FIRST-PERSON: John 17: A prayer for Christ-followers

by David S. Dockery, posted Tuesday, May 11, 2004 (14 years ago)

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)--Graduation ceremonies are beginning to take place across the country. At this time last year you may have heard about the commencement services at Georgetown University, that prestigious Catholic University in the heart of Washington, D.C. The speaker was the cardinal from Nigeria, Francis Arinze, who also serves as the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Cardinal Arinze boldly told Georgetown’s class of 2003 that happiness is not found in the pursuit of material wealth or pleasures of the flesh but by fervently adhering to convictional beliefs.

He went on to say that in many parts of the world the family is under siege as a result of what he called an anti-life mentality, evident in advocacy for abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Instead of the family being honored, he said, today it is scorned. It is banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions, and cut in two by divorce.

We might think that a message like this at a church-related institution should not be unexpected -- yet people got up to leave in protest in the middle of the speech and 70 faculty members signed a stinging letter charging Cardinal Arinze with “inappropriate remarks.”

Jonathan Rausch and David Brooks, who write for the Atlantic Monthly, have recently described such responses in the church in this country as pictures of flexidoxy that they say have infiltrated the church. No longer, they observe, is the church concerned with orthodoxy -- that is, the true teaching, the sound doctrine, the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) -– or with false teaching.

The church in America wants to be as flexible as the shifting currents of our society, the authors write. The result, they say, is another new category of people -- not convictional theists or antagonistic atheists, but apatheists, which is shorthand for apathetic theists.

Thus, borrowing from these writers, the church in America overall can be described by ideas like "apatheistic flexidoxy." Yet Jesus, in John 17, prays something very different for His followers.

John 17 is the Lord’s own prayer where we see Him pouring out His heart to the Father for His followers. This prayer is certainly the “Holy of Holies” of the Gospel record as Jesus prayed not only for His immediate followers but for His followers through the ages, for all true believers for all time.

The first five verses of John 17 provide one of the truly high water marks of New Testament Christology. It reminds us that this one who is praying today for His followers is the one, true, exalted, majestic, cosmic Lord of heaven and King of earth.

Thus beginning at verse 6, to the end of the chapter, Jesus prays for His followers -- for the true church through the centuries. In Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 7:25 we are reminded that Jesus prays for His own still today at the right hand of God. And I believe this prayer in John 17 is still what He prays for us today.

If you have traveled around the world or just across the country, you know that Christ-followers are different and diverse -- red, yellow, black and white; young and old; small and large; short and tall; thin and overweight; urban, rural, suburban; educated and uneducated; well-known and anonymous; rich and poor; and on the list could go. But in spite of our many differences, geographical and otherwise, we belong to the same Lord -- and thus to each other.

Yet believers especially in this country often exhibit a petty spirit, one of selfishness, competition and disunity. If we take this prayer seriously, such division, such a spirit, such actions break our Savior’s heart.

One of the things that gains the attention of the world and authenticates our message is the way Christians love each other and live and serve together in harmony. I believe it is this witness that our Lord wants and expects from us in the world. The lost world cannot see God, but they can see Christians.

It is true that the secular media and secular press often present Christians in the worst light, but sadly on more than one occasion we have provided the ink for their stories. So often what the unbelieving world sees in us is what they believe about God. If the world sees love and unity, they will believe that God is love. If they see constant fighting, bickering and discord, they likely will misunderstand and reject the Gospel message.

In verse 20 of John 17, Jesus says that some will believe because of our witness -- because Christ’s followers are to be both loving and true. Thus, there is every reason we should love one another and live in unity.

Yes, there are differences, but those things that we share in common should bring joy to our hearts and encourage us to love one another, promoting genuine Christian unity among one another at every opportunity.

However, we cannot miss the second theme of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 -- the importance and emphasis on truth and holiness, for ultimately true unity is based on true truth! Any other kind of unity is earthly, worldly, temporal and ultimately empty.

The Word brings joy and love to us, and it also imparts God’s power for righteous and holy living, a righteous and holy living that distinguishes the church from the world. Jesus’ prayer, then, is not only for spiritual unity, but also for sanctified truth. Verse 17 is the key, where He prays, "Sanctify them in truth, Your word is truth!”

Thus the church is to be in the world as a witness to the truth -- not to be of the world, not to think or live like the world. The church, according to both the church’s early confession and according to the prayer of Jesus, is not only one and universal but also holy and apostolic.

Just as it saddens the Father and the Son when we demonstrate discord rather than unity, so it saddens the Father and the Son and harms the witness of the church when we look to the world to be our guide rather than looking to God’s Word.

While our postmodern world encourages the church in the direction of an “apatheistic flexidoxy,” Jesus calls for sanctifying truth. Today we must commit ourselves to becoming agents of reconciliation and agents of grace in a fractured and broken world. For some, that will require grace to overcome painful hurts of the past and, for others, it will require grace to overcome the baggage of cultural prejudices.

This is not a call for some politically correct multiculturalism, but rather it is a faithful response to Christ’s prayer for joyful unity among all of His followers!


David S. Dockery is president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Union is affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

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