A CELESTIAL CHURCH BEFORE A WATCHING WORLD

.{This blog title is a modification of Dr. Francis Schaeffer’s book title, ‘The Church Before the Watching World’ [1]}

John17:20-23

Image result for Free pics world globe

My three pics illustrate a biblical progression from the loving unity within the Trinity, to Jesus’ prayer centered around his divine errand of redemption, to its global import.  Some months ago I felt the need to explore Jn. 17 with a view to better understanding ‘church unity.’ Besides the text I referred only to William Temple’s (1881-1944) classic, ‘Readings in St. John’s Gospel.’ Like Dr. Schaeffer decades ago, I am concerned about the considerable ugliness of the contemporary Church in so many ways and places, when she has been called to increasing splendour in the face of an increasingly alienated world. As I chewed on Jn. 17, I wrote down some personal key-points in my prayer diary [2]. I suggest we handle the prayer a paragraph at a time (largely from the NLT), each a beautiful pearl in a string of pearls, clustered around the supreme pearl, Jesus himself!

Image result for free pics of beautiful string of pearls

The first pearl, v. 1-5…

  • Jesus had already, in a way, ‘overcome the world’ (16:33) as he approached Golgotha. In the consciousness of that victory, he commends himself to the Father and the shining forth of his ‘glory,’ i.e. the excellence and beauty of his love.
  • ‘Glorify your Son so he can give glory back to you… bring me into the glory we shared before the world began’ (v. 1, 5). Do you see the trinitarian inter-face, ‘the divine dance’ (Gr. perichoresis = ‘going around’ = ‘rotation’ = ‘dance’) in display? The glory of the Father and Son are inseparable – the Father perfectly sustains the Son and the Son perfectly obeys the Father.
  • As servants of Jesus, we also come into the equation of world redemption. We reflect the trinitarian ‘dance’ on earth through an obsession with the Father’s glory. Think of this in terms of your life and mine, and our faith communities – it’s a process that comes at great personal cost, hinted at Jesus’ summons to ‘deny ourselves (egoism), take up his Cross and follow him’ (Mk. 8:34). We are called to ‘mirror’ Christ’s self-sacrificing love in his world. This will never happen by a mere cognitive grasp of the truth but by a relationship, a personal friendship with the Son (Jn. 15:12-17).

The second pearl, v .6-8…

  • ‘I have revealed you to the ones you gave me from this world… they know that I came from you, and they believe you sent me’ (v. 6, 8). Because God is not only omnipotent but also ‘love’ (1 Jn. 4:7ff), he revealed himself to his own, for the world would not otherwise recognize and acknowledge him.
  • Here we have the purpose and climax of the Son’s mission, viz. ‘You sent me!’ And, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you’ (Jn. 20:21).

The third pearl, v. 9-12…

  • ‘I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those you gave me, because they are yours’ (v. 9, NRSV). Literally, ‘I am asking concerning them…’ This is an inquiry rather than an asking. Jesus is ‘consulting’ the Father regarding his disciples. Contrast this with our prayers of demand and clamour! Like the Son, we need a total trust in the wisdom of the Father. [Our prayers always give us away, don’t they!?]
  • ‘Now I’m departing from the world; they are staying in this world…’ (v. 9, 11): for the sake of the mission. The world remains the object of God’s redemptive love manifest in Jesus.
  • ‘Holy Father… protect (literally ‘attentively watch over them’) by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are… (v. 11) Jesus’ prayer is not firstly for the world but for his little handful of disciples, who remain part of the world (v. 15), and through whose character and unity the world is to be won! [This unity is much more than ecclesiastical unity, though it can’t be complete without it]

The fourth pearl, v. 13-19…

  • ‘Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy (my emphasis)…’ (v. 13). This refers to the joy of union with the Father and all those in union with him through faith. Remember these first disciples had nothing/no-one but Jesus! A good place to get to be [3]…
  • ‘I have given them your word… make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth’ (v. 14 & 17)… The gift of God’s word (written and incarnate), i.e. Christ’s ‘real’ disclosure of the Father and his love to his disciples, is his supreme service to his people.
  • This ‘word’ both cleanses and consecrates. ‘And I give myself (what more could he give?) as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth’ (v. 19). Ultimately, truth (and our living it) must be beautiful and convincing [4]. What amazing grace, and at what cost!
  • The purpose of this consecration is the apostolic mission of Christ and his Church in the world, rooted in the Father’s sending of the Son.

