May 16, 2021 homily on John 17:6-19 by Pastor Galen Zook
Traveling to Mars
Recently space travel has been making headlines — specifically space travel to Mars. In April, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. And just a few days ago, China became the second nation to successfully land a rover on Mars.
Of course, one of the key people instigating conversation around travel to Mars is Elon Musk, the founder, CEO, and chief designer of SpaceX, and also the CEO and product architect of Tesla.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is planning to send its first “all-civilian” crew to space at the end of 2021, and Musk said in January 2020 that he plans to send 1 million people to Mars by the year 2050, with the first crew arriving on the surface of Mars by 2026 – that’s only 5 years from now!
In speaking about the journey to Mars, Musk has admitted that “A bunch of people probably will die” in the process. “It’s uncomfortable.” He said, “It’s a long journey, You might not come back alive.”
But Musk said SpaceX is aggressively moving forward with its plans to develop the necessary rocket technology because Musk believes that establishing a human settlement on Mars will be crucial for our species’ long-term survival. Should Earth become uninhabitable due to natural or man-made disasters, he says, having a back-up planet will be humanity’s best chance.
Now, many of us might argue that it would be better for us to try to take better care of the planet that we’re already inhabiting, rather than to trash the earth and move on to another planet, but in some ways I can understand how Elon Musk feels. Sometimes the problems around us feel so overwhelming that just wish we could walk away and leave it all behind and start fresh somewhere else. (In fact, while I was writing this sermon I was so overwhelmed and distracted by all the bills and piles of paperwork on the desk in my office that I just picked up my computer and moved to a completely different room so that I could think more clearly!)
What on Earth are We Here For?
And in many ways, if we’re honest, this is often how many Christians tend to think about life as well. The overarching narrative of the Gospel has often been summarized along the lines of “Jesus came and died on the cross so that we can escape this evil and sinful world and go to be with Jesus in heaven when we die.”
Although there are elements of truth in that severely truncated version of the story, there is one very important, glaring and essential question that we have to ask — if the whole point of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection was to take us to heaven, then why didn’t he take his disciples with him right then and there? And why aren’t all of us immediately zapped up to heaven as soon as we commit our lives to Christ? If Jesus wants us to be in heaven with him, then what on earth are we here for?
In John 17, Jesus is praying for his disciples on the night before his crucifixion – and remember, this prayer was not just for Jesus’s disciples who lived 2,000 years ago, but he was also praying for us today! In the verse immediately following this passage, Jesus says, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20). That’s us!
In his prayer Jesus prayed to his father that we would be one, even as Jesus is one with his father and the Holy Spirit. He then asks for God’s protection over us, saying “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15).
Now I imagine the disciples raising their eyebrows when Jesus said that. No doubt the disciples had assumed that wherever Jesus was going, Jesus would take them with him. They knew Jesus had been having conflict with the religious and political leaders, and they probably were not surprised to hear that Jesus would be leaving soon. What was surprising was that they would not be going with him.
Sent Like Jesus Into the World
But Jesus continued on in his prayer, saying “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). This scene prefigures Jesus’s ascension into heaven, which took place 40 days after his resurrection (ascension day was this past Thursday). On that day, Jesus’s disciples watched him ascend into heaven. Acts chapter 1 tells us that before Jesus ascended into heaven he told his disciples, “‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:18-9).
Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses.” In the same way that God sent Jesus into this world, Jesus was sending his disciples — all of us — to be his witnesses, to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom through word and through deed.
And so one of the answers to the question “what on earth are we here for?” is that we are here to carry on Christ’s mission. To point others towards God, to love and serve others in the same way Christ has loved us. We are here to be Christ’s hands and feet, the living, breathing, manifestation of Christ’s presence in the world.
Now I don’t mean that any one of us individually are called to be the Messiah. None of us are the Savior of the world. But we as a Church, together we are called to be the embodiment of Christ in the world.
And we’re not in this by ourselves. As we’ll see next Sunday (Pentecost Sunday) when we celebrate what’s often been called the “Birthday of the Church,” Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to live in us, to fill us and to empower us to live out Christ’s mission here in the world.
And so we are not just here simply to bide our time until Jesus comes back to take us to Heaven. We have a purpose, we have been given a mission. And so rather than staring up into the sky, waiting for Jesus to return and zap us all to heaven, we are invited – commissioned — to get to work.
Now, there are three points here about Jesus’s prayer in John 17 that I want to draw out to help give form and shape to how we live in this world, even as we await Christ’s return.
