A Missional Reading of the High Priestly Prayer: Easter 7A – John 17:1-11

I preached this sermon in 2013. If you are a pastor feel free to copy and steal everything.

Easter 7A – John 17:1-11
A Missional Reading of the High Priestly Prayer

Read text first.

Just Southeast of Rome about 100 miles there is a little town called Roseto Valfortore. It’s a pretty unremarkable town – an old medieval style village, town square, city wall… The life of the town revolved around the local Marble Quarries. That was where everybody worked, either in the quarries or in the terraced fields of the surrounding hills. It was a hard life and the town was desperately poor.

In the late 1800s the people of Roseto Valfortore began to hear stories about this land of opportunity called America. In January of 1882, a group of 11 Rosetans set sail for New York City. From there they made their way west to Pennsylvania where they found that people were beginning to mine slate. These guys knew a little bit about mining. They’d been mining marble for centuries. So, they went to work.

They sent word home, and the following year 15 more Rosetans came over, joining their compatriots in the slate quarries. Soon more and more started coming to America. Over the next decade 1,200 Rosetans immigrated from the hill country and marble mines of Italy to the hill country and slate mines of Pennsylvania.

They started buying up land on a rocky hillside near the mines. Since they’d come from a medieval village, they built in the medieval style—closely clustered two-story stone houses with slate roofs on narrow streets running up & down the hillside. They built a Catholic church & named it “Our Lady of Mount Carmel” after the street on which it was built. They named the town Roseto, after their hometown. Nearly everyone who lived there came from that same village back in Italy.

And they established a perfect Italian village smack-dab in the middle of Pennsylvania. They celebrated the same festivals they used to, cleared land, grew crops—especially wine grapes—opened small shops & bakeries, restaurants & bars. They built a busy main-street, opened a school, a park, a convent, and a cemetery. Soon there were more than a dozen small factories. If you would have wandered into the town of Roseto, during that time you’d swear you were in an Italian village.

Here’s where the story gets interesting.

A doctor by the name of Stewart Wolf taught at the Med school at the University of Oklahoma & was an expert in digestion. He spent his summers on a farm in PA, not far from Roseto. While he was there one summer he became friends with a local doctor – an American – who told him something crazy. This local Dr. treated people from all over the area. But he said that he hardly ever even saw a single person from Roseto under the age of 65 with any form of heart disease.

Now, this is the 1950s, the era before good medicine for high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Everybody smoked cigarettes. Heart disease was rampant in America; by far the leading cause of death for men under age of 65. It was the biggest health risk of the era. It was impossible not to see patients with heart disease under 65.

Wolf decided to investigate further. It was such a unique research opportunity with an immigrant population living in a village where they kept to themselves, but were transplanted halfway around the world. So he funded a project through the University of Oklahoma. They gathered death certificates, did genealogies, and analyzed medical records going back as far as they could.

The Rosetans really got into the study. The townspeople eagerly donated blood, did EKG’s, gave full medical histories… nearly the entire population took part in the test. The results were hard to believe. Virtually no one under 50 had ever died of a heart attack. No one under 50 had ever showed any signs of heart disease. For men over 65 the death rate from heart disease was roughly half that of the entire US population. Rosetan overall death rate was 35% lower than the rest of the culture… amazing results.

Dr. Wolf wrote: “There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That’s it.”

Wolf, was hooked. Had to figure out why this was happening. He thought perhaps they’d brought some practices over from the old world. Diet? Genetics? Wine? But he quickly realized that couldn’t be it. They all cooked with lard instead of Olive Oil like they did back in Italy. They ate more red meat, sausage, salami, ham, eggs, & milk than they did back home. They ate more sweets than they used to. Wolf analyzed their diet & found that 41% of their calories came from fat (this is very high). They never really exercised, smoked heavily, & most were overweight.

So he thought, not diet… maybe Genetics? So he found Rosetans who lived elsewhere in the US to compare, he found that none of them shared the same remarkable good health as those living in this little immigrant town in Pennsylvania.

He thought it might be the region itself? So he studied nearby towns of similar size, settled by same kind of hardworking European Immigrants—no dice again.

