Summary: A deeper understanding of Jesus final prayer for his disciples - and us.
A Faith of Paradoxes
I wonder how many of you have ever tried to reverse your car with a trailer hitched to the back. It’s not easy, and I’m sure many of us have got some amusing or expensive stories to tell. The problem is that if you want the trailer to go to the right you have to turn the steering wheel to the left. And vice versa.
This whole tricky manoeuvre is an example of what we refer to as a paradox. A paradox is when something appears to be contrary to what we would expect, yet turns out to be true. Just like when we steer to the left in order to turn to the right.
Have you ever considered how our Christian faith is built on paradoxes? If you’re not sure what I mean by this, listen to the words of Jesus. In Mark 10 he says these well known words “The last shall be first and the first, last.”
In Matthew 23 we hear him say, “The greatest among you will be the servant of all.”
In today’s gospel reading we come face to face with another of these apparent contradictions – in verse 14 we hear Jesus praying, “They (and we can take it that he means all those who follow him and serve him and I trust that includes you and me) are not of the world even as I am not of it.” We are not of the world? Well I don’t know about you but I’m pretty certain I’m real flesh (and plenty of it!); and to quote Shylock from the Merchant of Venice “If you prick me do I not bleed?” So what did Jesus actually mean when he said “We are not of the world?” I’d like to leave answering that question for a few moments while we look at what was happening at the time Jesus spoke these words.
This 17th chapter of John, of which our reading is one part, contains 3 wonderful prayers. Firstly we hear Jesus praying for himself, then for his disciples, and finally he prays for all believers who are to come.
This morning I want us to take a closer look at the prayer for his disciples, those he says that God gave him out of the world, to follow and serve him. It is interesting that in this prayer Jesus gives us 3 very distinct pointers as to the nature and calling of someone who claims to be his follower.
The first thing that Jesus says is that his disciples are destined to belong to God. He says, “They were yours; you gave them to me.” The whole idea of ‘being destined’ is one of those tricky concepts in the gospel and I believe there may be a danger in us misunderstanding it. For right or for wrong, I cannot believe that it means that somehow one or two of us are singled out and chosen to be disciples while others are rejected by God as also-rans. Rather I like to think of it this way.
How many of us parents haven’t dreamt big dreams for our children? To be doctors, lawyers, great athletes or artists? But none of us, if we have any love or sense, would force them to go down a path along which they were unwilling to travel. I believe it’s the same with God, our heavenly Father. He wants the very best for every one of us – he wants for all of us to be disciples. But there will be no coercion. He will not force his will on us. We are, and always will be, free to make our own choices. And surely there’s another paradox in our faith? We have the freedom to accept or reject the very God who gives us life!
The second element in his implied definition is that a disciple is one who recognizes and puts his faith in the fact that Jesus is God’s only Son. He or she believes that the words Jesus speaks are God’s words and the things he does are the very acts of God himself. As Jesus puts it in his prayer, “They knew with certainty that I came from you and they believed you sent me.”
The last of the components in his definition is the all important action word. It’s not enough just to believe. A disciple is one who is obedient. In verse 8 we read “I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.” We cannot do as we wish and call ourselves disciples. Discipleship demands obedience and submission to the Word of God.
So here we have a clear definition of a disciple as Jesus sees it. A disciple is called by God; to believe in Jesus; and to obey his teaching as coming from God himself.