May 13, 2012
“Jesus Prays for the Church”
St. John 17:15-21
“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” St. John 17:15-21
When we think about prayer we usually think about the prayers that we pray to God. We pray to God in Jesus’ name. Jesus has given us the right to pray. We pray with the confidence that for Jesus’ sake God will hear and answer our prayers. The best prayer to pray is the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us to pray it.
There are different kinds of prayer. We can pray privately as individual Christians. Or, we can pray publicly as the body of Christ. We can pray to God about whatever we are feeling in our hearts at the moment. Or, we can pray in prayers carefully written down by others and prayed by the Church over and over again for centuries.
We can pray for ourselves. We can pray for others. Prayers that we pray for others are called intercessory prayers. We pray to God on behalf of others, setting before him their needs and interceding on their behalf. Thank God for the privilege of intercessory prayer! We can ask God for what benefits our brothers and sisters in Christ and be confident that God hears us and answers us.
But the greatest of all intercessory prayers is not a prayer that we pray. It is the prayer that Jesus prayed for his Church. The Holy Spirit inspired St. John the Apostle and Evangelist to write down this prayer for us and it is recorded in John chapter 17. It is known as Christ’s high priestly prayer, because it is as Jesus is about to sacrifice himself for us on the cross that he prays to his Father for us. Jesus intercedes. His intercession for us is powerful. St. James writes, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16) The prayer of Jesus, the righteous, avails much. It avails for our salvation.
Jesus is about to die. The work his Father gave him has come to its conclusion. The only thing left for him to do is to offer himself up to God as the pure and holy sacrifice by which all sin is washed away. It is as Jesus is about to sacrifice himself for his Church that he prays for her.
First he prays for the apostles to whom he has given his word. These men had received his teaching in faith. They believed that he came from the Father. They confessed him as their Lord and God. First Jesus prays for them. Then he prays for those who will believe in him through their word. He prays for the apostles and he prays for the Church. The apostles and the Church go together. The Christian Church is apostolic. We Christians believe what the apostles wrote down for us to believe in the New Testament. When Jesus prays for the apostles he prays for the whole Church because the whole Church is apostolic.
In his prayer he asks his Father to do two things for his Church. He prays that they may be sanctified or made holy. And he prays that they be one. We believe that the Father answered the prayer of his only begotten Son the righteous man. We believe and so we confess, “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church.” We believe that Christ’s Church, those who believe in him through the apostolic word, is holy. We believe that this Church is one. We believe. We don’t see. We believe because of Jesus’ prayer and promise. We don’t require visual evidence for our faith. Faith goes by what it hears from the mouth of God.
The Church is in but not of the world. Jesus says:
I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
The Church needs Jesus’ prayers. We don’t need to be raptured out of the world when tribulation comes as the dispensationalist dreamers would have it. No, we the Church are here for the long haul and we’ll be here in this fallen, sinful, violent, and dying world up to the bitter end. We don’t need to be raptured out. We need to have Jesus pray for us. The one who by his suffering on the cross defeated the evil one prays that the evil not overpower us.
Jesus prays that we be sanctified in the truth. This is how he keeps us from the evil one. To be sanctified means to be made holy. To be holy entails two things. First, a holy person is a person who is without sin. Second, a holy person is separated from sin and set apart for God. Jesus says he sanctifies himself. Clearly, he isn’t talking about making himself sinless because he is by nature sinless and he has just lived a sinless life for us all as he speaks these words. But Jesus does sanctify himself. He sets himself apart for God.
Here is a wonderful mystery that goes beyond human understanding. God joins the human race. Not the Father and not the Holy Spirit, but the Son, begotten of the Father before all worlds, joins the human race. As true God and true man he offers himself up to God. The Son sanctifies himself. This Son of the Father is the Son of man, the Son of Mary, our dear brother.
