The Prayer That Didn't Work?
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The text for today is John 17:1-11, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Shhh! Listen closely! Our Lord is praying in the Upper Room, and you and I get to listen in. But it’s not eavesdropping, for as He prays to His heavenly Father in the presence of His disciples, and then leads one of them by His Holy Spirit to record these words, Jesus invites you and me to listen, too.
It is the night of the Last Supper. Before He heads out for Gethsemane, Jesus lifts up His eyes to heaven and prays aloud to God the Father. This prayer has been called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer because with it Jesus functions as high priest and intercedes to the Father, for Himself first, then His disciples, and then for all believers. It is a prayer such as only the Son of God could pray. Jesus prays chiefly for three things: (1) that He would be glorified; (2) that His disciples would be protected; and (3) that God would keep His Church united.
So, did Jesus’ prayer work?
Many, like Ted, the white-nosed sheep in our Agnus Day cartoon, would say, “Obviously Jesus’ prayer didn’t work. He asks glory for Himself and safety for the disciples and then He gets crucified and they get martyred. And unity? Just look at the Church today! There are so many denominations that you can’t begin to know who has the corner on truth. And so many Christians seem to think they’re at a religious salad bar where they can pick and choose for themselves what they do or do not want to believe and practice. Why, there are practically as many streams of Christian spirituality as there are Christians!”
So, did Jesus’ prayer work?
Well, let’s break it down, considering Jesus’ Word in its correct context, and using the proper division of Law and Gospel to see for ourselves.
Jesus begins by praying for Himself and His mission: “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify You, since You have given Him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work that You gave Me to do. And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed” (John 17:1-5).
Jesus prays to be glorified. But Jesus is not praying for the world’s idea of glory. The world defines glory in terms of power and pizzazz. The one who wins is the glorious one. The one who gets noticed is the glorious one. The one who is served by servile sycophants and followed by fawning fans is the glorious one. But Jesus defines His glory quite differently. The glory of the Son is to serve.
As He prays this prayer, Jesus has lived that life of work—He’s fulfilled the prophecies by His teaching and miracles. He’s been the righteous suffering servant, upheld by God as He’s mercifully exercised justice. He’s lived His perfect life for the world to credit all who believe in Him with His righteousness. Now, for the ultimate glory: Jesus is going to die for the sins of the world. But that glory will not become manifest until His resurrection and ascension, and will only be made full in heaven. When the disciples see Jesus alive after the grave, they see that glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Jesus’ thoughts turn next to His disciples: “I have manifested Your name to the people whom You gave Me out of the world. Yours they were, and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your Word. Now they know that everything that You have given Me is from You. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. All mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to You.”
Jesus has revealed the Father to these disciples. Literally, He has revealed the Father’s “name” to them. The “name” of God is everything that reveals Him to us, particularly His Word. And again, it is no coincidence that Jesus is also called the Word. In Him we know the Father.
These disciples were chosen beforehand by God the Father and given to Jesus. They have seen what Jesus did, listened to what He said, and held firmly to His Word—even when they did not understand it. That’s what distinguishes them from the many others who reject His Word.
Now they know that everything about Jesus comes from the Father because Jesus gave them the messages the Father sent Him to give. They have heard Jesus’ words and know, in truth, that His words come from God. And they believe God the Father has sent Jesus, His Son, to them.
Furthermore, with His name and Word, the Lord leaves other gifts as well. Add His Word and name to water, and there is Holy Baptism to cleanse the sinner. Speak His Word and name, and there is Holy Absolution, as sinners are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Add His Word to bread and wine, and the Word-made flesh is present for the forgiveness of sins.
These are precious gifts that Jesus gives to His disciples as He prepares to be glorified on the cross: His Word and His name. By His Word, He speaks to them and tells them all they need to know about sin and grace, faith and life. He places His name upon them and declares them to be His; and by His name, they can speak back to Him and call upon Him at all times.
And so Jesus prays: “Holy Father, keep them in Your name, which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Jesus stresses the reverence that is due God’s name. Then He calls for the Father to keep and guard the disciples in His name. As I noted earlier, God’s name is everything we can know about Him. Here, God’s name clearly implies His power to protect them from evil.
When the disciples came to faith in Jesus, they became one with Him and the Father. This is the oneness of essence that belongs to the Father and the Son exclusively, and it isn’t merely an outward unity. It is oneness that is found among humble, penitent Christians who believe His Word and call upon His name. They are not just united on behalf of Christ; they are united in Him, for He is with them.
As the cross draws near, the disciples are given His Word and His Name. After Pentecost, these same disciples go out into the world, to make disciples of all nations. They will do so with the Lord’s Word and name, and nothing else. But that’s enough! In a hostile, sinful world that has demands and doubts and questions, they have the abundance of God’s Word to proclaim the saving answer. When troubled and persecuted, they have God’s very name to call upon for help.
These are great gifts, for sure; but not to the world. The world watches the disciples go forth. It sees them harassed and persecuted and executed. Thus the world decides that Jesus’ prayer didn’t work. But in truth, the disciples have glorious lives. It’s just that their glory is not that of this world, but of Christ. The disciples’ glory is Christ’s presence with them; and as He suffered, they suffer as well. Yet this is their glory: to do the Father’s will by His grace.
