In chapter 17 of John, we overhear Jesus praying for the ones he has traveled with for three years; the motley crew whom he called from their nets and labor, whom the Father gave to him. Jesus is praying for them, and for, “those who will believe in me through their word.” (v. 20) That’s you.
Jesus is praying for us, too. He is praying for your church, for the church on the corner in your neighborhood, and in every neighborhood. He is praying because this is what Jesus left behind.
Lesslie Newbigin writes in The Light has Come: Expositions on the Fourth Gospel, “The work of Jesus is the communication of the name of God to a community. He does not bequeath to posterity a body of teaching preserved in a book — like the Qur’an. He does not leave behind an ideal or a program. He leaves behind a community — the Church.” (p. 228) Jesus leaves behind a community. To be light in darkness, to do the will of God on earth as it is in heaven, to contend for the world against the powers of sin, death, and devil, to create parables of the Kingdom, to love one another.
To continue his mission, Jesus sends a community. What in heaven’s name was Jesus thinking? Communities are messy, communities are inefficient, communities are embedded in complex stories and cultures, communities are emotionally and physically demanding, communities can be fragile. Yes communities are strong and loving, but they can also be fragile and wounding. Communities are really complicated. As pastors and preachers, we spend many of our days wrestling with the temptation to treat the church like something other, something easier, than a sent community.
We often would like to treat the church like a business. We can define the product, identify the market, develop the strategy, implement the processes, assess the results…and tweak. Sometimes we’d like to make it a vendor, dispensing religious services to those who need them, preferably within office hours. Sometimes it feels like the church simply wants to be a club, existing for the benefit and enjoyment of its members. At the very least we could charge dues and get rid of pledge campaigns. Any of these seems easier than a community… but Jesus did not leave any of these. He left a community of people in the world to be like him.
So Jesus prays. He prays, because we are just people, ordinary people. Jesus prays because we have no special talents or skill or holiness that equips us for this mission; he prays because we are so prone to misunderstand; he prays because the evil one creates division and dissension and distraction at every opportunity; he prays because we have no strength for this ministry, except the name.
“Holy Father, protect them in your name,” Jesus prays. The name Moses asked for, the name that is the very power and presence of God, the name that Jesus reveals in his life and words and face. This is the name in which the community must remain. The name is the source of our unity, our joy, our strength, our effectiveness, our ability to bless the world and love our neighbor. The only way the community of Christ has any chance to be the body of Christ is by the name, the living power and the presence of God.
This Sunday, when we preachers stand in the community to speak a word from the Lord, it may be the moment to say just that: this is a community. We are not a program, or a club, or a business; I am not your CEO, we don’t have a market or a strategy. All we really have is the name, the presence and power of God. So let us pray, as Christ prayed for us.