Finally, what Wolf began to realize was that the secret of Roseto wasn’t about diet, exercise, genetics, location, or wine. It was the town itself… how the people stopped to chat in the middle of the street; how they lived close together & at meals together constantly. He learned that most homes had three generations living together under one roof. The elderly were held in high regard, not pitied. Grandparents commanded great reverence and respect.

And the church was a huge part of this: all went to mass together on Sunday – had a unifying and calming effect on the community. He counted 22 separate civic organizations in town of under 2,000 people. He found they lived under an egalitarian social structure. The wealthy didn’t flaunt their successes. The unsuccessful were allowed to obscure their failures.

A sociologist who studied the town wrote: “I remember going to Roseto for the first time, and you’d see three-generational family meals, all the bakeries, the people walking up and down the street, sitting on their porches talking to each other, the blouse mills where the women worked during the day, while the men worked in the slate quarries… It was magical.”

When their research was completed, they had proved that Rosetans were healthier, living longer, experiencing phenomenal resistance to heart disease, defying the number one public health problem in the rest of American society, and the only difference between them and the rest of the culture was community. (Story, and quotes come from the first chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers).

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When their research was completed, they had proved that Rosetans were healthier, living longer, experiencing phenomenal resistance to heart disease, defying the number one public health problem in the rest of American society, and the only difference between them and the rest of the culture was community.

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This is the scientific community proving that community actually has the power to give life… the power to sustain life. I think there are some deep resonances with the Christian story at this point… deep resonances with the way Jesus taught people to live. Let’s read our text for today from John 17. This passage takes place right before Jesus is betrayed; he’s blessing his disciples for the last time before he’s arrested & killed.

20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, 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. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

Jesus is realizing he’s about to die. And this leaves a really big question to be answered: How will he pass on the good news of the Kingdom of God to those who will never get to know him personally? How could he extend the gospel to the people who would never have the blessing of a direct encounter w/Jesus? This is no small question.

A big part of the answer is community. Look at what Jesus prays: “21 As you, Father, 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.”

He starts by describing the nature of his relationship to God. He says that within God’s own life—Father, Son, & Holy Spirit—they are “in” one another “you are in me & I am you” he says. They co-inhere. This is sometimes called perichoresis, which is a theological term that describes an important part of the doctrine of the Trinity. It means that within the very life of God there exist three “persons,” (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). They are mutually indwelling – the are “in” one another. There is a distinction, but not a separation. They are one.

Jesus’s prayer here is “May they also be in us.” Stunning: God clears out space for all of us – in God’s own life… this is theologically huge. We are invited to participate in the very life of God. This is stunning, friends. This is existentially, cosmologically, theologically huge. God clears out room within God’s being for us. God makes space for us in God’s own life…

Here’s the weird part: The stated purpose for this is not even really about us. The stated purpose is “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” God’s purpose in drawing our lives into God’s life is mission.

Christ goes on to say, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Now Jesus takes it a step further. He says that human relationships should be modeled after the relationship that God has w/in God’s self. “So that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” John (more than any other gospel writer), has given a lot of play to this theme: That Jesus and God are one.

Now we begin to see why… here at the end of the story. It’s not so his followers would say, “Wow, Jesus is one w/God.” It’s because our community is meant to be modeled after the life of God. We are meant to experience the same kind of oneness that Jesus experiences with the Father. And again, Jesus gives a reason, “so that the world may know that you have sent me & have loved them even as you have loved me.” The reason for this community/oneness is mission.

…so “the world” will know Jesus is from God & that God loves them.

So there are two significant movements that Jesus is praying for here. The first is that through Christ they are drawn up into the very life of God and begin to participate in God’s life. “As you, Father, are in me & I am in you, may they also be in us.” The Second is that through Christ our relationships with each other become modeled on God’s relationship with God’s self. We are meant to experience oneness: “So that they may be one, as we are one.”

Our community is meant to be an expression of God’s love that extends the gospel beyond that first generation who knew Jesus… which means there is a lot riding on the way that our community experiences life together. Our life together will be the way that the world will know that God loves them enough to come for them thru Jesus.

Just like Roseto, PA, we are meant to be a community patterned on the life of God… a life that has the power to give life, the power to sustain life—and not just our own life, but the life of the world.

