Text Study for John 17:6-19 (Pt. 4); 7 Easter B 2021

4. And Sanctified in Truth

If glorification means making visible God’s presence in the world, then Jesus prays that the disciples will be set apart for this continuing mission in the world and for the life of the world. “Sanctification” means being set apart for a particular task, function, or purpose. It can be translated as “being made holy.” But we equate holiness with some sort of cramped and crabby morality rather than with the idea that Jesus followers are marked out for being the place and places in the world where God’s presence in Jesus by the power of the Spirit is most visible.

It should be clear from Jesus’ own story that being set apart and sent into the world is dangerous business. We will see that below as we remember the execution by stoning Jesus barely avoided in John 10. Therefore, the discussion of sanctification is closely connected to the discussion in verses 11-16 of “protection.”

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Jesus has already moved into the final phase of his mission in John’s gospel. Remember, this the conclusion of the Farewell Discourse. “and I am no longer in the cosmos,” he prays in verse 11, “and they are in the cosmos, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name which you have given me, in order that they shall be one, just as we are [one].”

The word which the NRSV translates as “protect” is a common Greek word which means to keep, to keep under guard, to keep safe. Jesus prays that disciples will be preserved and protected in the “name” they have been given. The opposite of “to be in the name” is to be in the realm or power of the Evil One. Riesenfeld (TDNT VIII:142) notes that there is a parallelism between “in the name” in verse 11 and “from the Evil One” in verse 15.

“[T]he evil one is the embodiment of all that is opposed to God,” O’Day and Hylen observe. “The community will live and work in the midst of this opposition. Jesus prays for God’s protection because of the realities that believers face living in the world” (Kindle Location 3463). The Good Shepherd has taken care of the sheep placed in his care. Now he goes to lay down his life for the sake of the sheep, and he prays that the Father will keep the flock together in safety.

“Sanctification is that which is essential to being sent into the world,” Karoline Lewis writes, “Another way of imagining the meaning of sanctification in this context is that it is a synonym for protection” (page 212). We are sent into places that are dangerous and where we might be tempted to fall away. “Both Jesus and the community are set apart for God’s work (v. 19),” O’Day and Hylen conclude, “in the full truth of God that Jesus’ life and death reveal” (Kindle Location 3468).

I don’t want to beat people over the head with this. However, I don’t think that risk and danger are the primary reasons people come to church. In my experience, most people want safety and security, comfort and consolation, assurance and affirmation, when they come to churches. They aren’t looking for confrontation with evil, danger of losing faith, and risk of death. I don’t come looking for that either.

Such fraught experiences are, however, to be the norm rather than the exception for disciples sent into the world and set apart for the sake of the Truth. If all we ever get and want is safety, I have to wonder if we’re really going to the places and doing the things for which we have been set apart. I wonder that first about myself, for example, in seeking to be an ally with and for those who are oppressed by our various systems of injustice and violence. I have rarely been in places of danger in that regard. That’s probably not what Jesus intends for me.

I have not often shared this with people. It’s not a great marketing tool for recruiting new members and keeping church council members from complaining. Yet is it any wonder that at least some folks feel like the church is sometimes a “bait and switch” operation? We promise sweetness and light up front and then ask disciples for their very lives. I’m not surprised that people respond somewhat violently when we do this. Perhaps we need to be a bit more honest about the risks of discipleship and let the rewards take care of themselves.

But then, I’m retired…easy for me to say.

We should note that in John Jesus is the one who is first “sanctified.” In the latter part of John 10, Jesus debates with the Jewish authorities about his status as Messiah. This debate takes place during the Feast of Hanukkah, also known as the “festival of Dedication.” This festival remembers and celebrates the restoration of the Temple during the Maccabean regime after the desecration of the Temple by the Greek invaders. It is no accident, of course, that this debate happens during such a festival. Jesus comes, as we know from previous discussion in John, to fulfill and replace the function and centrality of the Temple.

Jesus declares that he is the Messiah, that his sheep follow him and receive eternal life, and that he and the Father are one. In response, the Jewish authorities prepare to stone him to death for the crime of blasphemy. Jesus engages them in a debate about the text of Psalm 82, where the psalmist quotes the Lord as saying, “you are gods.” Jesus then challenges them by asking in 10:36 (NRSV), “can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?”

Jesus is set apart (sanctified) and sent into the world to do the works of the Father. Jesus then picks up this combination in John 17:17-19. “Set them apart in the truth,” Jesus prays. “Your Word is Truth.” The term Jesus uses in this verse is “logos,” the primary term we get in John’s prologue. That’s why I would capitalize the term in translation. It’s clear that John’s gospel intends to connect the Word sent into the world to make known the Father’s heart with the Word that impels the disciples now to do the same.

“Just as you sent me into the cosmos,” Jesus continues in verse 18, “I also sent them into the cosmos.” Jesus followers are set apart and sent. There’s another possible sermon theme that wraps up the Easter season and propels us into the season of the Church. The verb tense is interesting here as well. We can understand that Jesus was sent (past completed action). But Jesus says that disciples were already sent (also past completed action). We’ve discussed the fluidity of tenses in John. It’s also the case that the Incarnation set in motion the process which has resulted in “set apart and sent” disciples. That event is in the “past” of the disciples.

There is, as Bruce notes, a kind of reciprocal relationship between the being set apart and being sent. “The very message which they are to proclaim in his name will exercise its sanctifying effect on them,” he writes, “That message is the continuation of his message, just as their mission in the world is the extension of his mission” (page 448).

As we bear witness, the Word makes a continuing claim on us and forms us for the sending. And the sending continues to set us apart for the mission. So, if we have some trouble connecting with our sense of “set apart and sent,” that might be diagnostic of our need for more exposure to the Word – in scripture, in sacraments, and in the life of the body of Christ.

Verse 19 brings this set of ideas to a conclusion. “And for their sake, I am setting myself apart,” Jesus says, “in order that they themselves shall also have been set apart in the truth.” Commentators understand Jesus to mean that he is now ready for the final act in his work – being lifted up on the cross, in the resurrection, and into the ascension.

What about the discussion of “protection” in John 10:11-15? Karoline Lewis suggests that “protection” is a synonym for “sanctification.” She writes, “To be sanctified has connotations of being set apart, dedicated, or consecrated. In this Gospel, it is directly connected to being sent into the world, for Jesus and now for the disciples.” (page 212).

I appreciate Karoline Lewis’ suggestions for how this text fits into the liturgical rhythm and lectionary flow of the transition from the season of Easter to the season “after” Pentecost. “As the seventh and last Sunday of Easter before the festival of Pentecost and the beginning of the long green season, Jesus’ closing words, are more than a fitting finish,” she notes. What if Jesus’ prayer for unity that mirrors the unity of the Trinity “was that which provided a theme for the entire season of Pentecost for your congregation?” (page 214).

Her concluding questions are worth quoting in full. “What if we imagined that the resurrection of Jesus was just the beginning and not the conclusion of the Gospel? That the promises of the resurrection are, in part, ours to fulfill? How would a life of discipleship, of witness, of love, between Pentecost and Advent, be different if we were to trust that Jesus meant what he said in 14:12, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” We are in the world now, the world that God loves (3:16).” (page 214).

References and Resources

Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Laskey, Dennis A., “Luther’s Exposition of John 17,” Currents in Theology and Mission, 1991. https://www.richardmburgess.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/jn_17_Laskey_-_Luthers_exposition_of_John_17.115152032.pdf.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

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