Luther Memorial Chapel & University Student Center
Shorewood, WI + 26 May 2019
Rev. Dr. Charles L. Cortright, LCMS Eurasia Region: Russia
St. John 17:20-26 – Jesus Prays for His Church
X In Nomine Iesu X
17 20[On the night He was betrayed, Jesus prayed to His Father,] “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, 21that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. 22The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one, 23I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me. 24Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory that You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world. 25O righteous Father, even though the world does not know You, I know You, and these know that You have sent Me. 26I made known to them Your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”
Jesus prays for the Church. He prays for those who believe through the apostolic Word by the Holy Spirit, which is to say that He prays for you—each of you—as baptized, believing members of His Body. And He prays for all His believers of all time and in all places. The prayer that Jesus prayed in the upper room on the night He was betrayed; the prayer He prayed at the very table where He gave His disciples His own Body as Bread and His own Blood as wine; where He had stooped to wash the disciples’ feet as an example of humble service;—at that very table He prayed for His apostles and for His family, the Church. And that prayer continues to be prayed today, sustaining the Church and keeping it with the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
When you look out over 2000 years of church history and consider the Church that began as a mere 120 believers gathered in a room on the eve of Pentecost, you have to ask yourself how the Church has managed to survive throughout the centuries! Empires have come and gone. Nations have risen and fallen. Great cultures have reached their pinnacle and then disappeared. And antagonists have risen up against the Church in history: in Russia where I serve communism vowed to destroy the Church; Islam, atheism, rationalism, agnosticism, skepticism have all tried and still try. But there have been enemies from within, too: heresies, false teachers, egocentric leaders, corrupt clergy, faithless laity. 2000 years of mismanagement that would have driven a corporation or even a country into the ground.
And to the dismay of such enemies within and without, like dandelions in a Spring lawn or weeds in a vegetable garden or that annoying Energizer bunny that just keeps on going and going, the Church marches on, popping up here and there all over the world. Oh, it is not uniformly strong and vibrant everywhere at the same time. It is like that field in the parable that Jesus told with the four kinds of soil. Some parts of the Church are simply unproductive hard pavement where the Word gets barely a hearing. Some are like the shallow soil with rapid growth that springs up but then wilts in the heat of persecution. Some are like the weedy soil where riches, comforts, and cares choke out the Word before it ever becomes fruitful. And some parts are like that deeply plowed soil that receives the Word and in which the Word bears generous fruit.
Where I serve with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia, the Ingrians call themselves a “resurrected church.” Lutherans first came to that part of Russia from Finland in the 1600s and flourished. But when the Czars were overthrown and the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 they were systematically removed, killed, and exiled. A dead church—its buildings converted to gymnasiums, turned into storage barns, and revamped as theatres. But since 1991, from the seed of one remaining congregation, our Ingrian brothers and sisters have grown to over 90 congregations spreading to Siberia in the east and to Kazakhstan in the south.
Luther recognized this about the Church. He called the Gospel a “passing rain shower” that falls for a while in one place and then moves on to another. Churches that once were bursting with people now stand nearly empty, while other churches pop up somewhere else. You see it here in America. Churches that were once the great mother churches of a denomination are barely alive; while areas that barely had a presence of the Church are thriving. You know, the greatest resurgence of Christianity is found not in America or in Europe, but in Africa. There are more Lutherans in Ethiopia than everyone who claims the Lutheran label in the United States! But through it all, there remains one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith, one Baptism, one holy Christian and apostolic Church.
Jesus promised that He would build His Church on the confession that He is the Christ, the Son of God, and He promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. That doesn’t mean every congregation or church body is bullet-proof! Certainly not. Sometimes growth in one part of the Church is matched by loss in another part. The Church is a living, dynamic body, not a static institution or corporation.
