Jesus is not the “parent” of his followers but his love for them is at least as fervent as a mother for her children. Thus as Jesus looks ahead to his own departure, realizing that he’d have to leave his friends to keep working in the midst of a highly challenging world, Jesus knows that among the things he must pray for them is protection from the evil one, from the destructive forces of life that seem calculated to knock the stuffing out of us more days than not. Jesus knows, too, that the success of his mission depends precisely on the disciples’ not being transported out of this world nor cocooned away somewhere far away from society or from the people in this world who need to hear the Gospel message.
Jesus prays “protect them.” I pray for my children, that they are not dead in a ditch somewhere. Although that is my prayer, I’m not sure that’s what Jesus had in mind. What is the protection that Jesus prays for? I think when we think about God’s protection we may think about being spared from an untimely death. Sometimes we even live in a bit of a fantasy that includes immortality, invulnerability, and invincibility. Nothing Jesus does, nothing Jesus prays, takes away the reality of death. But Jesus assures his friends, Jesus prays to his father, protect them don’t lose them.
Maybe what Jesus imagines when he prays, protect them, is protection from the ways and the wills of the world. You see, following Jesus, then or now, is not about withdrawing from the world, actually, that might be easier. Finding a solitary cave somewhere so no one can bother you, or disagree with you, or offend you, some days looks to me like a sweet deal. Protect them, while they live in the world. Protect them while they love you and love their neighbors. Protect them while they stand up for my love. Protect them when they stand up for those who are hungry, and tired. Protect them when their words and actions disrupt the accepted order of things.
You see, Jesus knows what trouble you can get into when you work to change systems that keep people in poverty, at the least you get called names, some have been thrown into jail, some have been killed for it. Jesus knows what trouble you can get into when you insist that all God’s children should have affordable health care, or education.
God’s protection doesn’t keep us alive, or even safe, it doesn’t even keep us from worrying. Although we hear over and over, do not be afraid, worry will get you nowhere. God’s protection surrounds us in the power of the Spirit, that we may be assured of the love and the grace that comes only from the one who rises from the dead and ascends into heaven.
So the evening before Jesus is betrayed, beaten, and executed, Jesus stops, and prays for those he loves and leaves behind. Jesus prays for assurance and protection. This is some amazing love. This is love that is all about a relationship. This prayer in John’s gospel is near the end of Jesus’ farewell to his followers. In the other gospels, Jesus’ prayer is the one we know as the Lord’s Prayer. But in this gospel, this is Jesus’ prayer.
We hear Jesus recall for us another story; the shepherd who looks for the one sheep who is lost, the story of the shepherd who calls the sheep by name, the shepherd who brings the sheep into the sheepfold; the shepherd who protects the sheep.
Sometimes this world can be a rough and dangerous place. School is not always a safe place. Work can be brutal. That is not to say that we don’t have glimpses of hope and holiness, indeed we do. We do when we are participants in God’s grace and protection. When we offer love to the unloved we become the agents of God’s protection. When we offer mercy when others jump to judgment, we become the bearers God’s love. When we act on our convictions to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God we become bearers of the gospel, bearers of the good news.
And that is what Jesus prays for his followers, for us. Protect them when they bear your love into the world.
As a mother, I want desperately to protect my children. When they were young I spent a lot of time and energy protecting their innocence, I really didn’t want them to have to encounter the meanness, the harshness, the world could dish out sometimes. I never even imagined when my children were little, what kind of risk there would be in just going to school. But at the very least I know that my job as parent was and is to equip them with resiliency, to cover them in love, and to show them that no matter what, even when my love is imperfect, God’s love is not. But I cannot save them from pain, from destruction, from death. Even God does not.
You see, even God’s protection does not save us from the reality of this life, but instead, goes with us into the brambles, the pits, and the grave, accompanies us and assures us of the something more that is resurrection and ascension. That’s actually what we hear right at the end of this prayer. Jesus says, sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. You see, used in this way, sanctify is synonymous with protect. Jesus again asks for protection for us. We do live in the reality of resurrection, of new life, and that is what empowers us to do the work that we are called to do. We are protected by the power of the Holy Spirit, and accompanied by the risen Christ, and imbued with the love of God, to live the life that has been promised; the life of justice and kindness, not of ease and absence of pain.
It is our job to be agents of justice. It is our job to be bearers of kindness. In every time and place, no matter what, with God’s protection and grace we who are followers of Jesus go out into the world to love and serve our God. Amen.