Imagine, for a moment, that you’re the parent of younger children (if you're the parent of younger children, no imagining necessary) and you’re about to go away on a long trip.
As a responsible parent, before going, there are at least three major things you would be sure to do.
First, you would arrange for someone to take care of your kids in your absence.
Second, you would review for your children any essential instructions, including remembering that you always love them.
And third, you would pray, asking that God would see that your children were looked after and that you would all be safely, happily reunited.
Jesus does all three of these things in chapters 13 through 17 of John’s gospel, a section of the New Testament scholars call Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. They’re words Jesus speaks at the Last Supper in the presence of the apostles on the night before His crucifixion.
After being crucified, of course, Jesus would rise from the dead and, forty days later, ascend to heaven. From that moment, Jesus knew that no one on earth would see Him face to face for a period of time known only to God the Father.
So, in John 13:36, Jesus says: “Where I am going, you cannot follow Me now, but you will follow Me afterward.” Like a responsible parent, Jesus is preparing His followers for His impending departure.
Later, in John 14:18, Jesus assures the disciples that, even with Him being physically absent, they wouldn’t be alone: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” Jesus will come back some day, the dead who have believed in Him will rise again, and Jesus will welcome His children into the new heaven and the new earth He has prepared for believers in Christ. But until that moment, He would not (and He does not) leave those who believe in Him by themselves. He sends the Holy Spirit to be with us!
Then in John, chapter 17, having arranged for the care of those who believe in Him and having instructed believers in how to live until He comes back, Jesus does what any responsible parent does before a time of separation from his or her children: He prays.
Turn to John, chapter 17, please. There, you’ll see that Jesus’ chapter-long prayer, called by some the high priestly prayer, has been divided by translators into three sections.
- In verses 1 through 5, Jesus prays for Himself, not selfishly, but to ask that, as He had glorified God the Father during His time on earth, the Father would now glorify Him through His suffering, death, and resurrection, all so people will believe in Him and have life.
- In verses 20 through 26, Jesus prays for people who will come to believe in Him through the witness of those who first followed and believed in Him. (That includes you and me.)
- Our lesson is John 17:6-19. Here, Jesus prays for His first disciples.
Of course, not everyone looks at Jesus and sees that He is God in the flesh. Some refuse to see God in Jesus. The fact is that only those who are willing to see Jesus in this way are granted the gift of faith. These are the people who become disciples.
Disciples --followers of Jesus--aren’t perfect people. Nor are they people who don’t sometimes have doubts. They’re people who come from an imperfect world and are themselves imperfect. But by God’s amazing grace, God gives forgiveness to those who repent for sin and grants brand new, everlasting lives to those who surrender control over their lives to Jesus. Disciples are forgiven sinners in whom, day in and day out, the Holy Spirit is constructing faith in Jesus as Lord, God, Savior, and King of their lives.
In verse 9, Jesus prays something curious. We know from John 3:16 and other passages that God the Father sent Jesus because God so loved the world, in spite of our sin, that He sent God the Son--Jesus--so that all who believe in may not perish, lost to God forever, but have everlasting life. God loves the world and the human beings who populate it!
Yet look at how Jesus prays in verse 9: “I pray for them [meaning the disciples] . I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.”
You see, more important to Jesus than this world are the people God has given to Him, the people who entrust their lives to Him, the people who make up His Church.
Long after this universe has been destroyed and Jesus establishes His new heaven, new earth, and the new Jerusalem, believers in Jesus--the Church--will still exist. (Revelation 21:1-4)
The Church, the fellowship of Jesus’ disciples, is eternal.
The Church isn’t buildings, gardens, classrooms, sanctuaries, pipe organs, albs and stoles, hymn books, or offering plates.
I love how Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, one of the basic confessional documents of the Lutheran movement, based on the Bible, describes the Church. It says that the “...one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.”
