We're so glad that you are joining us today!
When we meet together in person, we share our joys and concerns with each other before we focus on our Sunday school lesson. Think about your needs and concerns right now, and if you like, you can share them in the comments. This is a time of great division in our nation, and all Christians can certainly pray for more love and unity, that we might be an example to others.
If you need a prayer to focus your thoughts and to prepare your mind for the lesson ahead, you can use the one below. It is from a study on the Gospel of John by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson.
“Father, sometimes we feel so earth-bound, so worldly! I pray that you would cut the fetters that bind us to the world system that is at enmity with you. Help us to long for the glory of your presence. Give us more longing to be with you than to live a long life here. Transform our minds and value systems. But while we're here, I pray that you help us to share your love and glory with others, and especially that we may be one with our brothers and sisters! In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.”
This week's lesson is on John 17:14-24.
In August 2018, the Pew Research Center published results of a survey on religious behaviors. The study had polled more than 1,300 people who indicated their religious preference as “nothing in particular.”Fifty-one percent of respondents explained their preference by saying, “I question a lot of religious teachings.” In two separate questions, 47 percent said they were not involved because “I don’t like the positions churches take on social/political issues,” and 34 percent said, “I don’t like religious organizations.”
The survey results suggest that individuals who choose not to affiliate with any religious group do not view such gatherings as safe and welcoming places to explore personal religious beliefs and lifestyle choices.
While the results of this survey may not be surprising, they are nevertheless tragic. The church is the body of Christ and the vehicle through which God is working to reach a lost world. It can be discouraging to realize that many choose to avoid the church because they view it as irrelevant, or even as hostile, to their well-being. Yet this is not what Christ intended the church to be. Today’s lesson explains why.
The lesson passage for today comes from the section of John’s Gospel commonly known as the Farewell Discourse. The entire section is four chapters long and is Jesus’ longest recorded speech in the Bible. Jesus has just dismissed Judas into the night and told his disciples that he would not be with them much longer. Then he gave them a new commandment, to love one another as he had loved them.
Although it is called the Farewell Address, Jesus’ speech is not just saying goodbye. It is preparing all of his disciples and all future disciples for the work that lay ahead. It is preparing them for the fact that the world will hate them, just as it hated him, and that they should love each other as he has loved them. He wanted us to understand that, although Jesus would no longer be physically with us, his ministry would continue through us.
The final part of the Farewell Discourse (John 17:1-26) is known as the Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer because it not actually a discourse but a prayer that Jesus prays to the Father on behalf of his followers. Our lesson for today comes from this prayer.
Different Like Jesus: John 17:14-19
As almost everyone has heard from John’s (and possibly the Bible’s) most well-known verse, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son for it. Yet God’s love was mostly unrequited. The majority of the people hated Jesus and those who believed in him. The persecution began during the time of Jesus and continued during the early church period.
As Jesus says, the world hated him and his followers because they were not of the world. Their whole set of values was different. Of course, Christians are not sinless, but true Christians have been “born from above” (John 3), meaning they have recognized in Christ a higher calling and purpose for their lives and they adopt the same priorities and attitude that Christ had. They should constantly strive to make their mind conform to the mind of Christ, which is seen in the way he spoke and acted, even giving up his life for those who killed him.
It occurs to me that some Christians today see themselves as persecuted simply because they feel they are losing political power or because laws do not adequately protect their sensibilities on certain issues. In response, they take it upon themselves to foment anger and division and even violence, and they see no contradiction between these actions and their Christian message. This is a far cry from the small group of disciples who stood against the world’s way, against Roman way of peace through brutality, even laying down their lives in order to show what real love looks like in action. One must wonder if Christians such as these are truly not of the world.
Jesus asked the Father not to take them out of the world. They needed to remain in order to help others hear and see the good news and receive salvation. But Jesus did ask that God keep them from the evil one. Christians suffer, sometimes even to the point of death, but that does not mean that we seek suffering in order to prove our authenticity as Christ’s followers. In fact, in countries around the world Christians still suffer the loss of freedom, the loss of finances and even the loss of life for their faith. Jesus’ point is that we should be willing to endure such hardships when and if that time comes.
Jesus also prayed that God would sanctify his disciples by the truth, adding that God’s word is truth. Sanctify means to set something apart from the ordinary or common, to make it holy. In John’s gospel, the God’s word means both what God says and Jesus himself, the enteral word (John 1). So Christians are set apart as they follow Christ and seek to become more attune to his teachings and example. Sanctification is a lifelong process for Christians, although theologians often talk about initial sanctification happening at the moment a person receives salvation.
