John 17:11-15: Becoming Evil


A sermon preached on May 20, 2012, based upon John 17:11 – 15. 

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:11-15)

In this passage Jesus is with his disciples on the night before he dies.  For several chapters he’s been saying things to them in order to prepare them for living in this world without him.  Here in the 17th chapter, he begins praying for them.

In Jesus’ mind (as John presents Jesus) the hard part is behind him, because he is leaving this world and going to the Father. It’s the disciples who need to be prayed for, because they now have the hard part.  And it’s clear he’s not praying just for them – he’s praying for us as well.  We, his followers, are still in this world.  And this world, he implies, is dangerous.

So he prays for our protection.  Usually when we think of protection, we think of being protected from bad things happening to us – protection from violence, and sickness, and accidents and the like.

I think that there are times when we are given this kind of protection – times when, for reasons that will never in this life be fully apparent, God is clearing the path before us.  Perhaps God has something specific God wants us to accomplish during these times, but we don’t really understand how or why this happens.  It’s a mystery.  I don’t think, however, that we can count on this kind of protection always being with us.   In this world, bad things happen to good people all the time.

But that isn’t the kind of protection that Jesus is referring to in his prayer.  He is praying for protection from the evil one – that we be protected from being taken over by evil and becoming lost souls.

There are people in this world who get taken over by evil.

It’s important here to make a couple of distinctions.

First off, we’re not referring here to socio-paths.   There are people in this world who have never had a conscience and simply lack the capacity to empathize with other people.  They commit evil in this world, but they are not the sort of evil people we’re talking about.  Socio-paths have a mental illness.  Something is wrong with a socio-path’s brain.

And secondly, there is a big difference between being a sinner and being an evil person.   We are all sinners, which means we routinely do things that are harmful to life – that are unloving.   Some of us might be wondering about yourselves as I talk, “Could I be an evil person?  I know I’ve done some pretty bad things in my life that I feel ashamed of.”  To be able to acknowledge like this means you are simply a sinner, and not an evil person.

The thing about evil people is that they have lost the capacity to own up to their sin.  There is a God-given conscience somewhere inside them – but it is so buried, that it can’t do its job.

Jesus says in his prayer that while he was on earth he safely protected his disciples – kept them from becoming evil – all of them, that is, except Judas.  He alone has been lost.  Earlier in John’s Gospel, we are told the precise moment when “Satan entered him.” (13:26b- 27.)   It happened while Jesus was sharing a meal with his disciples.

Judas has already made plans to betray Jesus to the authorities, but it hasn’t happened yet.  There is still time to turn back on the road to destruction.

In the ancient world, even more so than today, it was understood that to share a meal with another person was a very intimate thing to do.   When you share a meal you are opening your heart to the other person.

In the course of this meal, the most intimate of moments occurs —  the moment at which Judas should have turned back.  Jesus takes a piece of bread and dips it into the common cup, and then he personally offers it to Judas — like a mother feeding a child.   This should have been the moment at which Judas turned back, but since he didn’t, but chooses to proceed with his evil plans, this is the moment during which Satan takes him over.

But of course, even though there is a particular moment when evil can be said to have fully taken hold of Judas, we know that that the path was long that lead up to this moment.  There were choices made by Judas along the way that opened him up more and more to the power of evil — choices to hold on to smoldering resentment for perceived slights.  Perhaps, it seemed to Judas that Jesus loved others more.   Perhaps he felt unappreciated for all he did for the church; he was the treasurer, after all.  “Nobody appreciates how much I do for this church!” Step by step he chooses to let his bitterness grow.

Maybe he felt as though his ideas for what they should be doing in the ministry were better than everybody else’s ideas; and then the choice time and again to hold onto this notion, and the anger that comes with it when his ideas didn’t get the respect he thought they deserved.   Choices – oh so many choices along the way to hold onto his wounded pride, rather than to let it go; to neither forgive, nor to humble himself.

And with each such choice along the way, the hardening of Judas’ heart became more and more severe, making it all the more resistant to light and love.  And when the heart closes down to light and love, it opens up to evil’s power.

In the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, we say, “Lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil.”   Pray it daily Jesus said.  Pray it because we are, in fact, very fragile; so vulnerable.

But we are tempted to believe, “Oh, I’m somebody who has solid moral values.  It’s other people who are vulnerable to evil – not me.”  The story told in the Gospel, however make it very clear that it was precisely people who thought such things who were the most susceptible to being taken over by evil.  The scribes and the Pharisees, the priests and elders, all people with impeccable credentials as good, highly moral people – it is precisely these people who conspire to have Jesus crucified.

