In the Word and In the World: Jesus Prays for His Church

One in the Spirit,
composite digital image by L. Lovett, 2006
The text for today is John 17:11-19, which has already been read.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

What has kept the Church going for the last two thousand years?  How do you explain it?  The Church has survived persecution, false teaching, and gross mismanagement.  It has survived dictatorships, demagogues, and democracies.  It has survived popes and councils, voters’ assemblies and synodical conventions, and the meetings that go on after the meetings.  Any human organization that operated this way would have long since disappeared, but the Church goes on. 

What is the key to the Church’s survival?  How could a ragtag band of 120 Jewish followers grow into a Church that quite literally embraces the world across all national and ethnic boundaries?  How could a Church whose first recorded official act is to cast lots to see who would succeed a traitor become, in a matter of thirty years or so, a movement that embraced the entire Roman world and dotted the Mediterranean with congregations who proclaimed life in the death of Jesus?  What protected them in a culture that was hostile to their message?  What propelled them into the world already chock full of religions?  How did the Church not only manage to survive all those years, but to grow robustly and thrive?           

One thing: Jesus prays for His Church.  That’s the thought of the day for this seventh Sunday of Easter.  The same Lord Jesus, who hung on the cross and rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of His Father, prays for His Church. 

Nowhere is this more profoundly revealed to us than in the high priestly prayer of Jesus in the upper room on the night of His betrayal.  This is the room where He washed the disciples’ feet as a servant, where He instituted the sacramental meal of His Body and Blood, where He taught them about His love for them, their love for one another, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and their fruitful union with Him.  And now in this room, Jesus prays for His Church. 

This prayer is the true “Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer only the Lord Himself can pray as the High Priest of the world.  He lifts His nail-scarred hands before the throne of grace, and He prays continually for His disciples who are sprinkled like salt on the earth.  He prays for His Church, and His prayer upholds the Church. 

What does Jesus pray for His Church?  That she be successful?  Popular?  Powerful?  Wealthy?  Influential?  No.  Jesus prays that His Church be protected by the power of God’s Name, that the Church be one, that she be protected from the assaults of the devil, and that she be sanctified to be a sign of salvation for the world.  In other words, that she be “In the Word and in the World.”

In today’s text, Jesus specifically prays for the apostles, those the Father gave Him to send into the world.  We believe that the apostles, though unique, are not confined to those men who were with Jesus that night in the upper room.  We know that Matthias, as we heard in our reading from the book of Acts, was added later to fill the vacancy of Judas.  Matthias was not there in the upper room, but by the call of God was added to make a Twelve.  And there was Paul, number thirteen, the “untimely born” apostle no one really asked for or wanted. 

We believe that the ministry of the apostles continues today in what we have come to call the pastoral office or the office of the holy ministry.  The apostolic Church has an apostolic office, not by succession of persons, but by the action of the Word of the crucified, risen, and reigning Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus prays for His Church.  He prays that His joy might be fulfilled in His apostles.  Apostolic ministry is to be joyful ministry, filled with the joy of Jesus who in His joy endured the cross and scorned its shame.  This is not the kind of joy that is based on outward circumstances.  It is nothing less than the joy of sinners justified for Jesus’ sake, the joy of sinners repenting and being forgiven. 

I’ll be the first to admit that the holy ministry can become a joyless task, and at times, even a burden.  Sometimes it’s our own fault.  We pastors can be a burdensome lot—complaining, whining, carrying on as if Jesus were not reigning from the right hand of God, acting as though everything is on our own shoulders, and the whole world wants to see us fail.  We are, after all, men of clay, conceived and born in sin, just like you.  We will, and do, sin.  We will fail.  We will doubt.

Other times though, this joy is lacking because the Church has come to expect anything and everything from her pastors except the one needful thing—the Word of life and salvation.  We want coaches, counselors, CEOs, motivators, you name it—everything but shepherds who will lead the flock to good pasture and clean, clear water.  But the joy of ministry is not in being liked or appreciated; rather, it is the joy of people coming to a greater awareness of their sinfulness, yet growing to a deeper faith in Jesus.  The most joyful work of a pastor happens at the font, at the altar, in the pulpit, in the confessional, in the hospital room, beside the deathbed—in short, wherever the Word of Christ is having its faith-making way. 

Want to be a joy and not a burden to your pastor?  Be in the Word.  Come eagerly to hear the Word of God he proclaims and teaches.  Regularly receive Christ’s Body and Blood from his hand and hear Christ’s Absolution from his lips.  That will bring him more joy than you can ever imagine.  That is the joy of Jesus, who prays that His apostles would be filled with His joy. 

But that’s not to say this life will be easy.  As the disciples overhear this prayer, Jesus reminds them that the world will hate them on account of the Word they have been set apart to proclaim.  Like Jesus Himself, His ministry is “in the world yet not of the world.”  And here we find the two great denials that occur.  The first is to remove oneself from the world, to live in isolation.  But Jesus prays that His ministers not be removed from this world but be immersed in it.  Jesus embraces the world in His death, and His apostolic ministry embraces the world in His Name.  That’ll bring you into contact with some parts of the world you might rather avoid—the misfits of the world, the untouchables, the lepers of our day.

