Jesus 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 into death. This is the room where He washed the disciples’ feet as a servant; this is the room where He instituted the sacramental meal of His Body and Blood. This is the room 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, He prays in their presence. This prayer, recorded in John chapter 17, is the true “Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer only the Lord Himself can pray.
He first prays to the Father for HImself. “Father, the time has come. Glorify your son, that your Son may glorify you.” He knows the His glory is in His death, His being lifted up on the cross, drawing all men to Himself, and in so doing, bringing glory to the Father. He knows that the way of glory is to come from God, go through death and the grave, rise from the dead, and return to that glory by way of His ascension. He glorifies our humanity in His humanity, taking our human flesh, bone, and blood through death and the grave to the right hand of the Father. This is His glory, and this is how He brings glory to the Father.
He then prays for those men gathered around Him in the upper room; His inner circle of apostles, those He would send. They were given Him by the Father, and He has taught them everything that comes from the Father. He has given them the Father’s words and they received them. They believe that He came from the Father as the only-begotten Son. They are His apostles, His sent ones, His authorized representatives who would speak “in His stead and by His command.” He was “leaving,” withdrawing His visible presence from the world, but they would remain. Jesus would go to the Father, but they would remain in this world to proclaim Him.
Finally, in the third and last part of His high priestly prayer, Jesus prays for all believers, “for those who will believe in me through their word.” He prays for their unity in union with Him, that the world would know that the Father sent the Son and loves His believers as His own Son.
Today’s text is the second portion of that prayer, the part about 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 from Matthias, who, 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 then 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 who continually establishes His office that His voice would be heard in His Church until the end of time.
And so one might rightfully say here, that in praying for His apostles, Jesus is also praying for His pastors, for His office and its officeholders.
Jesus prays first that His joy might be fulfilled in them. 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 no “smile and be happy” kind of joy that the world proffers; it is nothing less than the joy of salvation, the joy of sinners justified for Jesus’ sake, the joy of sins forgiven.
I’ll be the first to admit that the holy ministry can become a joyless task and even a burden. Sometimes it’s our own fault. We clergy can be a burdensome lot – complaining, whining, carrying on as if Jesus were not reigning from the right hand of God. Sometimes though, it’s 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, executives, motivators, equippers, you name it, everything but shepherds, pastors who will lead the flock to good pasture and clean, clear water.
The joy of ministry is not being liked or appreciated but the joy of people coming to a deeper sense of their sinfulness and to a yet deeper faith in Jesus. The most joyful work of a pastor happens at the font, at the altar, in the pulpit, in the confessional, and wherever the Word of Christ is having it’s faith-making way. That’s the joy of Jesus, who prays that His apostles would be filled with His joy.
He reminds them, as they overhear this prayer, that the world will hate them on account of the Word. This is true. Put on a clergy collar and you will either be loved or hated, but there will be very little middle ground, unless someone doesn’t make the connection. Sometimes I try to hide it when I slip into the Home Depot or the grocery store on an errand and pop off my collar, but I’m still a dead giveaway, a sitting duck either for scowls or serious conversation. There is no avoiding it; it’s wrong to avoid it. It comes with the turf. The prophets experienced the same thing. They bore the Word in the world, and the world was none too pleased with it.
Like Jesus Himself, His ministry is “in the world yet no 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, to wall yourself off from the world, to avoid contact. But Jesus prays that His ministers not be removed from this world but immersed in it. Jesus embraced the world in His death, and His apostolic ministry embraces the world in the name of Jesus. That will bring you into contact with some parts of the world we might rather avoid – the misfits of the world, the untouchables, the lepers of our day.
Like Jonah, we board our ships to Tarshish in hopes of escape, only to find ourselves swallowed up by a big fish and barfed out once again on the dry land of our vocations. The church too needs to fight this tendency to circle the wagons and preach only to the choir. We are in the world, and there is no hiding from it. There’s no need to hide from it or cower from it. Jesus has already overcome the world.
The other great denial is that we become “of the world.” We lose our saltiness, we hide our lamp, we become indistinguishable with the world. Not of the world means that we are different. Pastors are held to a higher standard of conduct, as well they should be. You don’t expect your pastor to get drunk on Saturday night, or any other night. You wouldn’t be pleased if your pastor was shacked up with his girlfriend or cheating on his wife. You wouldn’t be happy to find out that your pastor cheated on his income tax or didn’t show up for church on Sunday. And rightly so. Not just because he’s the pastor and paid to be the pastor, but because he is to be an example for everyone.
As baptized believers in Christ, we are called to be in this world and yet not of this world, to engage this world and be an active part of it, and yet not to draw our identity from it nor to conform ourselves to its ways. You are different, set apart, consecrated, “holy.” A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. The world will consider you weird, a resident alien within its borders. Like OT Israel among its neighbors, called to be holy, consecrated, set apart to point to Yahweh, the Creator and Redeemer, the merciful One.
We are called to bear witness to the truth – pastor and people together. Sanctify them by the truth; your Word is truth. Truth is a slippery term these days. Plastic and malleable. We seem to be unclear as to what is truth. God’s Word is truth; Jesus is Truth. He doesn’t just speak the truth, He embodies all truth. That doesn’t mean that Christians are infallible, that we are right all time. We’re not. You can have the truth and still be wrong when you do not speak the truth in love or love in the truth.
Jesus taught us to pray “hallowed by Thy Name.” May your Name be hallowed, holy. May it be holy on our lips as we pray, praise, give thanks, confess, bless, witness. “O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” God’s Name is holy when we speak the truth about God and about ourselves, the truth of our sinfulness, our brokenness, our lost condition and the truth of Jesus and His forgiveness, His righteousness, His redemption.
And we pray also that God’s Name would be hallowed in our lives, as the Word of Truth has its way with us – killing us to sin, raising us to life, guiding us in the path of righteousness. It’s the Word – Christ – on our lips and in our lives that makes you and me a holy people, a holy ministry, a holy church.
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 2000 years since Jesus disappeared in His ascension, and yet His Word is as living and active today as ever. Yes, it has opposition, it is hated, despised, ignored, ridiculed by the world. And yet the Word remains stubbornly embodied in the Church – her pastors and her people – in the world yet not of the world for the life of the world. And that is the Truth.
In the name of Jesus,