I have been working on a sermon on John 17 all week and this morning I have felt like things have really come together. Its felt like God speaking directly into me and my situation rather than just sermon prep.
I have felt like I have wanted to take off my shoes as I have read John 17, its felt like Holy Ground. Its an astonishing passage of Scripture for several reasons. Here in John 17 as Jesus prays, we get an insight into His heart, His desire, His priorities and His thinking in a way we don’t quite get anywhere else. Jesus right of the eve of his death, bears His soul to us. I am also humbled by what he prays for, He prays for himself but then He prays for the disciples and finally for me, yes me and my church, for He prays for “everyone who will believe in me through their message” v20 Some of my most profound experiences in life have come when people have prayed for me and in their words I have heard their love for me and their desires for my life. Well I can’t quite put into words what it does to my heart as I hear Jesus here, facing the Cross with all that would entail for Him, praying for me and the church of my day. Surely, there can’t be anything more important to us as Christ followers than what Jesus prays for us for? Surely we should want nothing more than to see His prayer answered in our life and churches?
As I have been reading and studying and thinking I began to think about how to understand this whole prayer for us as God’s people. Its pretty clear that here Jesus envisage his people to be neither some sort of monolithic institution run by a religious elite or a special place where certain things happen. The former is how the Roman Catholic Church has mostly understood the church, the latter how the Protestant Church following the Reformation has understood the church. I have been really encouraged by the appointment of the new Pope, I like his style and I like what he has said. However, let’s not forget who chose him, the all male top hierarchy of the clergy. Despite great progress being made since Vatican 2 the way the Roman Catholic Church still shows by the way it picks its leader that it believes the church is basically the clergy, its a hierarchal institution. When the first Protestants rejected that understanding of the church they said that a real authentic church was characterised by “The preaching of the gospel . 2. The sacraments being rightly ministered. 3. Church discipline being exercised.” If you think about it, that assumes the Church is a specific place where certain things happen and it assumes most of the church are passive rather than active. It assumes most of God will turn up, hear the preaching, t receive the sacraments and are disciplined when necessary.
“For you granted Him (Jesus) authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17 The more I listen to those words and this whole prayer by Jesus for His church the more inadequate those understandings of Church I just spoke about seem to me to be. Jesus’ words makes no mention of, let alone a desire for, a division between laity and clergy with a more important role for the “professionals” who are somehow the true church. Neither does Jesus pray for a church that exists mainly at an event behind walls and under a roof where most of His people passively receives the ministry of a smaller section of the church. Jesus fundamental understanding of the church is that it is a people, a people who belong to God because of His mission and ministry. Jesus prays for His people, God’s people, that’s the church. According to Jesus we see the church not when we see dog collars and mitres or gothic architecture, pulpits, preachers, fonts and communion tables but when we see people brought into a living, a transforming, intimate relationship with God through who He Jesus is and what He has done.
Yet even that doesn’t do full justice to the way Jesus prays for the church. Even the understanding of Church I have just expressed could imply that God’s people exist just as a sort of holy huddle, enjoying its relationship with God. That would be an introverted church with little interest beyond its own community. The reason that view is inadequate is because Jesus prays for his church not just in terms of it being people but as a people movement, a community with a cause. This group of people exists not just for its own benefit. Grappling with how to understand and express how Jesus was picturing His church from this prayer made me think about the way Alan Hirsch speaks about the “movements” which create the church as a movement.” Alan writes in “Right Here, Right Now” “I believe with all my heart that the future of Christianity in the West is somehow bound up with the idea of being a people movement. Somehow and in someway, we need to loosen up and learn how to reactivate the massive potentials that lie dormant within Jesus’ people if we are going to make a difference to our world. Its only when the People of God as a whole are activated in a movement that real world transformation takes place.” p31 I don’t know if he drew on John 17 but I am struck by how well the movements that Alan Hirsch describes dovetail with what Jesus prays for, for His Church.
Let’s look at those movements in more detail.
MOVE FROM: “for they are not of the world any more” v14
The “world” in John’s Gospel is a sort of technical word that describes not so much our planet but people, humanity as a whole, human culture. Specifically, it describes humanity which has ignored, turned its back and opposes God and His ways. The “world” is all about the values that shape and motivate people who don’t know God. Jesus prayer assumes that those who have come to know and belong to God through His mission may live in the “world” physically but they don’t belong to the world in terms of the values they hold. God’s people no longer share the values of their culture which oppose the values of the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus prays that his people are no longer part of the world he is assuming they have moved, moved away from the values of the surrounding culture which are opposed to God’s ways. What I am saying is that the church, the people of God, must always be on the move, specifically, “Moving FROM,” Being God’s people means moving away from the values of the Godless aspects of the culture which surrounds us and the attitude and actions they motivate. Cultures continually change and so the church must be constantly reappraising the expressions of their particular culture to identify those aspects of it which the people of God must distance themselves from.