1. We Do Not Belong to the World
Jesus says in John 17:16 that we belong to God, not this world. Just as Jesus did not belong to this world, neither do those of us who have put our faith and trust in Christ. Our ultimate allegiance, our citizenship is in heaven – we are just passing through this life.
But that does not mean that we can just live however we want here on this earth! We are not supposed tro be intergalactic space tourists who just come through and trash the planet and then move on to another one. No, in the beginning of the Bible, in the story of creation, we see that God put us here on this earth to be stewards of the earth. And in John 3:16 the Bible tells us that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son,” and the word that’s translated “world” there is “cosmos.” It’s the whole world – the universe – the earth and all the stars and planets, and all the people and life forms. And if “God so loved the world,” then so should we!
And so rather than seeing ourselves as space tourists, I think we should see ourselves as astronauts – we are here on a mission. Astronauts don’t trash the planet they are visiting. They treat it carefully and with respect, seeking to understand as much as they can, and further the body of scientific knowledge. In the same way, we should seek to love and understand this world — not because it’s our home, but because we have been sent here for the purpose of sharing God’s love with all of Creation.
2. The World Will Not Always Be Kind to Us
The second point I want to draw out is that because we do not belong to this world, the world will not always be kind to us. The world might even hate us, just as it hated Jesus.
In the Gospels we see that all of the wicked forces in the world conspired together against Jesus. Jesus was sinless and pure, all-loving, the embodiment of goodness, and the evil and wickedness of this world could not tolerate him.
You see, often we picture Jesus as nice and polite, holding little lambs in his arms. But the reality was that Jesus always did the right thing, always spoke the truth – no matter what – and in so doing he went against the grain. The pure light of his life exposed the powers of wickedness, and they reared their ugly heads. Hatred cannot stand the presence of love. Evil cannot stand goodness.
And so we should not expect that everyone will love us. We should not expect everything to go our way here in this life. If we’re truly doing the right thing, truly following in Jesus’s path, we can and should expect to experience persecution.
But I feel compelled to point out that the hatred and animosity that Jesus experienced was not from non-religious folks – it wast’ from atheists or people of other religions, but rather it was actually from those who claimed to follow God! And interestingly enough, much of the persecution that has been directed towards believers throughout Christian history has come from other people who claim tne name of Christ. Even today we often see people who claim who claim to follow Jesus being the most antagonistic towards other believers who think or act differently than they do. Friends, this is not the way things should be. It’s why Jesus prayed that we would be one, but it is a painful reality that we often experience, and if we’re truly seeking to walk in the way of love, we should surprised by it.
3. Jesus Wants to Make Us More Like Him
And then lastly, Jesus prayed that we would be “sanctified.” Now sanctification is not a word that you hear very often these days, but it’s a really beautiful concept. Sanctified is another word for consecrated, or dedicated to God. It evokes images of sacred items that were used in the worship of God in the temple in the Old Testament. Even today we have objects that we set apart for our worship of God – like the communion cup. We wouldn’t use the communion cup on a regular basis to drink out of, or use the offering plate to eat our food. Just as we dedicate those items to the specific purpose of worshiping God, in the same way God has set us apart for the purpose of bringing honor and glory to God.
But this is not just a one-time done deal. Sanctification is an ongoing process of dedicating and rededicating our lives to Christ’s mission and Christ’s purposes.
Sanctification is about growing more and more like Christ, and experiencing the fullness of life that Jesus has to offer. That’s why Jesus prayed that his joy would be make complete in us (John 17:13).
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, liked to talk about three different types of grace or gifts of God. There’s the grace of God that is present all throughout the world, drawing people to Christ – the grace that empowers us to even put our faith and trust in Christ in the first place. Then there’s the mercy and grace of God that saves us and washes away our sins.
And then there’s sanctifying grace, the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit that changes and transforms us more and more into the image and likeness of Christ. John Wesley talked about this process of sanctification as being “perfected in love,” which Wesley described as having a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”
“A heart haibitually filled with the love of God and neighbor.” Imagine if everyone in this world opened themselves up to loving as Christ loved, and walking as Christ walked? This world would be a completely different place. It would indeed be heaven on earth, just as Jesus taught us to long for and pray for when he taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Friends, there’s nothing wrong with longing for and looking forward to heaven. We desire to be with Christ! But let us remember that even as we await Christ’s return, we have work to do! We have been given a mission, and a commission, to share God’s love with the world. And so let us open ourselves up to be used by God. Let’s ask God to transform us more and more into the image and likeness of Christ, dedicating ourselves wholly to God, so that we may be perfected in love, and have the mind of Christ and walk as he walked.