Photo credit: Brett Sayles
Readings: Isaiah 62:1-2, 11-12, John 17:6-19, Secrets of Heaven #9229 (see below)
One of the reasons why I love this text today, is that you can really hear Jesus as a person in it. He is praying for his friends. In a moment he will pray for all those who will come after but this prayer, this prayer is for his companions who have been journeying with him for the past three years; his friends, his disciples. You can hear that history of friendship in this prayer. “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them, by the power of your name…” I don’t know about you, but I am deeply moved by the pathos held in these words about someone leaving and wishing they could still protect those they care about.
Jesus and the disciples had been through a lot together. And so when Jesus had a chance to pray for them, he prayed for their protection, for their joyfulness, and for their connectedness, and lastly, for their sanctification. To sanctify something means to make it holy. Often times in religious contexts, this implies a separation or a purification. That to be holy or consecrated, something needs to be set apart, or having something about it purged, or stripped away. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is getting at here.
The whole time Jesus is praying, before ending with the notion of sanctification, he is praying about connection, weaving together God and Jesus and people, saying things like ”so that they might be one as we are one,” or “They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.” We can see then, how sanctification must have something to do with entering into or being brought into oneness and connection.
But what does that really mean? We heard in our Swedenborg reading that holiness comes from the Lord alone. So it is not something that we can accomplish on our own, or while being separate from God. Holiness requires connection to God by its essential nature. Holiness emanates from God, and the holiness of anything else is directly correlated to how connected it is and receptive it is to the divine.
But it also doesn’t seem like a binary connection, like putting a plug into a socket. It is more mystical than that. Jesus says “All I have is yours and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them.” There is a sense of co-mingling and a shared identity. In fact, it reminds me of what Swedenborg wrote in Divine Providence: “the more closely we are united to the Lord, the more clearly we seem to have our own identity, and yet the more obvious it is that we belong to the Lord.”(1)
And now we also have this word: belong. The more we intentionally connect to the Lord, the more clear it becomes that we belong to the Lord. And not in the sense of being God’s property, but in the sense of being a part of something bigger, a sense of being exactly where we are supposed to be. So we are learning that holiness is a function of connection, which leads to a sense of belonging.
We are seeing that Jesus’ prayer has a powerful subtext; it is about what is going to happen to the disciples next in their lives, but even more it is about “becoming who are we in God.” To quote one of my seminary professors:
Jesus called us into sanctification, which is the becoming of who we and the earth are in God: sacred people living in sacred places with all forms of sacred life, without distinction. (2)
God wants everything to be holy because God wants everything to be connected to the divine. Holiness cannot be some kind of currency that mediates the value of someone or something, meaning that only a few very special things are or can be holy. That seems more like something the grasping human mind would do to the concept of holiness.
In fact, the more I hear about this, the less it seems that holiness is something staid, static, prescribed, measured, perfect, something that we must be very careful with because it is so very special, but rather, it has to be something that we fling ourselves into and towards with abandon, with our whole selves. If holiness comes from our connection with God, then holiness must also involve holding nothing back, holiness must also involve letting go; letting go of the ways we think it should be and letting it become what it is.
But of course, we need to remember to circle back to the fact that holiness is found in God not us. All of these observations about holiness are beautiful but can also very easily be twisted to sanctify anything that we want sanctified. God wants everything to be holy but that doesn’t mean everything can be holy. Evil, malice, hatred, distortion…these things could never even contemplate the kind of ego relinquishment that holiness requires.
Thus, we see in the text that Jesus says “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” You might recognize these words from our communion liturgy. This is intentional, in order to reflect the reality that holiness is not a firehose of blissful acceptance, but it is an active and intentional partnership with what emanates from God. Swedenborg writes:
By 'that which is holy' is meant the Divine Truth emanating from the Lord. This Truth is called holy, and is meant also by the Holy Spirit…(3)
Holiness is an attribute of divine truth. When Jesus was praying for the sanctification of his disciples, he was praying that they would feel anchored and grounded in the reality of what he had embodied for them, the truths that he had brought to life for them. He said: “They are not of the world…” meaning that he hoped they would not find their belonging in the cravenness of human self-centeredness but rather in the universal and sacrificial love of God. The gospel of John begins with the “Word became flesh.” Jesus’ very existence tells us the truth about God.
But, divine truth is not just about knowledge but about life. Swedenborg writes, speaking of those in the spiritual church:
…in the measure that they receive good from the Lord they are holy; and the measure of good they receive from the Lord, that is, the measure in which they are holy, is determined by how far they lead a life of good in keeping with the genuine truths of faith, and by how far at that time they believe that all the good they think and do then begins in the Lord. (4)
Holiness is also about how open we are to being transformed by loving our neighbor, by being useful, by leaving the world better than we found it. Have you heard the phrase that it is better to “get caught trying?” It means that it is better to at least risk trying to accomplish important, loving, difficult things, and potentially fail, than to not try at all. There is magic, holiness, in that desire to serve that is willing to “get caught trying.” Jesus knew that his disciples would have a difficult road ahead of them, but if they were grounded, sanctified, in the truth that leads to good, the truth that leads to trying, then they would be protected from “the evil one,” that is, the forces that try to stop us from “getting caught trying,” the forces of cynicism, avarice, hypocrisy, ambition and fear.
What have we discovered today? That holiness is about connection and about belonging. That holiness grounds us in truth, propels us in life. That sanctification is the process of tracing all things back to God and then finding out who we are in that light.
Jesus loved his disciples. What he wanted for his friends, was that they might be so deeply connected to the divine, to the reality which Jesus had embodied for them, that it would sustain them going forward. That they would understand the quality of the love that they belonged to and that they might “have the full measure of [his] joy within them.” And Jesus wants that for us as well.
Isaiah 62:1-2, 11-12
1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. 2 The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.
11 The LORD has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your Savior comes! See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.’ ” 12 They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD; and you will be called Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted.
6 “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. 13 “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
Secrets of Heaven #9229
… the meaning of 'men of holiness' [is] those who are led by the Lord, for the Divine which emanates from the Lord is holiness itself. Consequently those who receive that emanation in faith and also in love are called holy ones. Anyone who imagines that a person is holy from any other source, or that anything present with a person is holy apart from that which comes and is received from the Lord is very much mistaken...