We all think about church in terms of quality of life, but I think we usually think in terms of our own quality of life. Which is certainly important, but it’s only step one. The major step is that our community will give life to the world. Our common life will introduce the world to the reality that God loves them. There’s a lot more riding on your relationship to each other than just what we get out of it. We’re talking about the life of the entire world.

Ever think that maybe the reason the world struggles to recognize the reality that Jesus is Lord is because the church is not one? I mean I could quote you the stats, the Barna research… but you don’t really need me to. We all know the world looks at the church and doesn’t see a bunch of people who are experiencing a life of oneness. What the world sees is a bunch of people who fight about everything. We bicker & argue about how my information is better than your information, blaming, fearing, shaming each other and the world as we passionately tear each other down & split apart.

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Ever think that maybe the reason the world struggles to recognize the reality that Jesus is Lord is because the church is not one? …a bunch of people who fight about everything… about how my information is better than your information, blaming, fearing, shaming each other and the world as we passionately tear each other down & split apart.

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The problem is, as we refuse to commit ourselves to oneness, we cease to be the presence of Christ in the world.

And so the world continues to wonder if Jesus really is the way or not, and our ability to bear witness is seriously diminished.

Let’s just tell the truth: Christians in America are always up in arms over some moral issue—gay marriage, abortion, school prayer, sex this, sex that, and list goes on & on—when Jesus’s final message to his disciples wasn’t about any of those things. It was about how they’d live together in unity, experiencing the kind of life Jesus had with the Father.

Back in Roseta, PA while the rest of the culture was struggling w/rampant heart disease; their whole place had healthy hearts—and they were doing everything wrong. They were 2 pack a day smokers who at bacon at every meal & washed it down w/either whole milk or wine. They were all overweight. They were getting the details of having healthy hearts wrong. But they had the oneness/unity thing right so it didn’t matter.

My point is not that we should not care about morality or ethics. My point is that you can get a lot of other things wrong & get this one thing right—unity and oneness—and still experience the transforming power of Christ. Conversely you can get everything else right—eat right exercise, heart healthy diet—and get oneness and community and unity wrong… and that’s ballgame.

It’s interesting to me that Christ’s prayer here is not a prayer for theological oneness or doctrinal purity; it’s not about vision alignment or strategic unity; it’s not a prayer for ideological oneness, or political agreement; it is relatively unconcerned with morality or ethical principles… Christ’s high priestly prayer is not rooted in any of the things over which we so often divide. He prays for the kind of unity and oneness and community that flows from a deep down experience of the love of God.

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Christ’s prayer here is not a prayer for theological oneness or doctrinal purity; it’s not about vision alignment or strategic unity; it’s not a prayer for ideological oneness, or political agreement; it is relatively unconcerned with morality or ethical principles… Christ’s high priestly prayer is not rooted in any of the things over which we so often divide. He prays for the kind of unity and oneness and community that flows from a deep down experience of the love of God.

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I wonder if the reason we can’t do the second step (to experience oneness with each other), is because we haven’t experienced the first step (to be drawn into the life of God). We have not yet had a transforming experience of the reckless raging love of God.

In her research, Brene Brown says that you can roughly divide the world into 2 groups: People who experience a deep sense of love & belonging, and people who don’t. Brown has spent years studying these two groups carefully. You know what the only difference between them is? Those who do experience deep sense of love and belonging believe deep down inside that they are worthy of love and belonging. Those who don’t experience a deeps sense of love & belonging, don’t believe they are worth of it.

This is a revolutionary insight. If you believe you are worthy of love & belonging you’ll probably experience love and belonging. If you believe you are not worthy of those things, you simply cannot experience them.

I know this is part of what is holding us back as Christians. We have been told our whole lives how awful we are—sinful & guilty—often shamed until we start to think we’re worthless. The church has spent centuries imparting the very things that inhibit our ability to feel WORTHY of love. This is ironic given that the whole reason Jesus came in the first place was to convince us that God so loved the world… We are the object of God’s love. God seems to believe we are worthy of God’s love. Why can’t we think that about ourselves?

What Brene’ Brown has been teaching me is the root of this unworthiness we all feel is often rooted in shame; about all the stuff we’ve done; the stuff that’s been done to us; things have happened in our lives and the moment we think of them, we have this sickening uggh! I hate to even recall the memory. That’s shame. That’s the shame that keeps us from feeling worthy.
Shame makes us feel worthless.

