We Are Part of Something Greater

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/12/24, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  John 17:6-19. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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For the last few weeks, we’ve been reading through the multi-chapter discourse that Jesus gives in the Gospel of John. This is during and after the last supper, right before Judas betrays Jesus to trial, torture, and execution. 

Jesus knows what is about to happen, that the disciples are going to be tested beyond their breaking points. He knows that they’re going to fail to meet the test, because they’re going to be alone without Jesus, scattered children, hiding in the dark. So in this discourse, Jesus promises that the Father will send the Holy Spirit to guide and unify the disciples – to make them capable of the kind of faith and action that would otherwise be impossible for them.

How do frightened, fallible people like the disciples – like us – become able to do impossible things? Throughout this section of John, Jesus is clear: the impossible becomes possible because God became a human being in Jesus; the impossible becomes possible because the Holy Spirit arrives to make God present in each of us that follow him. The miracle of the kingdom of God is the incarnation: God with us. The life that was in Jesus becomes our life. Filled and guided by the Holy Spirit, we become like Jesus.

The last time I preached, our scripture reading was from John 15, which is a part of this same dialogue from Jesus. In that part, Jesus tells the disciples that he is the true vine, and that the disciples are the branches. In our reading from John 17 this morning, Jesus continues with this theme of unity when he prays to God, saying: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine.”

Everything that belongs to God, belongs to Jesus; and everything that belongs to Jesus, belongs to God. God is Jesus’, and Jesus is God’s. In the same way, for those who follow Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit that God sends, we become Jesus’. We become God’s. And Jesus becomes ours, and God becomes ours. We belong to one another.

This belonging, this intimate unity with God in Jesus, changes us. It transforms our lives. It changes our relationship with one another; it changes our relationship with the world around us. We come to share the heart of God, who so loved the world that he sent Jesus. Jesus so loves the world that he sends us.

So now we love the world with God the Father, and join in the mission of healing and reconciliation with Jesus the son. But what happened to Jesus? What was the response of the world to his ministry? That might give us a clue of how the world might respond to us when we are walking in his way.

Jesus says that, “the world has hated [the disciples] because they do not belong to the world, just as [Jesus] does not belong to the world.” The love that we experience for the cosmos, that we experience for the people around us, is not necessarily reciprocated. In fact, for those who are not walking in the light of God, for those who have not taken on the mission of Jesus, we can expect to receive hatred. From looking at Jesus’ example, we know that this hatred can even turn violent.

We live in a world that is in active rebellion against God. We live in a world that embraces hatred instead of love, violence instead of peace, selfishness instead of wholeness. This is the world we come from! This is the world that we are bound to be a part of unless we receive the Holy Spirit and become a part of the life of God in Jesus.

But once we receive this life, once we begin to be transformed by the Holy Spirit and begin to live as part of the true vine, the world begins to treat us as enemies. They nailed Jesus to the cross! If we are to be like Jesus in this world, we can’t assume that we will receive better treatment.

Our very existence as part of the body, the vine, the inter-permeating life of God in Christ, makes us a stumbling block, a scandal to the world. This world cannot tolerate God, and when we are living our lives in the Holy Spirit, the world cannot tolerate us.

Recognizing this, we might conclude that it makes the most sense for Jesus to get us the heck out of here. We’re obviously not going to be welcome – why not leave this world already? This has been a major thrust of many different kinds of religion throughout the ages, including many brands of Christianity. For lots of Christians today, the ultimate goal of our faith is to escape from this world and be raptured into another one.

But Jesus is very clear here that this is not what we are signing up for when we join with him. John’s is not a gnostic gospel that promises to extract us from the sinful world and elevate us to a higher spiritual plane. Instead, John reveals to us that Jesus’ path is one of abiding and in-dwelling. 

As we join with Jesus on this path, as we become Jesus’ and he becomes ours, we move more deeply into the world. Rather than escaping the world to be with God, we abide more deeply in God while remaining in the world, so that God’s light can refract through our lives and illuminate the darkness.

This is a dangerous journey. We know that Jesus was killed for carrying out his mission. We know that many of the original disciples were martyred for their faith. It’s clear that we need protection. What’s interesting is that in this passage Jesus does ask God to provide protection for us – but it’s not protection from the hatred or violence or mistreatment that this world might heap upon us. Jesus wasn’t asking that his followers be exempted from the cross.

What kind of protection does Jesus ask for? He says, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but protect them from the evil one.” Jesus expects that we will face the same sorts of challenges that he has. We will experience the agonizing whips and nails of those who misunderstand and despise the presence of God, who return hatred for love. But he also expects that God will give us the spiritual power that we need to stand firm, to keep loving and not give in to bitterness, fear, or delusion.

Jesus prays that the Father will send the Holy Spirit to keep us abiding in his word, walking in his light, grounded in his sanctification, his holiness, his purpose for us.

Sanctification. This is where I find that Jesus’ words in John get the most difficult to understand without taking some time to consider them. Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth… For their sakes, I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” What does this mean? What is sanctification, and why does Jesus name this is a necessary condition of following him?

At first, it seems like a contradiction. To “sanctify” means to set aside for a special purpose. Holiness means being removed from ordinary circulation. Reserved. Separated. When we say that something is holy, we are basically saying, “this is used for this, not that.” You don’t use an ax to slice bread. It is a cutting implement, but it is holy to wood. It has a purpose.

What is our purpose? As always, we have to look at Jesus, observing the life and example that he gives us. Jesus sanctified himself; Jesus was holy. Jesus was set aside by God for a particular purpose. That purpose was to enter into the pain and confusion of the world to bear witness to God’s love and justice.

What does it look like for us to be like Jesus, set aside for God’s mission into the world? What does it mean to be sent to bring life, power, love, and salvation into the world through our Spirit-filled lives?

The message of this discourse, the message of the vine and the branches, the message of the gospel is that we are set aside for a special purpose. We do not just exist for ourselves. Our insecurities and obsessions and desires are not the meaning of life. There is something grander at work, and we get to be part of it. We are part of a greater story.

We find that story in the life of Jesus. We find that story in the experience of being part of the Jesus community. We find it amid struggle, confusion, and pain. We find it in a life that is directed towards blessing the world around us, even when it hates us. We find it in being sent by God, just as Jesus was sent.

One more word about sanctification: To be sanctified, to be made holy, means to be set apart – but it also means to be gathered. In this discourse from John, Jesus is describing the process by which the Holy Spirit is gathering people together to be a part of God’s life, God’s kingdom. When God separates us from the ways of the world, he gathers us into a new way, a new life, a new community. We may lose connections to those who are on a different path, but we find a new family in Jesus. We become part of the vine and find that we are one among many branches.

We are the body of Christ. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are sons and daughters of God. We become God’s, and God becomes ours. Jesus invites us into God’s mission of salvation: to bring peace, order, love, and healing to the cosmos.

What does that mean for you? What does that mean for us as a church, a gathered people of God? Where is God sending us today? What does the kingdom of God look like in the East Bay, California, in the year 2024? Where is Jesus sending Berkeley Friends Church?

He is the vine, we are the branches – what fruit will we bear?