Friday, May 23, 2014

What Christ Prayed for Us


Perhaps it was appropriate on this Friday, the unofficial start to a patriotic United States holiday, that my morning devotional took me to John 17, which has been called Christ's "high priestly prayer."  You'll recall that this chapter includes Christ's supplication not only for Himself, as He was facing imminent arrest, torture, and crucifixion, but also for His ragtag band of disciples.  And for you and me, as well.

Not long after this prayer, Christ is arrested and brought before Caiaphas who, ironically, was the Jews' official high priest that year.

In John 17, Christ asks God to glorify Him, because He had testified to God's reality, holiness, and truth before "the men you gave Me out of the world."  Christ vouches for the 11 disciples who had maintained faith in Him and God's Gospel, and testifies of their faithfulness, even though they are not perfect.  Then Christ expands His supplication to include everyone who at that time, and forever more, believes that He is the holy Son of God.

And do you remember what He asks God for us?  That we believers would be protected from Satan, sanctified in God's truth, and that we would be united.  In fact, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes unity in His prayer:

"As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.  For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.  My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one:  I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."  - John 17:18-23

Here He is, knowing what is about to unfold for Himself, and indeed, for the entire human race.  And what is His central theme in His high priestly prayer?  He prays for our unity.  Yours and mine.

Jesus doesn't mention His wishing that we would be able to argue forcefully for our viewpoint in the public square.  Nor that we would be able to vanquish all of the immorality that consumes our culture.  Nor that we would be economically prosperous, or politically free, or that our taxes would be low, or our government small, or that gay marriage would never be the law of any land, or that abortion wouldn't be tolerated by any civilization.

Instead, He asks for unity among the people who would follow His ways, and model their lives after what He taught about His Father, our Creator God.

On the one hand, doesn't it strike you as a bit bizarre?  When was the last time you or I asked God for unity among His chosen people?   But there it is.  Of all the things Christ could have prayed for us, He prayed for our unity, and He says our unified representation of the Gospel will be a testimony to the world that God sent Christ to us for our salvation.

In other words, our unity would, could, and will glorify God the Father and God the Son.

I don't know about you, but I'm somewhat ashamed for myself, that Christ prayed this prayer for me.  He knew full well when He prayed that for me - for me! And you! - that unity is not what I think about when I think about Christ's love for us.  Is it for you?  I think about myself, how my sanctification is working out - or isn't, as the case may seem.  I worry about whether I'm following Christ's teachings well, whether I'm modeling the Gospel appropriately, whether the Fruit of the Spirit is abundant in my life.  Then I worry about other self-professing Christ-followers, and how authentic and appropriate their testimonies are.

Don't you?  After all, it's human nature to be self-centered, isn't it?  To peg ourselves against what other people have and do, and who they are?  Our focus is lateral, instead of horizontal.  We don't bury hatchets, we keep them strapped to our waist, ready for use at a moment's notice.

Unity?  That's something for which new-age freaks and left-wing liberals advocate, so that everybody can do what is right in their own eyes.

That's not to say that Christ's followers should strive for unity at the expense of truth.  People who claim to believe that Christ is the Lord of their life damage the cause of Christ by pursuing teachings, viewpoints, and lifestyles that are not supported by God's Word.  Many people can find loopholes and gray areas in Scripture that either don't explicitly prohibit what they want to do or believe, or are open to some level of interpretation.  When we do so, however, are we honoring Christ, or are we satisfying personal desires for some form of self-aggrandizement?

Anything we do that doesn't put others before ourselves can jeopardize unity.

The history of the Church - not to mention the world in general - is littered with examples of Christian unity being marginalized in the interest of changing mores and morals, reinterpretations and misinterpretations of the Gospel, pride, arrogance, stubbornness, politics, and religiosity.  There have been times when things have gone so far off-course, that people like Martin Luther and William Wilberforce have had to step up to the plate and call the status-quo into account.  Indeed, it could be said that Luther was one of the most disruptive figures in the history of Christianity.  But was he at fault, or the people who had dragged the Gospel so far away from God's intended purposes?

When you and I look at our evangelical ghetto in modern-day America, we're encouraged to believe that advocating for people, policies, and perspectives that contribute to disunity within the Body of Christ is the price we pay for being standard-bearers of truth and righteousness.  Yet, according to John 17, how much might we be misleading ourselves, and shooting ourselves in our feet by so grossly misrepresenting Christ's desire for us and our testimony?

In terms of how American evangelicals wrap the Cross of Christ with the stars and stripes, it should be obvious that we're doing our testimony more harm than good when we bicker over politics that have no Biblical bearing on the lifestyle we should expect.  We incessantly confuse spiritual freedom with political freedom, which contributes to our love of money and individuality, and inevitably sows disunity when it comes to how we think our country should be run.  In such cases, the words of Christ in John 17 ring pretty clear, don't they?  Unity in Christ trumps our political and economic opinions.

So, when Christ prays for our unity, around what should we be unified?  Our ability to affect change, or preserve the things we want to preserve, as an influential voting block?  Our culture?  Our preferences, or the people we like, or what we're used to and comfortable with?

Um, no.

We're to be unified around God the Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, as Christ has made God known to us.

Of course, this itself can be a fairly open-ended objective, especially if you're as cynical as I am.  St. Augustine of Hippo is known for saying, "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."  But it's easy for us to argue about what is essential and non-essential, isn't it?

I propose that one way to clarify St. Augustine's perspective involves determining the person or entity who immediately benefits from deciding to do something one way or another.  If Christ is the Person who receives immediate benefit (and glory), then that is an "essential."  If you, I, a denomination, a political party, or a nationality receive immediate benefit, then we probably need to be careful about whether it's an essential or non-essential.

Interestingly, you'll notice that Christ didn't pray that we wouldn't have disagreements.  Might that be because disagreements don't necessarily create disunity?  Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ implored God that if it was possible, would His Father please - please! - remove the impending cup of wrath from Him.  That indicates at least a measure of difference between God the Father and God the Son, yet we know that the Trinity is in perfect union.  Besides, if God intended for all of His people to be autotrons, why would He create each of us individually unique?  Isn't it ironic that we're each created by God with our specific talents and identities, yet Christ wants us to be unified?

But think about it:  How could He be glorified if we walked in lockstep with each other?  Doesn't any ruler receive greater honor when their constituents, as varied as they are, work in unison despite their differences, overcoming personal opinions for a common goal?  So how does this happen?  It happens through our reliance upon - and faith in - Christ.  Not in, on, or through ourselves.

After all, what causes the hindrances, deceptions, and unloving motives that incite disunity amongst us?  What keeps us from reasoning amongst ourselves to determine specific actions that will please God, and within which we can be unified?  Why can this be a tricky subject to explore?  What's the reason a lot of us Christians conveniently ignore this part of Christ's Passion?  And how can we ignore the significance of Christ being so concerned about our unity on the very night He'd be turned over to be crucified?

Our own lack of humility, perhaps?

Meanwhile, Christ had suffered the ultimate humiliation a deity could possibly suffer - becoming like the people He was going to save.  He is the One for all.

And He wants us to be all for One.


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