In the 17th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus is praying to God in the prayer just before his crucifixion. In this particular portion of the prayer, Jesus prays for the unity and protection of his disciples in a hostile world. He begins by describing the work that God gave him to do – making God known to the people, giving the word of God to them, telling them that God sent Jesus to be with them. Jesus then goes on to ask God for protection and unity on behalf of his disciples. Jesus recalls the way he protected the disciples while on earth but, knowing he must leave them, prays for God’s continued protection. Jesus also speaks of the persecution and hatred the disciples endure because of their beliefs and identities as Christians. On this point, Jesus describes how “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (v.14). Continuing his prayer, Jesus does not suggest that God should take them from the world (“I am not asking you to take them out of the world”). Rather, he asks for God to protect them and to sanctify them in the truth of God’s word, acknowledging how Jesus sent them into the world.
Jesus and the disciples faced persecution, hatred, and violence because of who they were, how they identified, and the way they loved. They felt alienated from the world and in need of protection. John’s gospel tells of a compassionate Jesus who both experienced these difficult realities and protected his disciples from them while on earth. But Jesus’ compassion and care does not stop there. Even as he is soon to be betrayed and crucified, he prays to God on behalf of the disciples. He asks for their continued protection once he is no longer with them. Jesus is concerned for their future. He hopes for their welfare, and asks for their protection.
In what is perhaps the most challenging part of this passage, Jesus places the hatred the disciples face in the world in the context of their being “sent into the world” (v. 18). In speaking to God, Jesus both asks God for their protection from the world and reiterates the importance of the disciples continuing their work in the world. In this way, Jesus reminds us that discipleship requires bold presence in a hostile world and that standing for truth means facing opposition.
One of the most prominent elements of this passage is Jesus’ compassion. We see that Jesus and the early Christian community knew the pain of violence and persecution, they experienced hatred from the world, and they needed protection. Amidst this turmoil, we also see Jesus’ deep compassion for the people of God – his disciples. He protects them on Earth and prays to God asking for their continued protection. We see a deeply incarnational God in Jesus – one who experiences pain and hatred alongside the disciples, one who is deeply concerned for their welfare, and one who prays for their protection. This compassionate Jesus stands too with all those who are at the margins and who face hatred, violence, and persecution today. Jesus experiences their pain, is concerned for their well being, and hopes for their protection. The compassionate Jesus also lives among those African LGBTQ persons persecuted and discriminated against because of their sexual or gender identity. Jesus invites his disciples today into the same sort of active compassion.
Another striking component of this passage is the way that Jesus places the hatred of the world in the context of being “sent into the world” (v.18). Admittedly, this is a challenging part of the text. Although Jesus prays to God for the protection of his disciples, his desire for their protection does not trump their commissioning to witness to the truth in the world. Even in his prayer for their protection, Jesus reiterates the importance of the disciples going into the world and witnessing to the truth.
As Jesus’ disciples, we too are meant to go into the world and to witness truth in the world. Whether it is the truth of our own identities, or the truth that it is not acceptable to discriminate on the basis of gender and sexuality, or the truth that religion can no longer be exploited for the use of violence and persecution, we are called to speak those truths publicly and actively into the world. And, as Jesus acknowledges, so we must acknowledge, that speaking such truth means meeting face-to-face with opposition. Standing up against the violence and persecution of LGBTQ persons perpetrated in African countries means facing a hostile world: countries with hostile laws, individuals committed to homophobia and persecution, religious people with hostile ideas about sexuality, and the apathy and silence of fellow Christians. Jesus reminds us that we are sent into such a world to witness to the truth, and we go with God’s care and protection.