A while back I was friends with a bunch of guys who participated in a group Christian athletes. I was part of that group for years, beginning in high school, through college, and I coached their football camps every summer for maybe seven or eight years. I got to know most of the leaders pretty well, almost all of them were great guys, but there were two guys I remember who were a little off. Those two were good guys as well, I don’t mean to disparage them, but they had some habits that rubbed people the wrong way. They did things like leave pocket Bibles as tips in restaurants instead of cash, they gave their ‘testimony’ to the unwilling trapped in elevators, they were rarely seen not waving some sort of men’s devotional booklet around. Like I said, they were good guys, but their habits had a way of alienating them from the rest of society, and they didn’t seem to get that fact. These two would complain that people didn’t like them because they were Christians, and they would quote Jesus from today’s Gospel lesson: “…the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” Well, one day we were hanging out after a Bible study, and these two were complaining again how people hate them just like the people hated Jesus, and another guy in the group finally asked the question: “Do you think people hate you because you’re a Christian, or because you’re sanctimonious and overbearing?”
They had certainly begged the question. But for so many of us, the question is different. Our question is probably more like this: When was the last time someone hated you because you did not belong to this world? When was the last time someone hated you, actually mistreated you or ridiculed you or ignored you because you are a Christian? And for that matter, would anyone have the chance to even know you are a Christian in order to hate you?
Almost all of the Apostles at some point hid the fact that they were Christians, but they were not yet in hiding when scene we just heard took place. They were in an Upper Room, the Upper Room, finishing up supper and hearing what was essentially the last will and testament of Jesus. Jesus had washed their feet, He had taken bread and wine, blessed and gave it to them, and then proceeded to teach them. Three and a half chapters in the Gospel according to John are dedicated to this teaching, essentially a fifth of the whole Gospel, and the dinner conversation John recorded for us ended with a prayer. This was the night in which He was betrayed, the worst night ever in the history of the world, and yet Jesus taught and prayed, prayed for His disciples, prayed for us. Jesus prayed that the disciples would not be scattered, that they would have each other for help. He prayed that the Father would protect them, not necessarily from worldly harm but from spiritual death, He prayed that they continue in the truth, that they not be subject to the wiles and snares of the devil, whom Jesus called the evil one. He prayed that they may be one, of one mind and one heart, so that the glory of the Lord might shine through them as it shined through Him. This prayer is called the High Priestly Prayer, it is the prayer our great High Priest gave when sitting at the table on which He instituted the Eucharist. It’s kinda important.
And it’s kinda important that Jesus, in this long discourse and prayer, laid out how the world would identify a Christian. It seems that being holy, being set apart for God, is the identifying factor. Sometimes we think about being holy as a list of things we can’t do, actions prohibited by the Church or by an outside force. For the Christians in the early Church, so often it was the Empire that identified and kept them apart. “As an occasionally persecuted minority in a pagan culture, a lot of things were clear. For example, Christians couldn’t attend the public games, they couldn’t hold several types of jobs, they couldn’t join the army, and so on. The world often ridiculed or hated them — and both sides pretty much knew why. It’s not so easy these days. Modern attempts to come up with lists of popular things Christians can’t do have usually been rather silly. And we Episcopalians have been downright smug in pointing out that we aren’t like those people (you know, the Baptists, and others) who say you can’t dance or wear make-up or go to movies.”1 We might chuckle a little bit when we hear someone say that Christians shouldn’t dance because dancing leads to sex (not to mention that I think the reverse is also true, that sex leads to dancing), but how often do we think about how one of our actions can lead to an action that might be sinful, and for that matter, how often do we think about our downright sinful actions? All this leads back to our initial question: When was the last time someone hated you, actually mistreated you or ridiculed you or ignored you because you are a Christian? And for that matter, would anyone have the chance to even know you are a Christian in order to hate you?
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” Sanctify them in the truth, Jesus prayed; make them holy in the truth that is God’s holy word, so that the world may know that these Christians are different, set apart from the world. Being sanctified, being set apart, being made holy is both more difficult and less difficult than it sounds. We were all set apart at our baptisms, we are all already on the road to holiness. Our baptisms set us on that road and grafted us into that holy body that is the Church, so that in the Church we all may be one, as Jesus prayed for us. Are there lists of things Christians ought not to do? Sure. That’s the easy part, that’s why Jesus didn’t spend His last hours praying that His followers didn’t roam around randomly killing people or stealing or fornicating. Instead Jesus prayed for the hard stuff: He prayed that we live together as one in the truth, one body of the faithful made holy in the truth. This is Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, and we pray that prayer to this day. For more than a thousand years priests have approached the altar, stood in for Jesus, and echoed the High Priestly Prayer, and in a bold and incorrect liturgical move, this Prayer for the Church has become in the ’79 BCP the Prayers of the People. But whoever may say it, it is still the prayer for the Church, it is still the same prayer that Jesus prayed for us, that the Father inspire the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity and concord, and that all who do confess His holy Name may agree in the truth of His holy Word, and live in unity and godly love.
That same High Priest still prays for us, He is even now interceding for us at the Throne of God, praying that we and all Christians become so sanctified, so holy, that the world won’t know what to make of us. Maybe one day even you and I will become holy, so recognizably Christian, that someone might hate us for it.