None of this is to say that the Church on earth is perfect. Personally, I know that I drag my old sinful self, sometimes kicking and screaming, whenever I come into the presence of Christ or gather with the fellowship of believers in Christ! This side of our own resurrections, every saint is still a sinner: a forgiven sinner, a recovering sinner, a sinner who lives in daily repentance and renewal, but still a sinner, saved only by the grace God gives to all who believe in Jesus Christ.
Article VIII of the Augsburg Confession notes that even in the church there are “many false Christians, hypocrites, and even open sinners [who] remain among the godly...”
But that doesn’t make the Church any less essential for anyone to have a life with God.
Life with God only happens in the lives of those who hear, receive, and believe in the gospel--the good news about Jesus--and who receive the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
And these things--gospel and sacrament--are only offered by the Church.
This is why Jesus goes on to pray in John 17:11: “Holy Father, keep through Your Name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.”
Let’s be clear about what Jesus is praying here.
Jesus is not praying that everybody will all just get along.
There’s nothing wrong with people getting along, of course, and one day, after Jesus has returned to the earth, the dead who believed in Him arise, and He establishes the new heaven and the new earth, the harmony God intended for this fallen world will come into being.
But Jesus is not praying for unity in His Church in these days before His return at the expense of the truth.
He’s praying that our oneness, our unity, as Christians will be rooted in the truth that can only be found in Him and in the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and revealed in the pages of Scripture.
That’s why Jesus prays as He does in John 17:17 (look at the verse, please): “Sanctify [that is, set them apart from the rest of the world, make them holy]...by Your truth. Your word is truth.”
A group of people united by anything other than the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the revealed Word of God is not a church.
When Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany and unintentionally began the Reformation, he didn’t mean to divide the Church. He did it in hopes of uniting the Church behind the truth as revealed in Jesus and in the Bible, the living Word of God.
Luther was condemned by bullies of Church and State who told him that the Bible and Christian faith were what they said they were, no matter what Christ and the Holy Spirit-inspired Scriptures themselves may have said to the contrary.
To the bullies, rituals, edicts, traditions, and “church unity” were more important than the truth God has revealed in Christ and reiterated in the Bible.
They wanted to force unity at all costs.
Martin Luther and the other leaders of the Reformation said, “No. We won’t play God for a chump. We won’t turn our backs on the truth.”
Folks, unless a church teaches and believes that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and that people can only come to life with God the Father through faith in Christ, it’s not really part of Christ’s church.
Unless a church believes that Jesus was born of a virgin and was physically raised from the dead, it’s not a church.
Unless a church believes that the Bible is God’s inspired Word and is useful for teaching, reprimand, correction, and for training in righteousness, it’s not really a church.
Unless a church draws its being, life, and joy from Christ alone, Word alone, faith alone, it’s not really a church.
The church is that fellowship of believers among whom the gospel of new life for all who believe in Jesus is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments are administered according to the gospel.
It’s the fellowship being taken care of by God’s Holy Spirit, in which we hear and heed the Word of God, and is bathed in prayers: the prayers of Jesus for us and the prayers we offer for one another and for our witness about Jesus in the world.
If all these things aren't true of a group of people who call themselves church, they are not part of Christ’s Church. They may be a social club. Or a service club. Or a keep-up-the-building club. But they’re not part of the Church. Salvation isn’t happening among them. Its life isn’t being built on the truth of Christ.
If the church as you experience it is anything less than what Christ intends for you to have, why not join in praying to God today:
I want to build my life on the truth of Christ. I want to be part of a fellowship that scares the devil and shares life in Christ with a world that is dying in its sin by the second. I want to see Jesus’ prayer for His Church answered in my own life, along with the lives of all who are part of Saint Matthew. Grant this, O Lord! AmenIf that prayer expresses the desire of your heart today, I invite you to keep offering prayers like that every day you live and to allow the Holy Spirit to make you part of God the Father’s answer to Jesus’ John 17 prayer! Amen