Are We Safe?

The words of John 17 sparkle as I read them. Jesus is praying for us, for all believers, for all time: “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name.” (17:11)

But even as Jesus prays for our protection, I wonder―are we safe?

Dangers confront us continually in the form of car crashes, heart attacks, divorce, politics, war, or terrorism. Jesus prays, appealing to his Father for our protection, but do we feel safe? We can look to pillars of Christianity and ask the same question. Was John safe when the daughter of Herodias asked for his head? Was Stephen safe from the stones? Was James safe from the sword? Was Paul safe from shipwreck and whipping?

To resolve this uncertainty, we have to ask what we mean when we envision being safe. If safety means that dreadful and scary things won’t happen to us, then we have to say, “No, even the most faithful Christian is not safe.” It must be acknowledged that our belonging to God does not exempt us from earthly tragedy. Christian suffering, from all centuries, can easily attest to this. Jesus confirms, saying, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (17:15).

So, it becomes clear. He is praying for our spiritual survival, both individually and as a community. Specifically, he is praying for protection against a wedge that the evil one would intend to drive into our oneness with God. The protection for which Jesus prayed is not a promise to defend our physical safety, or ensure our financial security, or guarantee good health, or even to establish the kind of political leadership we would like to have in this country. He is praying for protection so that the oneness we have in Christ will not be shattered. His concern is for our eternal salvation.
In verse 21―using an image that leaves us stunned―he prays that we might experience the same kind of oneness which the Father and Son share. How can that be? Then he asks the Father yet again that we might be brought to this divine unity, because “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (17:23).
We dare not be fuzzy on this point. Our oneness, our unity, as brothers and sisters in Christ, is what the world will see as evidence that Jesus is sent to us from the Father and that the Father loves his people. Jesus is praying for protection from division, because it is our unity that will lead the people we love to him. We all have loved ones on our hearts who do not know Jesus. We long for them to be convinced about Jesus and to know that God loves them. It is through our actions, through our unity with God and with others, that they can see an image of that love.

There have always been tensions between Christians, but in my seventy-five years, I’ve never seen a time when Christian unity was so endangered. That today, the idea of being “one” with a believer on the other side of the political aisle is practically incomprehensible. We even find ourselves questioning the genuineness of their faith! And, to be clear, this goes both directions among believers―the right’s attitude toward the left and the left’s toward the right. It seems to me that this must weigh heavy on Jesus’ heart as he continues to pray for our protection from that wedge being driven into our oneness. Jesus knows full well, and we should tremble as we remember, that eternity is at stake.

What machinations does the evil one use to drive that wedge? Perhaps, above all, he uses fear. Fear that we will not be safe. Because our borders aren’t secure. Because our politics are laced with nastiness, mockery, and deceit. Because immorality rises unchecked. Because our very democracy is threatened.

How can I pray along with Jesus for oneness and unity when some of the very people I pray for are perpetuating my fears? I pray easily for their salvation, for their repentance, for God’s intervention, but oneness? How can I pray for oneness? And yet I must. I must pray with Jesus. To refuse to pray for unity is to join the evil one and drive his wedge a little further in.

Even as I write that previous paragraph, I know my own heart, and I think, “This is impossible. I cannot pray like that!” But this, I believe, is precisely where we begin, admitting to our gracious Lord, “I do not want what you want. Have mercy on me. I do not know if fears are driving me, but I am sure that I am not driven by kindness and mercy. Oh God, save me; eternity is at stake.”

And then I look at Christ. He knew the taste of fear. He was tested in all ways just as we are. Earlier in the Gospel we hear his words, “What shall I say? ‘Father save me from this hour?’ No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (12:27). Fear, in its essence, is a refusal to trust the Father. Jesus didn’t run from the fear, but leaned into it. Then, he leaned past that fear, and he embraced the cross. And, with great thankfulness we know that, included in his cross, was our resistance to his prayer for unity. He pours over us cleansing for our hard-heartedness.

Jesus was not safe (not in the way we usually think of it), and neither are we. What if our worst fears came to be? What if our democracy collapsed? Or we never saw the nation we loved restored to its former glory? We are kept in his gracious care! And from that place, where we are mercifully and lovingly and powerfully held and protected, we pass on his kindness in our words, our thoughts, our prayers and our actions to those who don’t think like we do politically, to those with whom we continue to disagree.

And then, as unity is slowly rescued from the embers of conflict between us, the words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a Scottish pastor of the early 1800s, begin to come alive: “The Christian is a person who makes it easy for others to believe in God.”

Rev. John Wile is a retired CLB pastor currently serving as interim preaching pastor at Living Hope in Menomonie, Wisconsin.

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