And we can also see that the Church is not our doing. We comprise it but we don’t construct it. The Church is not of our doing, nor is the Church’s unity our doing, nor her glory our doing. These are the Lord’s. He purchased and won her with His blood shed on the cross. He washes her with the water and Word of Holy Baptism. He clothes her in the seamless robe of His own righteousness. And… He prays for her. Jesus prays for His Church as a loving husband prays for his wife. He is one flesh with her. He prays for her, and in praying for the Church, Christ prays for you. This is part of Jesus’ high priestly prayer: do you see? It is meant for you to take personally.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” Do you hear? He prays, first of all, for your union with Him in the Father, that just as He and the Father are one, united in the godhead, so all His people are one with Him and the Father, that we would dwell in God and God in us, that we would live in the love God has for us in sending His Son to save us.
Notice that His prayer is not simply for Americans! It is “so that the world may believe that you sent Me.” The Church exists for the benefit and blessing of the world; it is “for the life of the world.” We are here that the world may know and believe that the Father sent the Son to save the world by His death.
But this is often the first place where churches go wrong. They become institutionally bound, self-protective, worried about themselves instead of others, concerned with their own affairs and not with the unbaptized, unbelieving world. They cease to see a world reconciled to God in the blood of Jesus, and instead look at the world in terms of “us” and “them,” drawing lines and building walls instead of crossing boundaries and breaking through barriers. Jesus’ desire and His prayer is that our unity with Him and the Father would manifest God’s love to the world in Him so that the world would be drawn into the dragnet of salvation. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
Second, after union with Him is this: Jesus wants you to share in His glory. “The glory that You have given Me I have given to them.” Our celebration of Jesus’ Ascension each year—the withdrawal of His visible (but not actual!) presence—is the celebration of His ascending to the highest majesty of rule and dominion at the right hand of the Father, in which Jesus has glorified our humanity. Think about it: Jesus embodies all of humanity in His human body as the second Adam; He is the new head of humanity. In Christ, all died. In Christ, all are raised from the dead (which is why all rise in the resurrection). In Christ, all are glorified; in Christ’s humanity, humanity is glorified at the right hand of the Father.
And it is this glory that He shares with you as one of His baptized believers. You are glorified in Him and you possess a share of that glory, the down payment of which is the Holy Spirit which was given you in your Baptism. Things may appear anything but glorious at the moment. The Church may not appear terribly glorious in this world. And let’s face it, much of the what passes as glorious in the church is just man-made glitter, like a make-up and a hair dye job. It is superficial glitter, as man applies it. But God looks to and sees the inner beauty, the radiance of Christ and His perfection shining through His bride. The Church doesn’t need make up, as much as she might think she does. She is beautiful to Christ as she is, because she is clothed with Him, her spots and wrinkles and blemishes covered by Him.
Third, Jesus’ desire and prayer is that we be with Him and the Father. “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory that You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” It is not enough that we believe in Him without sight; Jesus’ desire is that we see what we now believe. That the glory that is now ours by faith in Him would one day be seen in all its glory.
The apostle Paul described this present life as “looking through a glass dimly.” The ancient world was fascinated by glass, especially clear glass. That’s why the streets of the heavenly Jerusalem are depicted as paved with gold as clear as glass. That’s why the city itself is characterized by clarity; wherever you look, everything is as clear as glass. That’s why the river of the water of life, the Spirit that proceeds from the Father and the Son is a crystal-clear river. Clear means that the light of Christ shines perfectly through it, without any cloudiness, without any obstruction, without anything getting in the way. What we now see dimly and reflect dimly we will soon see in all its shining glory, bathed in the light of Jesus.
Only then will what goes on in this life make any sense or achieve its full clarity. There are certain things that can only be seen under special light—UV light, for example. Similarly, the sufferings and hardships of this world as we now see it will only make sense when held under the lamp who is Jesus Christ. Now as we speak, the smudges of sin cover things. We can see only dimly, sometimes not at all. But on the day of Jesus’ appearing, when He shows Himself for who He is and for all the world to see, we will all see and understand and marvel at what God has done.
Until then, the Spirit and the Church say, “Come,” inviting all to drink freely of that Spirit-ed water of life that flows from the Son and the Father. Come and be refreshed. Come and be renewed by Him who makes all things new.
Jesus prays for the Church; He prays for you; He prays for your brothers and sisters in Russia; He prays for all His family in the world. And we, all of us, the Church, are held safely in that prayer forever.
In the name of X Jesus. Amen