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Missionaries of the Name

May 19, 2012

John 17:6-19

This section is entitled “Jesus prays for his disciples” … It’s not as if John or the writer of John’s gospel was taking notes at the time… this is a kind of summary of John’s memory of the prayers of Jesus… and it’s like we have a window into it through the filter of the deep theological reflection of the writer of John’s gospel

I want to pick up on 3 key moments in this prayer… what I think are the 3 key elements to the prayer: (i) what Jesus has done for them and why therefore he prays for them in particular, namely (ii) for their protection (iii) for their unity

(i) The Name

We jump in at verse 6 where Jesus identifies the one’s he is praying for:

I have made your name known to those you gave me from the world

At first glance that appears to be an odd thing to say – partly because it appears to be trivial. “I told them your name”. We in the modern world say, so what? A rose by any other name smells just as sweet doesn’t it? How does a name matter? People often say that about religions – they all worship the same God, they just use different names. So what? Why don’t we just join together into a big melting pot and ignore the names. But to a Hebrew mind names are much more than that. “Name” is often a synonym for something like ‘identity’. So if we translate it “I have let them know your identity” it is beginning to get a little more interesting…there’s something much more profound at stake than Jesus just dropping another name into the mix.

You see not only is the concept of ‘name’ much broader than our modern concept, but the name of God in particular comes with a lot of baggage in Jesus’ world. It is surrounded by a kind of sacred fear – this is a part of cultural air they breathed in 2nd temple Judaism of Jesus time. Let me give you a bit of background

Everything about the Judaism of Jesus day was shaped by the exile (it was the great crisis that formed them, it was like the holocaust for contemporary Jews) and there were various ways that prophets and leaders of Israel responded to that crisis. One way, and probably the dominant way, was to say that the exile was God’s punishment for Israel’s sins and their challenge now was to rebuild the temple better than before, do their worship better than before, keep their purity codes more strictly than before… and part of this was the kind of fear associated even with uttering the name of God. The holy letters YHWH that we pronounce as Yahweh, (anglicised as Jehovah) were regarded as unutterable. So often rather than uttering the name, Jews often said the Hebrew words like adonai, or simply ‘the name’ (ha-shem), blessed be ha-shem, ha-shem be with you. And this is where we begin to see that Jesus messed with the name. Where Jews might describe God with lofty titles like Father of the Universe. No one addressed God directly as Abba (father or daddy) – a term of affection and closeness and respect all wrapped up in one. Jesus’ Abba was not a God of vengeance but a provider of good things, even for God’s enemies. In messing with the name Jesus was messing with the identity of God, and when you mess with the identity of God you mess with the way people live in the world.

To put it another way when you introduce a God who gives (to good and evil alike regardless) into a system of exchange, a fear-based system of exchange in which the old god/s have all the power, nothing can ever be the same again.

I have made your name known to those you gave me from the world.

(ii) Protection

These are now the bearers of Jesus’ revolution… and so Jesus prays for their protection. That’s the second key point of his prayer v11ff

Holy Father protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as, we are one… I have given them your word and the world has hated them, because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from evil … sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

Jesus (like all of us) has been given just one life, and one group of friends. It is to them that he has shown the identity of God (both in his language and teaching) and in his life of obedience. So its for them that he prays… not because he doesn’t care about the world… look at the Lord’s prayer, he prays for the world… but here he prays for his friends who are the bearers of ‘the name’ and of Jesus’ revolution. And because it’s revolutionary they will upset the rest of the world even though they act for the world. They will be hated as Jesus was hated… But what kind of protection does Jesus pray for them? This is important. Does he pray that they will not suffer, get sick with cancer or heart problems or die? Does he pray that they will not run out of money or their buildings will not fall down? Not at all.

Does he pray that they will be isolated in little enclaves away from the evil world. No, quite the opposite, he specifically prays that they are not taken out of the world.

His prayer is quite specific that they be protected, not from suffering but from evil… and that by means of sanctification. He even says protect them ‘in your name that you have given me’. In other words what will protect them is the very name they bear witness to. The threat that Jesus sees coming from a world that doesn’t know the identity of God and operates out of other names, the threat is not so much an external or physical threat, but a threat to the very character of their witness. The threat is to the integrity of their witness.

So when we wonder whether your own individual life is at threat…, or whether our parish life is going down the gurgler, Jesus is praying for our protection. Not that we won’t die or suffer, but that we will do so with integrity, in the name, that in all of this we will maintain the integrity of the name. Father protect the integrity of their witness to your name…. “so that they may be one”.

(iii) Unity

That’s the third thing that looms large in Jesus prayer – unity. And it’s not an added extra. It’s not like Jesus prays that the integrity of their witness is protected and as a bonus or alongside that, that they may be one. As if, for Christianity, truth and unity could be separated. If anything their unity is part of the purpose of it all. And the reason is simple. The name of God is a unifying name. Jesus’ Abba is one who reconciles enemies. Jesus says “that they may all be one as you Father are in me and I am in you”. In other words God is in God’s very nature a unity of relationship. If the church is not united then its witness lacks integrity. Truth is not protected where unity is lost.

So here’s a question for you (when you look at the church down the ages, when you look at our church): Did Jesus prayer fail? Was he not in tune with the Spirit of God? Was it not answered? Some would say that the disunity of the church is just apparent, that somewhere in heaven or in the eternal world of forms there exists an invisible eternal united church. That might be one answer, but I think it merely avoids the question.

Alternatively, what if the church is renewed everywhere a community learns to forgive one another?… What if the church and its unity is a process of reconciliation that happens in time? What if the prayer of Jesus is constantly being answered and constantly being undone as well?

But let’s come back to us here. What does unity actually mean in practice? Do we have unity in our parish?

I think if we’re honest, we know we have some grief, possibly some anger, simmering away we have a certain amount disagreement (I shouldn’t overstate that).

Some say Coastal Unity was always a mistake and we were pushed into it. Others say it is great and the only way to be united is to all be together on Sunday. Some are just sad that they will be losing their church in the St Clair area. Some say, the quicker the better, cause we desperately need to save money. Some say Caversham people are different. Some at Caversham say the same about St Clair… and both about Green Island etc. Some don’t say it, they just think it.

Do we have unity in our parish? Perhaps more importantly. Does unity mean a lack of conflict? I suspect anyone who’s lived in a family knows that unity isn’t about lack of conflict but how you deal with it. It all comes back to what I mentioned before… a process of reconciliation in time. How we deal with our grief and our anger and our disagreements. It’s easy to be united against certain people…that’s how the world works…But Jesus prays that we are protected from that world and are made into a people united in love for others, especially for the ones with whom we disagree. And in doing so, we don’t just become a holy huddle… in the very act of reconciliation we bear witness to the name.

I never really liked the name Coastal Unity… it reminded me of an insurance company when I first heard it. But the fact is we’ve enshrined this business of unity in our name. It’s not a simple fact, it’s a process. It’s for the sake of the world. Jesus prays for our unity.

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