And to drive the point home even further – it’s one the original twelve Christians who betrays Jesus over to them.  Judas began with a willing heart, but over time, he lost his willing heart.  He stands as a warning for us.   Just because we go to church – just because we read the Bible or have an appearance of goodness – doesn’t mean we are immune.

The first line we heard was, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

It’s a big deal for Jesus, this business about “being one.”  He prays that we may be one – have a similar kind of oneness with one another that he has with God.   That we live connected to, and in harmony with, others who are seeking to live in God’s light.

We are tempted in life to “go it alone,” which is part of what it means to say to ourselves, “I’m not really vulnerable to evil.”

I’ve heard people say things that imply that Church is for weaklings, unaware of just how weak they themselves were, and how such arrogance opens them up to evil.

Judas chose to go it alone rather than to stay connected to the church.

We really need others – particularly others with whom we can share a commitment to staying on God’s path.

Jesus’ prayer contains the business about how as Christians we don’t belong to the world — that this world somehow puts us in danger of losing our souls.  That the world hates us.

This can sound pretty weird, even paranoid.

It’s important to recognize that Jesus isn’t telling us to pull away from “the world”; to keep our distance from people who don’t go to church with us.  Hardly.  Jesus went wherever people would have him.  He was truly in the world.

The earth we live on is a beautiful, blessed place, and all the people who live on this earth bear the light of Jesus, if we just have eyes to see it.

But the dominant values of this world are corrupt, and so we are not in this world in the sense of intentionally trying to reject the values of this world and to live instead by the values of God’s Kingdom.  There is something of the quality of evil in the values that govern this world, and that if we buy into these values – the world’s way of seeing life — we become particularly susceptible to evil.

There are a lot of things we could point to as being a part of this world view.

Here are a seven I came up with quickly:

1) Appearance matters more than substance.  It doesn’t matter who you are; what matters is what you appear to be.

2) In order to be happy, there are all these material things that you must have, and if you don’t have these things, you will be inferior to your neighbors who do have them.

3)  In order to be happy, you have to have a lot of money.

4) It is really important – if not the most important thing — to be sexually attractive.  Confirmation of this is found on most of the magazine covers in the check out lines, the endless commercials that use sex to hawk products, and all the TV shows that are preoccupied with sex.  Hand in hand with this is that growing old is a horrible thing.

5) Ultimately, the way to resolve disputes is to beat down your opponent.

6) You need to be in a hurry.  If you’re not, there’s something wrong with you.   (This is a big one that evil tries to get us with, because if we can be exhausted, we will make poor choices, and if we’re in a hurry, we’ll never have time to consider deeply the consequences of our actions.)

7) You can go it alone.  In fact, you should go it alone — you shouldn’t have to rely on other people in life.   (This is part of why money is so important.)

The thing about all these things is that they are lies.   To some extent, we all are affected by these values, because they are promoted all around us.   We have to actively reject this world view, otherwise we will be on our way to losing our souls.

And I want to end with the question that may be on our minds:  Is there hope for people who have been taken over by evil?   Can evil people be redeemed?

I believe there is, and I base my hope in Jesus’ image of the good shepherd who leaves the ninety nine sheep who are safely in the fold and goes out into wilderness to search for the one lost sheep.  Jesus says that when – not if, but when — he finds the lost sheep, he brings him home and calls together all the neighbors (and angels) to celebrate.

I believe God’s searching of the lost continues somehow beyond death.

I read a newspaper article years ago about this woman named Velma Barfield in North Carolina who was executed for having poisoned four people in order to cover the fact that she had forged some checks.  For sure, she was somebody who evil had taken over.

But I held onto the article because in the years she waited in prison for her execution, she changed.   Many testified to how she became a real blessing – a real light to her fellow inmates.   And the words she used to describe how evil had taken hold of her struck me as particularly insightful.

She’d had a particularly hard life. In the course of that life she said she’d accumulated a whole lot of anger and frustration, which, she compared to snow piling up on a roof to the point it caves in.

She said, “How I wish I had shoveled my roof.  Instead, I drank from a bitter cup, which is Satan’s cup, and tried to drown my sorrow in a handful of pills.”

Part of why we come here each Sunday is because we want to shovel our roof.  In the course of our week we get caught up in the values of this world, and we accumulate frustration and anger and what not.  Our hearts begin to harden.

Coming to church provides us with a turn back moment.   It breaks the momentum we are building as we head on destructive paths.

We realize we can’t make it alone.  We need God, and we need a community of people who are intentionally seeking to reach out to God, for this is one of God’s most common means of grace.


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