Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
Thoughts on the Word:
”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 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 the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
Todays Gospel reading is a prayer. It is not just any prayer either, it is a prayer said by Jesus himself. So lets take a journey through this prayer - the last one we have recorded that all of his disciples would have heard. After all they were asleep in the Garden when he prayed for the cup to pass from him, and all but the beloved disciple St John had abandoned him at the cross for fear of their own lives when he prayed to the father to 'forgive them, they know not what they do' and asked 'why have you forsaken me?' This then is something of a last will and testament of Jesus, where he puts forward his wishes for his 'estate' the treasures that he has built in his life on earth (His followers!).
So what does Jesus include in his last will and testament? He calls on His Father to fortify us and protect us. He makes the great statement that as His followers we are in the world but we don't belong to the world. We belong to something much greater, we belong to the eternal kingdom. It is important however that we take the time to understand Jesus' prayer. He didn't ask the Father to take us out of the world, he didn't say protect them from pain and suffering, or defeat their enemies. No, what Jesus said was very much the opposite, the only thing that he asks His Father to protect us from is the evil one. So how do we interpret that? Well we need to interpret it in the context of the rest of the passage.
Jesus says "While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled." So when we read Jesus' words asking the Father for our protection - from the evil one - we can understand that the protection he seeks from the Father is protection for our salvation. Judas, was one of the 12, he was assured his salvation if he held true to his faith in Christ. However that was not to be, and Judas having forsaken his faith in order to gain materially, was lost. It is both a sad story and a warning to us that we too can fall into the trap of Judas if we take our eyes off of God. In that instant that we turn away the evil one is in waiting and eager to prevent us from turning back to Jesus, just as he did with Judas.
However that is not all that Jesus prays for. He also asks that we be one with each other, just as He and the Father are one. He prays for a unified body of Christ, a Church of believers who are united and strong. Sadly this payer is not yet fulfilled. The Church of Christ has been separated since the Great Schism of the 11th century, when the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church separated. Then around 500 years later, the Church split again, however this second fracture has been much more catastrophic for the body of Christ in terms of harmonious Christian 'oneness'.
Some sources now suggest that there are over 30,000 different Christian denominations or faith groups. Now of course we could probably group these into broader theological groups, such as Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Anglican, 'non-denominational' etc. however the very fact that this large amount of different church groups exist - often with groups of the same theological persuasion in the same town we have to concede that they exist because of disagreement. After all if they all agreed, they wouldn't need to be a separate group - they would merge, they would become one!
Now if we are honest we must admit that the biggest reason that there are 30 thousand or more denominations is our own pride and self importance. A lot of groups are founded on nothing more than a relatively minor disagreement over the interpretation of scripture (and sometimes just one passage!) which if we were honest wouldn't affect our salvation anyway! The truth is that the vast majority of groups calling themselves Christian can agree on all the very basics of the faith such as:
1. God is a Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
2. Jesus is the Son of God, begotten by God in his humanity, but eternally existent with the Father in the Godhead.
3. Jesus was born of a virgin named Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, but did not have sexual intercourse with him prior to the birth of Jesus.
4. All humans are in a fallen sinful state, and cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven except through faith in Jesus Christ.
5. Through putting faith in Jesus we receive the grace of God by which we are forgiven our sins, and are thus able to enter eternal life with God.
It is when we delve deeper that we run into disagreements - for instance. One of the biggest disagreements within the Christian faith lies with the idea of the predestination of Christians to salvation - some interpret it as meaning that God only calls those he has predestined to save to be a Christian, we cannot resist that call and we will be saved, and of course once we are saved we are always saved. The other view is that God calls all people, and gives us the opportunity to respond to that call of our own free will. This view of predestination also allows for people to choose to turn away from God and thus lose their salvation. The two major proponents of these opposing views were John Calvin (hence the term Calvinist) and a man named Jacobus Arminius. A more well know figure from the Arminian camp is John Wesley who of course founded the (original) Methodist denomination.
The most disappointing thing though is that whether you are Calvinist in your theology or Arminian/Wesleyan will never have any affect on your salvation. As long as you have put your faith in Jesus you are saved. You may have however picked up a hint of which side of the fence I sit in this debate from my comments on Judas forsaking his salvation in Jesus' prayer a moment ago.
Of course the point of my rambling on about different theological positions and denominations is to point out the foolishness of it all. We are all believers in the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross, and as a result Jesus says that we don't belong to this world... and yet we have allowed the world, to separate us. For this desire to break apart and form separate groups on matters that do not affect our salvation is certainly not something that comes from God, but is rooted in our own worldly views.
So let us focus on this prayer of Jesus in our reading today. Let us put aside the animosity we bear our fellow Christians, and seek to find common ground with each other. Even a devout Roman Catholic and an ultra fundamentalist evangelical agree on the most impotant issue in our faith, that faith in Jesus is what saves us - let us focus on that key to our common faith (Jesus) and seek to rebuild and unite the body of Christ.
I am going to ask that you do something this week - some homework! I want you to think of the Christian denomination or group that you or you branch of Christianity believe to be most flawed or flat out wrong. What I want you to do is to seek out some information on that denomination and in particular the beliefs you most believe to be wrong, and decide for yourself if these things that separate us are things that really matter, or whether they are simply disagreements over the 'extras' that we add to the core of the Christian faith. I want to add one rule to this though - you must seek your information from a source within that other denomination, and not simply go and discuss with your current minister or friends all the horrible things those 'others' do. You can contact a minister in the other group, or source the information from official web sites or books from that group, but it is very important for you to understand the beliefs of others from their perspective as well as your own and you can't do that if you only source information from people you know agree with your current views!
From now on I am also going to be praying a blessing for all of you that read my ramblings! I pray this blessing on you directly from the Word of God and ask that you would all pray this or a similar blessing for all who read here and for the growth of this ministry.
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace (Numbers 6:23-26 NRSV)