Shame is this warm wash, makes our face red. We can actually feel it in our stomachs… like real pain. It tells us: You are not worthy of love.

And if we don’t feel worthy of love and belonging, we cannot experience it. No wonder people get upset w/the church. The heart of the gospel message tells us God loves us no matter what—no strings… This has been obscured by a church who has shamed us into believing we are not worthy of God’s love. We have forgotten that God’s love makes us worthy. The result is a ton of shame and emotional baggage, all of it stemming from the lack of a community that reminds us constantly that we are the beloved of God, and instead reminds us constantly of what pieces of garbage we are.

The church is supposed to be the place where you can bring all of our brokenness & shame and in the midst of that emotional turmoil—despite all odds—you are free to experience love and belonging and forgiveness. Instead the church usually pounces on failure & says, “Aha… I knew it. You are a sham, a failure…” And as we pile on people’s deeply seated sense of shame, we attempt to drive them toward some sort of shame based repentance.

The entire enterprise requires that we ignore Jesus’s prayer for unity, his reliance upon unconditional love. Jesus knew that love was much more powerful than shame. The only thing that ever heals anything is unconditional love as it is shared between the “one” and the “other.”

Shame does not change the world for the better… Only the love of God can do that.

My job isn’t to create the perfect church. My job is to try and convince you that you are worthy of God’s love, because the key to your eternity and the key to your happiness right now is the same thing: the love of God.

You want to know why the world doesn’t know Jesus, and love Jesus, and follow Jesus? You want to know why the gospel hasn’t made its way to the entire world? This is why: We have not experienced the love of God in our own lives; and so we have no idea how to love each other (oneness). And the world continues to struggle to see Christ in us.

Listen to me… some of you need to summon all of your courage. You need to dig down deep & face down your fears. You need to stop shaming and blaming yourself and others. You need to face your shame, face your tormentors, face your own sense of unworthiness, and draw it out into the open—usually with one other Christian brother or sister who you know you can trust—and allow yourself to experience God’s love.

But this is the ballgame, you guys. You have to come to a place where you experience God’s redeeming love. To experience God’s redeeming love you have to know you are worthy of it. Which means someone has to tell you, show you, model to you, extend to you the love of God flowing through their own life—that’s community, that’s oneness, that’s unity. And then we’ll all learn the deep secret together: that we are worthy of God’s love because God’s love makes us worthy.

I want to end w/this thing that Brennan Manning always used to say. Just invite you to close your eyes for a moment & listen to this: “In the 48 years since I was first ambushed by Jesus… and then literally the thousands of hours of prayer & meditation, silence & solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on judgment day, the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question: “Do you believe that I loved you? That I desired you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear the sound of your voice?” The real believers there will answer, “Yes, Jesus. I believed in your love and I tried to shape my life as a response to it.” But many of us who are so faithful in our ministry, in our practice, in our church going are going to have to reply, “Well frankly, no sir. I mean, I never really believed it. I mean, I heard a lot of wonderful sermons and teachings about it. (In fact I gave quite a few myself). But I always knew that that was just a way of speaking; a kindly lie, some Christian’s pious pat on the back to cheer me on…
And there’s the difference between the real believers and the nominal Christians that are found in our churches across the land. No one can measure like a believer the depth and the intensity of God’s love. But at the same time, no one can measure like a believer the effectiveness of our gloom, pessimism, shame, low self-esteem, self-hatred and despair that block God’s way to us.

“God looks at us & says ‘I know your whole life story. I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty and degraded love that has darkened your past. Right now I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship. And my word is this: I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are, and not as you should be. Because you’re never going to be as you should be.’”

Will you dare to believe that you are worthy of God’s love, because God’s love makes you worthy? Will you come to a community of believers, and dare to let yourself be seen? Will you allow God’s love to build in and through us a level of unity and community that literally transforms us into the hands and feet of Christ?

Our community is meant to be an expression of God’s love that extends the gospel beyond that first generation of folks who actually knew Jesus… so there’s a lot riding on this. Our life together will be the way that the world will know that God loves them… or not. Just like that little town of Roseto, PA, we are meant to be a community patterned on the life of God… a life that has the power to give life, the power to sustain life—and not just our own life, but the life of the world.

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.


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