Alan Hirsch comments “There will be things in any culture (including our own) that jar up against what Jesus’ teaches, aspects that are ungodly and dehumanising. …. When it comes to being missional right here and right now, sometimes we are going to have to issue a direct challenge, or in the language of this heading “move from” in order to bring the Good News into the tribe.” p53
Holiness has often been seen a very static concept, about isolation from the world. Here we are reminded that holiness is dynamic, it requires discernment and movement. The church to be God’s people must be continually looking at itself and its surrounding culture and identifying the values, attitudes and actions that are inimical to the Kingdom of God and then move from them.
MOVE TOGETHER: “I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity.”v23
Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Jesus’ prayer is the insight that He gives us into the inward relationship of the Trinity. The Father and Son live in an eternal relationship of intimacy, interdependence, love and joy. Now, Jesus prays for something that I can’t quite get my mind around, God invites us through Jesus, to share His very life, to share in the very life of the Trinity. We are invited to be a community which is created by, nourished by and shares in the very life of God. Jesus prays that we as His people share the intimacy and interdependence He shares with the Father. Something happens when we do, we find in sharing the very life of God, we share what characterises God Himself, unity. When our community life as God’s People is rooted in the life of God as community, as Trinity, we will find unity, unity in love, unity in dependence, unity in purpose.
So being God’s People Movement, the Church, means MOVING TOGETHER in community, in community with God and with each other. It means moving away from individualism and self reliance and sharing our very lives with God as He shares His life with us and sharing our lives with each other. When the New Testament speaks about “walking in the flesh” our mind all too often goes to sexual sin but for Paul “the flesh” is the individualised expression of John’s concept of the “world.” Living by the flesh is about independence, isolation, self reliance, self interest, everything that subverts and destroys community. God’s people reject the independence, isolation and individualism and instead move together, together with God and together with each in community.
Needless to say, this movement implies so much more than the main expression of Church for many, (perhaps most?) people in the Western Church going to a worship servant on Sunday morning. Moving together in community means moving to genuine authenticity and intimacy in our relationship with God and God’s people and that can’t be achieved solely through an hour or so on a Sunday morning. Shared lives not shared pews are essential for us to be the people movement Jesus prays for us to be.
MOVE OUT: “I have sent them into the world” v 18
The experience of community that is of the essence of being the Church, being an experience of love and dependence could so easily created a community which is inwardly focused. We could so enjoy the experience of community, of a growing and deepening relationship with God and God’s people that we could become detached from the people outside that community. Sadly that happens all too often. Erwin McManus describes that tragedy by saying “The church became a refuge from the world, instead of a force in the world.” That is a tragedy because Jesus’ prayer clearly calls on His people to be a force in the world. He specially says that he is sending them into the world, that the Church must move out, out from the experience of gathering in community with God and each other to going in mission to our world. The church to be the church Jesus prayed it would be must “MOVE OUT” in mission.
Alan Hirsch says to be God’s People Movement there must be a “willingness to move out, to simply go to the people, wherever that might be.Movement by definition suggests some form of movement, some type of action; it might not be far, but the obligation is on us to go to them, not them to us.” Of course the problem is that the Church more often than not expects the movement to come from those outside the church not those within it. We expect those who don’t know God to come to us, in our buildings, to our events, on our terms.
MOVE IN : “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them” v18
The final movement I can hear Jesus’ praying for us to make, is for us to “MOVE IN, to move into people’s world and places as Jesus moved into our world and culture. Our mode of “going” is modelled on Jesus’ own, we are sent as He was sent, our missional movement is modelled on His. Alan Hirsch again expresses this idea really well, “To move deep into the culture is to take the idea of incarnational missional seriously. This in turn takes its cue from the fact that God took on human form and moved into our neighbourhood, assumed the full reality of our humanity, identified with us, and spoke to us from within a common experience.Following His example, and in His cause, we take the same approach when it comes to mission”
This movement entails moving into other people’s world, in forms of mission that are appropriate to those contexts. The Incarnation reminds us that cultural relevance is never optional for the mission of the people of God. We simply cannot carry out mission at arms length if we are to go into our world as Jesus went into the world. Yet this movement into the world in ways appropriate to that context doesn’t imply compromise because remember we are also moving away from that self same world’s god contradicting aspects.
I am awed by this tremendous prayer and the vision it gives to us of the Church Jesus desires to see us become. A church which is People movement, moving away from the destructive aspects of our world in holiness. Moving together in deepening community with God and each other. Moving out from our community into the world in mission. Moving in, into cultures, into lives, into working places, incarnating the kingdom of God to people where they are in ways which make that Kingdom tangible, understandable and accessible, just as Jesus did.
I don’t know about you, but I want to pray this prayer with Jesus, I want to be part of this People Movement.