Text: John 17:6-19
“I’ll pray for you.”
These words are ones that – I hope – we all have heard. A comforting offer in the midst of suffering, an empathetic gesture from a loved one when you’re in dire straits, even when you know that they are spoken because they’re the only thing someone can think to say. These words are appreciated and even needed.
Of course, there are times we may have heard these words that they were not quite so appreciated. Times and ways that you know they aren’t spoken in pure love and empathy. Ever hear something like: “Oh honey, I’ll pray for you,” as though you’ve gotten yourself in situation so bad only divine intervention will get you out. That kind of prayer, most of us can do with out.
But mostly, when someone reaches out and offers to think about you in their conversations with God, that gesture touches you deep. It’s thoughtful, moving, and reminds you that you’re not alone in your struggles. You have both God and the community of brothers and sisters in Christ.
As moving as it may be to have a friend, family member, even stranger, offer prayer on your behalf, think how powerful it is that Jesus – Son of God, Savior of All, the one who has been betrayed and—when we meet him in our text this morning—is soon to be crucified by the world and abandoned by most of his followers – Jesus prays for his disciples. He prays for us.
Jesus has been with his followers since the moment he called them – he has watched over them, taught them, empowered them. On the eve of his arrest, he takes time to offer prayer on their behalf. The prayer he offers is beautiful: “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Protect them – God – for I have watched over them and now they are leaving my immediate care and all they have is each other. This prayer is one that I imagine many parents who have seen or will soon be seeing their children go off to college can identify with.
What the disciples will face—however—goes way beyond the tyranny of choice and temptations that can be found on college campuses. Jesus’ followers – the ones he called in person and the ones he continues to personally call – will be faced with a world that hates them.
Not strongly dislikes or doesn’t really enjoy being around – hates.
The world Christ talks about is not a specific people or even all those people who do not know Christ. The world—this cosmos—is the powers and principalities, that interlocking web of laws, nations, cultures, values that we human beings contribute to yet which is beyond any one humans control or influence. This world is one full of those isms (racism and sexism), one that supports the theory of survival of the fittest, and one that hates those who follow Christ just as it hated him. Why? Because those who follow Christ do not follow the ways of the world – they don’t – we don’t – belong to the world. Which means that this world does not have the final word for us nor hold our ultimate allegiance.
And that makes Christ’s followers dangerous. And worthy of hate.
Hate… you know, love is so much nicer to talk about. Jesus loves the little children, God is love, love is all you need. While we are called to love – love God and love one another – it doesn’t mean that hate shouldn’t be or won’t be part of our conversations. For though God so loved the world that God sent the only Son, the world hated him and hates those who follow him.
Being hated is probably not something many of us are all that comfortable with. It’s much nicer to be loved, adored, respected. The parting gift at beauty pageants is Miss Congeniality, not Miss Contentious, after all.
I—for one—don’t want to be hated. I don’t want to know that because of my religion I may be mocked, derided, even despised. I don’t want to think that I may be called to follow in the footsteps of those who fled to these shores in search of freedom from religious persecution. I don’t want to believe that by believing in and working toward the kingdom of God, the kingdoms of this world will hate me or any of my brothers and sisters.
But being a follower of Christ means we are to love and know that we will be hated for that love. The world’s hate is not by itself a marker of whether or not we are following Christ fully – hardly. Hate unfortunately comes in too many packages for that. But it can be a telling sign of just how faithful we follow.
Looking at our history, those who followed Christ – who didn’t buy what the world said – who rejected the idea that the status quo was just fine – who spoke out for those who have been oppressed by the systems of dominance – have been met with the hatred of the world – and sometimes lost their lives to it. Martin Luther King, Jr, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Kazel and her fellow Ursuline sisters are just some of the names that stand out from the last 50 years.
Christ knows this is what will happen to those who follow him – knows when his disciples challenge the idea that certain people deserve to live in poverty or that violence is the only way to peace, that they will know derision and even death.
Knowing this, Christ—on the night before he himself is crucified for daring to speak against the world’s ways—offers prayers for those who follow him. He prays for many things but one thing he doesn’t pray for is that Christ’s followers would be sheltered from the world. No, indeed, those who follow Christ are called to be in the world.
It would be so much nicer if we could just stay out of the way. Do our thing and let the world revolve without any word of objection from us. Maybe build some walls to keep the world’s ways out and us safe. It may be easier, but if we follow Christ, it’s not an option.
We are sent into this world in Jesus’ name to live and love as he did – regardless of the consequences. Those who follow Christ are vulnerable in this world. We risk everything—yes, even our very lives—for the kingdom. But we are with God, are God’s, and that should bring us comfort and strength. In this season of Easter we should especially be aware that in Christ, through the power of the resurrection, that which seems the end isn’t. So when we risk our very lives, our standing, our popularity for the sake of the gospel – even that which seems the end (failure, hate, death) isn’t.
Christ prays for our unity with God and with one another because he knows—and has lived—the hard path his followers will travel. He knows that without a doubt, those who follow Christ will be hated.
So the question I have this morning is this: are we?
Are we hated? Do the systems of dominance and oppression of this world look at the church and tremble? Do they look at our church—our individual congregations, our Presbyterian community, the church universal—and see one challenge to the worldly reign after another? Do they see our worship, our outreach, our education as a threat to the forces that keep some people down while holding a select few up, that encourage blind eyes and deaf ears, that prop up idols of wealth, status, and power.
Or does the world that hates the followers of Christ, those who preserve the truth, look at us and see nothing to worry about? Nothing to hate?
This question won’t be answered by me this morning. I dare say it can’t be answered from any pulpit alone. Rather, we will find the answers (or at the very least more good questions) when we gather together around the word Christ has given us, in conversation, in action, in prayer.
As we gather together, we may dare to ask one another whether or not we’re too comfortable, whether or not we are taking risks, are putting ourselves out there for the sake of the Gospel. If yes, then we may find comfort in Christ’s prayer for us. If no, then perhaps we will find a challenge as well as compassion.
Christ is no longer in this world. But we are. And it is through us that God will be glorified, through us that the world will know of Christ’s love – even if this world hates us…. Amen.