Scripture – John 17:6-19
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, May 17, 2015

Have you ever felt that the pressures of daily living were more than you could bear and you knew you must flee from it all?

Or, perhaps you have said, "I have had it with our family's bulging calendar! Long hours at work during the week and on the weekends, we dash from one athletic field to the next."

Or, maybe you have raged, "I have had it with our country! The government is gridlocked, the entertainment industry is decadent and people are focused only on themselves."

Most of us experience times when the aggravations of life mount and we yearn for a lighter calendar, a less-hurried pace and a complete change of scenery. Some medicate themselves to relieve the unease, others take yoga classes to learn how to calm their monkey minds. Many of us take vacations to provide a temporary escape and regain our focus. A vacation can provide a temporary break from the demands and frustrations of daily living, but is not sufficient. When the news pours out stories of brutal wars, acts of terrorism, ongoing racism and grinding poverty, we yearn to withdraw from the whole mess.

People of faith may be more prone than the average person to long for an escape from the world because we know that this is not the way it is supposed to be. We have experienced the joy of a loving and supportive community of faith working together for the common good. We have felt the warmth of Christian love and the healing power of forgiveness. We have seen lives transformed: the lost have been found, the blind have begun to see, and the dead have come back to life.

Being a person of faith in 21st century America is a formidable challenge. It takes courage and determination to remain true to biblical principles when the culture swirling around us endeavors to impose a competing set of values. Some people of faith have decided that in order to remain true to their religious convictions, they must totally withdraw from the maddening modern world into spiritual enclaves. The Amish strive to live simple lives connected to the earth. They make a point of rejecting modern technology and secular values.

In the first century, a Jewish sect called the Essenes – the religious faction we can thank for the Dead Sea Scrolls – retreated into the Judean desert because they could not tolerate the corrupt society in Jerusalem. They yearned to draw closer to God and believed their only hope was to break free from the morally corrupt world.

The Gospel of John was written near the end of the first century and today's passage indicates that the Christian community to which this gospel was addressed yearned to drop out of their society which was hostile toward followers of Jesus. They wanted to slip away into their own like-minded spiritual community where they could study the teachings of Jesus, share a sacred meal of bread and wine, and enjoy a network of support from trustworthy friends.

As John Krill mentioned before reading today's passage, the setting was the final supper Jesus shared with his disciples. These verses are part of a long prayer Jesus prays. The language is awkward and hard to follow. I asked John to read from The Message translation because it is slightly less opaque than the New Revised Standard Version. The prayer is intended to be overheard by the Christian community in all ages. Jesus prays not only for the 12, but for all subsequent followers.

Jesus says he was entrusted with a message from God and he has delivered it. Those who follow him embrace his message. They live as he lived by loving as he loved. He goes on to say that he will no longer be visible in the world, but once he is no longer physically present, his followers will fill the vacuum. He calls on God to guard them as they pursue the life of faith, because it will not be easy. He says the godless world will hate them because they will not go along with the world's ways. But despite that, Jesus prays, "God, I am not asking you to take them out of the world...In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world, I give them a mission in the world."

The first followers of Jesus wanted to ditch their society because they were a persecuted minority. They were not about to bow to the Roman Emperor. They bowed only to Christ, and it cost them dearly.

It is far easier for Christians living in North America today. We do not face persecution for our faith. If you talk about being a follower of Jesus at a dinner party, you might make some squirm and you might not receive an invitation in the future, but you will not be persecuted.

I read something a year ago that continues to gnaw on my conscience. A colleague wrote, "We are not reviled or persecuted or cursed for being followers of Jesus. Does that mean that we have found ways to do our master one better, to proclaim the Realm of God in ways that everyone is ready to sign on? Or, in the two thousand years since Jesus sent out the first wave of his followers with words of warning and encouragement, has the culture finally come around? Perhaps the society is so transformed that there is no one left to revile us. But, alas, there is another possibility. Perhaps we are no longer worth persecuting. Perhaps we no longer represent a clear alternative to the ways of the surrounding culture."1

In fact, it may even be worse than that. People who have not been a part of a community of faith that seeks to live as Jesus taught – to express our love for God by loving others – may only know Christianity by what they see in the media. And that is rarely a pretty picture.

In January, there were articles and videos of an event that took place in Austin, Texas. "For the last seven years, the Texas Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations has hosted an event that brings together Muslim community members to learn about government and how to discuss issues with lawmakers (Dallas Morning News, 30 January 2015). For the past six years, this event has gone smoothly. This year, however, a group calling themselves the Patriot Defense Foundation interrupted their rally. One protestor snatched the microphone away from the speaker and declared that she proclaimed the name of the Lord Jesus Christ over the capitol of Texas and stood against Islam and the false prophet. She refused to move and continued to angrily shout her Christian viewpoint while her friends yelled at the Muslims, 'We don't want you here! Go home!' Needless to say, the children who were with their parents grew visibly upset, and everyone appeared shaken. Of course, that event made the headlines, and that kind of strident, judgmental Christianity once again was held up as what Christians believe and how we act."2

If members of a church believe that's how they are supposed to act – yelling at children and frightening people – then I suspect Jesus would hope that they would drop out of society and shut their mouths.

