’re not living the life that Jesus prayed for us to live. May we be given strength to keep on trying, knowing that we’re Jesus’ friends, God’s beloved children. Amen