The other great denial is that we become “of the world.”  We lose our saltiness.  We hide our lamp.  We become indistinguishable from the world.  “Not of the world” means that we are different.  You don’t expect your pastor to get drunk on Saturday, or any other night.  It wouldn’t be good if your pastor cheated on his income tax or didn’t show up for church on Sunday.  And this is not just because he’s the pastor and paid to be the pastor, but because he is to be an example to everyone of what it means to be in this world but not of this world.

Jesus prays for His Church.  And so, although in this passage He is praying for His apostles (and the pastors who follow in the office of holy ministry), He is praying for you, too.  You, who are the Body of believers gathered around the marks of the Church—“the pure doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacrament in accordance with the Gospel of Christ” (Ap VII and VIII (IV) 5).

And notice what the goal of Jesus’ prayer is: “That they be one, just as We are one.”  Jesus is praying for the unity of His Church.  Now, that might sound a bit far-fetched today, with thousands of denominations, everyone claiming a monopoly on the truth.  We might wonder, what happened to this prayer of Jesus?  Did the heavenly Father miss His Son’s memo?  What began as a fairly, though not entirely, unified movement that swept across the Mediterranean world, is today a movement so fragmented the idea of external unity is almost a joke. 

Jesus prays that His Church be one as He and the Father are one.  We Lutherans worry a great deal about “unionism,” about uniting with false teachers, and rightly so.  Even if Scripture was not clear about avoiding such entanglements the history of the Church would be enough to prove the folly of worshiping with others of differing confessions of faith.  The truth always ends up getting lost as everyone seeks a lowest common denominator to gain an outward show of unity.

But we should also expend just as much energy worrying about separatism, about creating needless divisions with the Church based simply on matters of personal preference.  There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all.  There is only one Bread and one Cup, one Body and Blood of one Savior named Jesus.  And wherever you see and hear Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and forgiveness spoken in the Name of the crucified and risen Jesus, you have an infallible and inerrant sign that the prayer of Jesus is having its way, keeping the Church together in the Name of God. 

Jesus prays for His Church.  Jesus prays that the Church will be protected from the evil one.  Jesus knows the enemy well.  He tangled with him one-on-one in the wilderness.  That very night He’ll wrestle with Him in Gethsemane.  And Jesus knows that the devil will give His Church no rest.  Doubts will creep in.  Unbelief.  Despair.  Failure.  Success.  All of these will seek to derail the Church from its mission.  And so Jesus prays for the Church’s protection.

Notice that Jesus does not pray that His disciples be taken out of the world.  He’s sending them into the world, where the action is.  Jesus doesn’t set up some cloistered camp or utopian society.  Oh, the Church has tried that route, and it still does.  But isolationism never sits well with Good News that demands to be preached.  The Church exists to proclaim the reign of Jesus, His death and resurrection for the life of the world.  And you can’t do that in isolation—whether that isolation is locked up in a monastery or locked away in your living room watching one of the “Christian networks” on cable television.  Jesus sends His disciples out into the world with His Word and His protection against the evil one.

I think we sometimes underestimate the danger.  We think the greatest enemy of the Church is mismanagement or disorganization, or perhaps a bad economy or shrinking population base.  But the greatest threat to the Church is the one you can’t see—the devil, who hates for people to be free, who hates when sins are forgiven, and who hates to hear the great Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the justification of sinners.

Jesus prays for His Church.  We are in constant need of this prayer.  We cannot stop the devil or protect ourselves from him.  But we have the Lord’s high priestly prayer, His intercession for us in which He pleads: “keep them from the evil one.”  That’s what ensures that Satan cannot harm us.  Oh, he may work some mischief; he may make our life miserable for awhile, as he is prone to do.  But as the Large Catechism reminds us, he is “God’s devil,” and whatever he does, God uses for His ultimate purpose to unite all things in Christ.

Toward that end, Jesus prays: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth.”  As baptized believers in Christ, you are called to be different from the world; you are sanctified, consecrated, “holy.”  You are set apart by the Word that is truth.  You know the awful truth of your sin.  And you know the greater truth of salvation in Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of your sins and risen from the dead for your justification. 

Jesus prays for His Church.  Remember this when you doubt, when you despair, when you fall and don’t have the strength to get back up.  Remember this when you think there is no future for the Church, when the Church looks so helpless, so out of touch with the world, so ill-equipped to meet the challenges of our day.  Remember who prays for the Church, for you—the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Word and the prayer of Jesus are what keeps the Church and her ministry going even after all these years.  It’s been nearly 2,000 years since Jesus ascended into heaven, and yet His Word is as living and active today as ever, creating faith, bestowing salvation and everlasting life, calling you to repent and believe this Good News:  For the sake of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


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