Jesus calls us to a higher standard. He modeled the life we are called to live. We are to live in the world, without surrendering to its values of self-centeredness, greed, materialism and war-making. And more than that, we are to make a mark on the world. God challenges us to work as partners in transforming the world.

Jesus would occasionally withdraw from the world to spend time reflecting, meditating and praying. But then he would march back into the world to tackle its problems and heal its wounds. He showed us that our spiritual lives are inherently linked with social concerns.

Remember the creation story at the beginning of Genesis? God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. In a similar way, we are to take temporary respites from the hazards and hardships of our world, so that God can nurture and rejuvenate our spirits. However, God does not call us to permanently withdraw from the chaos and ugliness of the world. Instead, God commands us to submerge ourselves in it. God works to generate within us a heart of compassion, a spirit of gratitude and a thirst for justice because these things will challenge and motivate us to reach out to people in need, to care for God's creation, to strive for the common good, and in this violent and volatile world, to dedicate ourselves to reconciling what is broken and to do the things that make for peace.

We gather here on Sundays to gain a temporary respite from the world to reflect on the Scriptures, to glean a word from God, to sing praises to God, and to pray for our needs and for the needs of the world. But when you go out the doors of this church, you go as a follower of Jesus. And like it or not, to many people you will represent the way of Jesus. Like it or not, you will represent the Christian Church. Like it or not, you will be the only Bible some people ever read.3


  1. Martin B. Copenhaver, "Are You Talking to Me?" Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2012, p.54.
  2. Shannon J. Kershner, "Loving and/or Right," February 1, 2015.
  3. Thanks to Michael Lindvall for this idea.


Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

Holy One, we gather today in this place to sing and pray, to connect with others, to hear the Word you would have us hear. And we come into this place bringing with us joys that fill our hearts, and concerns that weigh upon our spirits. We also bring to worship experiences that have caused us sadness, moments that have given birth to anger, times when we have felt lost, or alone. We come as we are this day, asking that you take us as we are, and use us. Use our gifts, Use our hopes. Use our dreams.

Trusting in your love, we come here recognizing the ways we have fallen short of being the people you created us to be, not always sure that we know your will, yet knowing and believing that we are all your beloved and precious children and that you do not abandon us. Help us, O God, not to forget that we are your creation; help us not forget that you are with us even when it feels as if we are walking alone; help us to remember that your grace is indeed sufficient. And let those memories and that knowledge give peace to the grieving; let it lift up the hearts of the downhearted; and let it provide comfort for those with hurting bodies, and those who are living with a frightening medical diagnosis, as well as to those struggling to maintain sobriety, and among those who have a daily struggle with mental illness.

As we gather today in this church with its rich history, and its decades of faithful mission and ministry, we lift up to you worshipping communities across our land that are just coming into being and those which are merely yet a dream in someone heart and mind. We ask that you give the leaders of those new churches vision and courage, hope and wisdom. May they become places of refuge for the hurting, safe havens for the lonely, proclaimers of your life-giving love. May they share your grace in their own locations in ways that connect with the world around them.

Not only do we pray for new communities of faith, but we lift up to you this day Presbyterian mission coworkers serving in your name throughout the world. Thankful that we in this church have been able to share our resources to spread your Gospel across the globe; we pray especially this day for Leslie Vogel, Sandi and Brian Thompson Royer, in Guatemala; and for Bob and Kristi Rice, John and Gwenda Fletcher, Jeff and Kristi Boyd in Congo. Believing that you are a God who desires peace not warfare, trust not fear, community not divisions, we pray this day for the work of Peace Drums. We pray for understanding and peace to come to the Middle East, for an end to violence in our cities, for food to fill hungry stomachs, for education for girls in places where they are excluded from this opportunity. We pray for good schools in inner cities of our own nation, for economic opportunities for those who are poor, for efforts to rebuild and recover from earthquakes in Nepal.

Celebrating 25 years of service to this community, we give thanks for the hands that prepare and serve pancakes and sausage on Saturday mornings down in the old West church building; we thank you for those who dreamed of this ministry and brought it into being; we thank you for those who have funded this ministry, for those who have prayed for it too. We also give you thanks for the guests who find hospitality and fill that old sanctuary weekly, asking also that the breakfast they receive becomes a light shining in the darkness, hope in the face of despair, plenty in the midst of want.