Question: How can you better demonstrate that God’s truth has set you apart while avoiding giving an off-putting “holier than thou” impression in the process?
Again, Jesus prays that he is sending his followers into the world, just as God sent him into the world. And as Jesus is set apart, he prays that his disciples will also be set apart from the world.
United as One: John 17:20-24
If there was any doubt as to whether Jesus was praying only for his first disciples, Jesus explicitly states that he is praying not only for them but also for those who would believe in Jesus through their message. By extension, he was praying for you and me and for all the Christians who came before us. And in a wonderful and mysterious flurry, he says that we are one with each other and with all Christians of every age and that we are in Christ, just as the Father is in him and he is in the Father. The point is that we are all united in one body to work for God’s vision for the world.
Unify to Multiply
My wife and I were about to rent out our townhouse. A few months earlier, we decided to move and rent it out, we had painted the smallest bedroom in preparation for the arrival of our son. We had done countless hours of improvements in every room of the house to get it ready for potential renters.
But when our first renters saw the room, they told us to leave the nursery as it was. They had a small child, too, and it would be perfect for them. Finally, one thing we could cross off our list! The day before they arrived, however, they changed their mind and said wanted it painted white, like the rest of the house. Already exhausted, I was looking at a night of painting after I got off work.
But when a group of several family members heard about our plight, they showed up at the house while I was at work. They dove into the project enthusiastically, enjoying each other’s company, listening to music and laughing together. In no time, the work was done. And when I arrived, I was overcome with joy and gratitude!
What happens when Jesus’ disciples serve in unity? Work gets done. Friendships are forged. God is honored. Blessings are multiplied. Do your relationships with others demonstrate God’s call to multiply, not divide? — Don
Question: What three specific things can you begin doing to foster the kind of unity among believers that Christ desires?
As a result of our unity in the body of Christ, we have a witness that draws others to the body. Unity is the result of obeying Jesus’ command to love one another (repeated three times) as Jesus had loved his disciples. It begins with everyone seeing himself first as a servant of the other. Just as Jesus began by washing the feet of his disciples, our Christian love for each other involves humility and servanthood.
Jesus prays that his disciples might be in complete unity. That is not something that is common in our world, which is evidence of God’s supernatural presence in the church. Unity cannot be superficial or artificial. It must go deeper than temporary worldly unity that lasts only long enough to get a particular job done.
Jesus concludes his prayer by looking forward to the day when his followers will be with him and will see and understand reality as he does. “By means of his passion Jesus will return to the Father and enter a heavenly glory that his followers on earth cannot fully perceive, but can hope to see in the future,” writes Craig R. Koester, New Testament professor at Luther Seminary. “Therefore, Jesus concludes his prayer by asking that those whom God has given him may one day be with him in God’s presence, to see the fullness of the glory that God gave to him in love.”
Persecutions against the early church actually made the world aware of Christianity on a scale that it probably would not otherwise have done. More people explored the emerging religion and were impressed by the conviction and unity of its believers. This causes the church to grow during a time of persecution.
In a world where many do not participate in church because they think it holds nothing of value, what would happen if they investigated it for themselves? Would they discover that, contrary to what they have been told, the church is a place of remarkable unity and love? Would they be forced to abandon their beliefs that Christians are legalistic and thereby be drawn to the spirit of love that exists among us? Or would encounters with Christians reinforce their belief that the church is not a safe place?
Our passage for today highlights several key themes that run through John’s Gospel, two of which are particularly significant. First, Jesus stresses his own oneness with the Father. Second, Jesus presented his relationship with the Father as a model for the way his disciples should relate to one another. Christians are to be completely united with both Christ and one another so that Christ’s mission can continue through the work of the church. It can’t happen any other way.
Question: What is the first thing you should do were you to find yourself in a situation where Christians are disunited, at odds with one another?
Prayer: Father, help us to love one another the way you love us so that the world can see you at work through us. May we be Jesus’ hands and feet as we pray in his name. Amen.
Today's benediction is from the New International Version.
Next week, we will start a new section of Call in the New Testament: The Call of Women. The scripture will include Luke 2:36-38; Acts 2:16-21; and Acts 21:8-9.
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We are a small, rural Presbyterian church in southwestern Pennsylvania.