Sunday Sermon: Set Them Apart

 |  Sunday Sermon

Text: John 17:6-19
Series: “The Prayers of Jesus”

The other day Judy and I were rummaging through an antique store with another couple when I came across a collection of commemorative Coca-Cola bottles that were done back in the 1970s to honor a legendary college football coach. Many of you will remember those bottles; some of you may still have one or two.

The bottles reminded me of an early “disagreement” with my wife. We were newlyweds in seminary, and we were poor as church mice.  We didn’t have two nickels to rub together. The Coca-Cola company had just come out with those commemorative bottles and my dad, being a proud graduate of the school where the coach had earned his fame, thought that I might like to have one, which I did. Truth be told, I was so proud of it, that I set it on the bookshelf next to my seminary textbooks. They were the only two things I owned – the textbooks and the commemorative Coke bottle – and both had a special place in my heart.

So, you can imagine my shock and dismay when I came home from classes one afternoon and discovered that while the Coke bottle was still on the bookshelf, it was empty. As I recall, I may have raised my voice a bit when I asked my wife for an explanation, and she may have raised hers as well as she gave it. “I was thirsty. I saw a bottle of Coke. What part of that picture do you not understand?”

It was clearly a difference of perspectives. What I saw as something special, something to be set apart, certainly something never to be consumed but only to be seen and appreciated, my wife saw as something that though special was also meant to meet a need. In her way of thinking, just because you set something apart doesn’t mean that you never use it. Because what good is anything if it never serves the real purpose for which it was created?

I don’t know where you might come out on that conversation, but Jesus would have agreed with Judy. Some things in life are set apart not just to be different, but to make a difference, especially when there is a pressing need that those very things have ultimately been created to meet.

That’s an important lesson we might glean from this part of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer that is before us this morning from the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel. Last week, we heard Jesus praying for himself, praying that God might honor his sacrifice on the cross so that many might come to know the One True God and the one He had sent to bring them eternal life.

This morning, we see Jesus praying for his disciples. We see Jesus thanking God for the privilege God has given him to reveal God’s truth to them. And now, Jesus knows that he is soon to go to the cross and they will be left alone in the world. And so, he prays that they will stay together and even become one, just as he and the Father are one. And he prays for their protection. He prays that God will watch over them by the power of His name, the same power that protected Jesus as he performed those remarkable signs that were to point people in the direction of God. And Jesus prays for one more thing. He prays for their purity. He prays God’s truth will set them free, that it will make their joy complete, and, most importantly, that it will prepare them to go out into a hostile world to pour out their life in obedience to God, just as Jesus is about to do on the cross.

“Sanctify them,” Jesus prays. “Sanctify them in the truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself (speaking of his impending death), that they too may be truly sanctified.”

In John’s telling of the Jesus story, John puts great emphasis on how the world, though loved by God, is a world shrouded in darkness, and it will only be illumined when it is challenged by the light of life that God has sent forth in Jesus, and in all who belong to Jesus.

Which is why we who say we belong to Jesus must never be content to blend in with the world. We are a peculiar people, and our peculiarity is our greatest strength. While on one hand it enables us to stand apart from the world as a distinct and different sort of community, on the other hand it affords us the opportunity to challenge the world as we show them a better way to live, a more abundant way to live, a way that is marked by grace and generosity, not by merit and meanness. 

This is why Jesus was praying to the Father for his disciples to be set apart. He wasn’t praying for their sanctification so that they might be placed on a pedestal to be spared “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Jesus didn’t want them to be walled off and sequestered from the trials and tribulations of life. How does Jesus phrase it? “I do not pray that you take them out of the world; I only pray that you keep them from the Evil One.” It’s as if Jesus knew that when his disciples took seriously their mandate to challenge the rules of the old world with the rules of the new world that he would soon bring about, the old world wouldn’t like it and would react to it, but if his disciples were together in the Father’s light as was he, then their light would shine forth in the darkness and the darkness would never overcome it.

If I’m not mistaken, it was a year ago that we held our last “normal” church service at Mountain Brook Baptist Church. After that, we went into a transition to online only worship, which we’ve continued to do, even as we have gradually returned to in-person worship.  Over the course of that time, we’ve learned a lot of new expressions; have we not?  We’ve learned expressions that have helped us to make sense out of the abrupt changes we were forced to make. I think the technical term for those expressions is “neologisms.” Think “pandemic.” Think “essential worker.” Think “quarantine.” Think “PPE,” or “personal protective equipment.”

If you’ll think back to the beginning of the lockdowns, it didn’t take long for the country’s supply of PPE to get exhausted. Hospitals didn’t have enough of it. Essential workers didn’t have enough of it. The rest of us struggled to find what we needed to be able to get out in public when we needed to go. It wasn’t that Personal Protective Equipment didn’t exist. It was more the case that no one ever envisioned the demand to become as great as it did. But when the virus began to spread, supplies were quickly depleted, and it took some time, in some cases several months, before everyone could get his hands on what was needed to deal with the virus. But what was the alternative? Leave the equipment on the shelf? Keep it there for essential workers to look at? No, when a need arises, you expend what it necessary to meet it until more becomes available to take its place.

And now, you might better understand why Jesus was praying so earnestly for his disciples. “I will remain in the world no longer,” he prayed. “But they are still in the world… So, protect them, Holy Father. Protect them by the power of your name.” Jesus knew that his time had come to go to the cross in completion of the mission God had sent him into the world to do. Now, it was time for the disciples to go out and carry on his ministry, a ministry of love and light, a ministry of grace and truth.

That is our ministry and this is our time. So, let us go forth now into the world, or at least our little part of it, to carry on the mission of Christ. Let us be gracious. Let us be generous. Let us be loving and merciful. Let us astound the world by the fullness of our life, as we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow after Jesus. 

We are not set apart to be displayed. We are set apart to serve, and even poured out, in the same way as Jesus. So, what part of that picture do you not understand?