Watch him offer himself up! Watch holiness in action. Watch love confront hatred and overcome it. Watch purity face immorality and be uncorrupted by it. Watch obedience destroy sin. Look and see your life lived for you as your God and your brother Jesus goes to the cross to offer himself up to the demands of divine justice. He does so in your place. He does so in your behalf. He sanctifies himself to God and it is for you. His sanctification is yours. He makes you holy by bearing away all your sins.
When he prays, “Sanctify them in the truth,” he is praying, “Sanctify them in me,” for he is the truth. God’s word is truth. Jesus is the Word made flesh. The holiness by which we are separated from this world and set apart to be precious to God is nothing less than the holiness of Jesus Christ himself who offered himself without fault to God. Can you see this holiness? No, you cannot see this holiness any more than you can see Jesus.
Just as you cannot see our true holiness you cannot see our true unity. Jesus prays for our unity. He prays that his holy Church be one. He says:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.
The unity of the Father and the Son is eternal. It is an essential unity for they are of the same essence or substance. They are one, for the Son receives his very being from the Father in eternity so that as the Father is, so is the Son, and so is the Spirit. This is a unity of love, of purpose, of will, and it is unbreakable.
Think of it! When God was forsaking Jesus on the cross the eternal love that bound together the Father and the Son remained unshaken and unshakable, for God is God and God is One and he cannot be divided into three gods but remains forever the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity.
It is this unity into which Jesus invites us. The unity of God’s holiness, the unity of God’s love, the unity of God’s very being is so far above us and so much greater than anything we can ever achieve and yet here it is, right here, right here where we sin and wreck things we cannot fix.
He says we are holy but we cannot see it. He says we are one but we cannot feel it. But we are holy. And we are united as one. There is only one body of Christ, not two or dozens, or hundreds of bodies of Christ. There is only one bride of Christ. Jesus is no polygamist. He has but one bride, one wife, and she is our mother. The unity of the Holy Christian Church is guaranteed by nothing less than the most holy intercessory prayer of Jesus who purchased the Church with his own blood. As he was about to do so he prayed to his Father that we would all be one and so it is and must be.
When Jesus prays to his Father that the Church be one he adds, “That the world may believe that You sent Me.” Many misunderstand these words to say that the Church must set before the world a show of unity. We must set aside whatever differences appear to divide us and provide a common front against the evils that plague the world. In this way the world will see a united Church and Jesus’ prayer will be answered. This usually entails compromising on the doctrine that divides the various church bodies of Christendom. And so the Christian faith is reduced to a lowest common denominator religion with little substance beyond a general notion that Jesus is somehow our Savior and we ought to love one another, whatever that means.
The error in this way of thinking – thinking that has plagued the ecumenical movement for a century or more – is that folks forget that Jesus is praying this prayer to the Father. He’s not praying to us. He’s not telling us to make the Church one. He’s asking the Father to make the Church one. He’s asking God, not us. We aren’t God.
Just as we don’t make ourselves holy, neither do we make ourselves one. God’s word makes us holy. God’s word makes us one. If you want to promote true Christian unity, you want to promote the pure preaching and teaching of God’s Word. To compromise the truth of God’s Word for the sake of an appearance of unity will accomplish nothing but division. It is in being divided away from the truth that the Church is broken into factions, sects, and cliques.
What makes us one is what makes us holy and what makes us holy is what makes us one. It is the one, holy, undivided and indivisible truth of the gospel. Our true holiness is invisible. Our true unity is invisible. It is no less real. When we see in ourselves what is wrong – the love that turns away from the neighbor into self-love and selfish ambition; the desire that seeks out self-gratification over kindness toward the other; the pride that glories in our own rightness instead of the righteousness of Christ – all this wrong we see in ourselves is a burden too great for us to bear. We see the very opposite of the holiness that describes the holy Christian Church. We see ourselves as cause of division and strife.
But we hear something different from what we see. We, as Christ’s Church in this place, confess our sins to God together. We listen together to the words of absolution. We receive together the holiness for which our Lord prayed and died. We believe as one. We are only, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church, for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has answered his prayer! Amen