There’s a lesson here for us today. The glory of the Christian should never be measured by the world’s standards. The glory of the Christian is to do what the Lord has given us to do. To receive and make use of His Word and name, and to serve where God has given us to serve.
Two thousand years later, we confess in the Nicene Creed, “I believe one holy Christian and apostolic Church.” The Church is holy because her sins are taken away and she has been declared righteous. The Church is Christian because her sins have been paid for by Christ. And the Church is apostolic because, in a very real way, we live just as the apostles did—we continue in Jesus’ Word and in His name. We continue in Christ’s Word, living according to His commands and confessing our failures to do so. We rejoice in the forgiveness He announces in His Gospel. We continue in His name, as His holy people who call upon Him in time of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. And as long as we continue in His Word and in His name, we are one—one holy Christian and apostolic Church.
This is the life of the Christian—to live where God has placed us, to attend to the tasks He has given us, equipped with His Word and name. And where His Word and name are, He is present, too. Jesus dwells with us, with the glory of the forgiveness He has won. Mothers and fathers reflect that glory by caring for children. Single adults do so by leading a chaste and decent life in word and deed. Children do so by obeying their parents. All such behavior is mocked by the world as far too “goody two-shoes,” because the world has a false idea of glory; but God’s Word is clear: this is the life of the Christian, and it is good.
We are also under attack when it comes to the Word that our Lord Jesus gives. We live in the information age, bombarded with all sorts of data on a daily basis. Rather than say “I need more information,” we usually find ourselves saying, “I have too much information! I just want to know what I need to get by.”
This is fine when it comes to programming the DVR or using our smart phone; but our old Adam delights to make us view God’s Word in the same way. Rather than relish the rich depth and detail of our Lord’s holy revelation, we prefer to learn what we need to know and nothing more.
The consequences are devastating. Believing that the bare minimum of the Bible is a good thing, many declare that we should ignore all differences among Christians. But with little grounding in the Word, Christians are apt to buy into all sorts of aberrant teachings. In personal struggles, they will find that a superficial knowledge of Scripture is like an anchor crafted in aluminum foil, which fails to give strength and security in the storms of life. It is a great victory for the old Adam when we fail to hold God’s holy Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
As the Lord’s glory and Word come under attack, so also does His name. Jesus can be one name to call upon, declares the world. But He’s not allowed to be the only One. There must be other gods with other names, depending upon one’s personal faith and preference. And unfortunately, the more shabbily and superficially Christians treat the Word of God, the more likely they are to agree.
The devil delights in this as well. Prayers to false gods are not answered and provide no help against the devil. Prayers to a Jesus who is just one name and god among many are not answered, because such prayers are not to the only-begotten Son of God. Those who offer such prayers might invent comfort for themselves, and might even experience glory in the world’s terms; but in their unrepentant hearts, they do not have the forgiveness of sins that Christ has won for them.
As we have already alluded, if the Word, name, and glory of Christ are all under attack, then so is Christian unity. Unfortunately, the world, and far too much of the Church, makes unity by agreeing to compromise on differences. “As long as we are together, it is pleasing to God” seems to be the rule of the day. But Jesus does not say that unity comes from sinners who simply compromise to agree. True Christian unity comes from His Word, His name, and His forgiveness. He gives these things for the express purpose of Christian unity.
Confronted with these attacks against Christ’s glory, Word, name, and unity, Christians respond with the same. We rejoice in the Word that the Lord gives us in abundance, this inexhaustible treasure of Scripture. Hearing His call for us to repent, we confess our sins against the third commandment and rejoice to hear His absolution. Rather than be shamed for believing that there is only one name to call upon, we give great thanks to God that there is a name at all. The Lord has not turned His back on this sinful creation, but still calls all people to salvation. He still hears our prayers and answers. He still saves us in the time of trial and delivers us to everlasting life.
No, we will not be shamed that there is only one name to call upon. Instead, by God’s grace we proclaim that name to all who will hear. And as we continue in His Word and name, we do so with great joy. We are united. Not just with each other here—no, we are united in the faith with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; with Peter, Paul, and John; and with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. We are not united because we say so. We are united because God says so in His Word, and because He places His name on us and makes us His.
This is why Jesus prays in the text today… that you would thankfully receive His Word and gladly hear and learn it. That you would call upon His name in time of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. That you would hear Him and call upon His name, rejoicing in the forgiveness He has won for you, giving thanks that He has united you with the rest of the Church. That you would then go about your daily tasks and vocations in service to others and share His message of forgiveness and love with everyone you meet. It may not seem glorious now, but the Lord says otherwise; and the glory will be revealed in full on the Last Day.
Until then, listen to the Lord Jesus pray. He prays for you as your great High Priest and His heavenly Father hears and answers His prayers for you as His dear son or daughter. And that prayer still works: Jesus is glorified. You, with all other believers are kept safe for eternity, in His body, the one holy, Christian and apostolic Church. And because Jesus continues to pray for you and gives you His holy Word and name, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.