How about a brief stretch or coffee break before the fifth pearl? V. 20-21…

  • ‘I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are onemay they be in us so that the world may believe you sent me’ (v.20-21). Christ’s divine ‘incarnation’ and indwelling in his disciples is the only way to saving the world! By the way, wherever there is a true disciple, there are others whom he/she has discipled or is discipling into God’s forever family. The institutional Church is surely failing ‘big time’ here?
  • William Temple puts it like this, ‘The way to the union of Christendom does not lie ultimately through committee-rooms but through personal union with the Lord so deep and real as to be comparable with his union with the Father… If we are in the Father and the Son, we certainly shall be one, and our unity will increase our effective influence in the world.’ A while ago a mature man, not claiming any particular commitment to Christ and his Church, was invited to join us for a day of informal fellowship over food (a South African ‘braai,’ yummy!). He confessed that he had attended many churches over the years, but never felt he wanted to re-visit them. He then mentioned that he had seen and experienced something in our group that ‘made him want to come back for more.’ To God be the glory.
  • In this divine mission lies the one hope of the world. The world’s supreme need is to discover that it’s hope lies, not in power or materialism, but in the fact that the Father has sent the Son!

The sixth pearl, v. 22-24…

  • ‘I have given them the glory you have given me (v. 22)… Father (no epithet here, signifying the personal intimacy of the Son and Father), I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see (lit. ‘behold,’ give careful attention to’) [5] the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began’ (v.24). Jesus longs for the eternal companionship of his friends in the Father’s presence! Wonder of wonders.
  • It is a special, unique ‘glory,’ compared to which all other glories appear tarnished and tawdry [Our beloved Springboks have just lifted the coveted Rugby World Cup against all odds; we revel in the excitement and the glory, but these inevitably pass away]. This glory is the perfect love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father – which is the Holy Spirit. It is the glory of the Godhead!
  • The purpose and consequence of this ‘gift of glory is that the unity of the Godhead may be reproduced in them – in us… so through the perfecting into one of the disciples and their converts (v. 23), the world is enabled progressively to recognize the divine activity at work… it is the manifestation of God’s love in us in our mutual love which shall at last convert the world’ (W. Temple) [6]. The Church in the West is splintered into tens of thousands of ugly bits, but recent research reveals that there is a united and beautiful Church emerging in the most unexpected parts of the world, e.g. China, Iraq, Iran, North India, North Africa, etc.

The seventh and final pearl, v. 25-26…

  • ‘O righteous Father, the world doesn’t know you, but I do; and these disciples know you sent me. I have revealed you to them, and will continue to do so…’ (v. 25-26). An unbelieving world still rejects the splendour of God. God’s people have come to recognize something of his splendour, viz. his character of righteousness and love. The full picture of this splendour is yet to come!

Where do we go from here?? A few practical suggestions…

  • Read and re-read and re-read Jn. 17, until it gets hold of your head, heart and life.
  • If you’re into ‘simple church’ like me, try to network with other such groups in your town, city and nation.
  • Take opportunity, where possible, to join hands with fellow-believers who have a genuine ‘Jn. 17 heart and mission,’ even in traditional denominations.
  • Pray the Spirit to lead you into holistic cross-cultural ministries, especially to the poor. Or perhaps join hands with those fighting our polluted ecology.
  • Will you get hurt in your efforts at times? Inevitably – Jesus was. As my Scottish College principal used to quip, ‘To live above with the saints we love, that will be grace and glory! To live below with the saints we know, that is another story!’
  • Praise God and incessantly pray for Christ’s united body in all the world.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Schaeffer’s book was published in 1971. In it he addressed the desirable tension between the purity of the visible church in regard to doctrine and life on the one hand and the practice of an observable love on the other. [Some well-meaning folk totally spiritualize this unity, to the extent that there is no visible demonstration on earth. Many years ago there was a church-plant in Johannesburg (SA) called ‘The Invisible Church’ – did they gather invisible members I wonder??]

Paperback Church Before the Watching World Book

[2] To distill Jn. 17’s prayer into one or two blogs is virtually impossible. You can get a fuller handle on this passage in Michael Cassidy’s ‘The Church Jesus Prayed For.’ It’s a wonderful read, carved out of African Enterprise’s evangelistic and reconciliation quest in Africa and around the world over half a century.

[3] See my blog on the Church in Iraq, ‘When You’ve Lost Everything,’ dated 26/05/2015.

[4] I once again recommend Brian Zahnd’s fairly recent, ‘Beauty Will Save the World.’

[5] In his classic, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ the famous Jewish psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl, vividly describes (in prison) visualizing (‘beholding’) his wife’s love in his quest for survival and future hope. Unbeknown to him, she and most of his family had already been incinerated in the ovens of Auschwitz.

[6] At our most recent annual ‘simple church’ gathering on an isolated Southern Free State farm, my room mate and I, on the last morning, way before dawn, were reviewing the weekend through a window with a brother on his way to switching on the power generator in the semi-dark. Our conclusion? ‘It’s all about love (Jesus’)… and practicing that love in the every day.’