Jesus prays for His Church. This is the key to the Church’s survival. This is what has kept the Church going for the last two-thousand years. The Church has survived persecution, false teaching, and some of the grossest mismanagement in recorded history. Any human organization would have long gone under and disappeared, but the Church goes on. It has survived popes and councils and voters meetings. It has survived hostile governments and friendly governments. It has survived dictatorships, demagogues, and democracies. Josef Stalin, who tried to eradicate the Church in Russia, finally threw up his hands in desperation and said, “You can’t get rid of the Church. It’s like a nail. The harder you drive it, the deeper it goes.” Today, with Stalin gone, communism on the decline and atheism discredited, the Church is once again rising in Russia. People are once again worshiping Christ openly in public gatherings and telling their friends, family, and neighbors the great good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
What is the key to the Church’s survival? How could a rag tag group of 120 men and women gathered in a room on the eve of Pentecost in AD 29 (a group that even began with a vacancy), how could this tiny band of disciples grow into a Church that quite literally embraces the world and runs across national and ethnic boundaries? How could a Church whose first act was to cast lots to see who would succeed a traitor in its ranks become, in the matter of thirty years or so, a movement that embraced the entire Roman world and dotted the Mediterranean with congregations who proclaimed life in the death of Jesus?
What was the secret of the Church in its infancy? It had no programs, no publishing houses, no buildings, no financial security, no endowments, no schools. It had no bureaucracy, no synodical office buildings. One hundred and twenty people, a few more than gather here on a typical Sunday morning. And this was the entire holy, catholic, apostolic Church on earth at that time. One hundred and twenty people. What protected them? What propelled them into the world? What energized and enervated them? What hope did they have in a world already chock full of religion? In a culture that was hostile to their message? In a time when speaking of Christ in public meant your certain death? How did the Church manage to survive all these years intact?
One thing: Jesus prays for His Church. That’s the thought of the day for this seventh and last Sunday in the season of Easter. The same Lord Jesus who hung on a cross and rose from the dead and ascended to glory at the right hand of His Father, prays for His Church. The seventeenth chapter of John gives us Jesus’ high priestly prayer, the true “Lord’s prayer,” the prayer only Jesus can pray as High Priest of the world. He lifts His nail-scarred hands before the throne of grace, and He prays continually for His Church, His little band of disciples who are sprinkled like salt on the earth. He prays for His Church, and HIs prayer upholds the Church and protects it. The Church lives and moves and has her being under the umbrella of this prayer of Jesus.
What does Jesus pray for His Church? That she be successful? Popular? Powerful? Wealthy? Happy and clappy? No. Jesus prays that His Church be protected by the power of God’s Name, that the Church be one, that she be protected from the assaults of the devil, and that she be holy, sanctified, set apart to be a sign of salvation for the world.
First, Jesus prays that the Church be guarded by the power of God’s Name. “Protect them by the power of your Name – the Name you gave me – so that they may be one as we are one.” God’s Name is His power to save, His signature of ownership, His pledge and promise to be merciful and gracious. God revealed His Name to Moses in the burning bush. And He revealed His Name to the world in Jesus Christ, He showed the power of His mercy – healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out the demonic. And He showed the hidden power of the His Name by dying on the cross. God’s Name is a power exerted in death – the death of Jesus for the world and the death of the world in Jesus.
God revealed His Name to us in our Baptism. Stamped it on us. Marked us with the sign of His cross and sealed us with His Holy Spirit. He wrapped us up in His Name, a kind of Teflon suit of forgiveness. He named and claimed us there in the water of Baptism. And so we invoke His Name, we call upon it in every trouble. We worship in His Name. We pray, praise, and give thanks in His Name. And Jesus prays that we be kept in His Name, protected by the power of His Name.
And notice what the goal of Jesus’ prayer is. That they be one, just as we are one. Jesus is praying for the unity of His Church. As the Father is united with the Son, so the Son prays that His Church be united as one under the Name of God. And that may sound a bit far-fetched today, with our 20,000 or so denominations of Christianity give or take a thousand. Everyone claiming a monopoly in the truth. We might wonder what happened to this prayer of Jesus over the last two thousand years. What began as a fairly, though not entirely, unified movement that swept across the Mediterranean world, is today a movement so fragmented the idea of unity is almost a joke. In fact you’ve probably heard jokes like the one someone recently sent me by e-mail. I’ve tweaked it to a Lutheran perspective, but it could be applied anywhere.
Two men were sitting next to each other on an airplane. The one looks to the other and says, “Are you a believer or an atheist?” “Believer,” the other man replies. “Me too,” the first man says. “Are you a Christian or Jew,” the man asks. “Christian,” the other man replies. “Me too.” “Catholic or Protestant?” “Protestant,” the man says. “Me too.” “Lutheran or Reformed.” “Lutheran,” the man said. “Me, too.” “ELCA, WELS, ELS, or LC-MS?” “LC-MS,” the man replied. “Me, too.” “Conservative, confessional, moderate, or liberal?” “Confessional.” “Me, too.” “1941 hymnal or 1982 hymnal?” “1982 hymnal.” And the first man jumped out of his seat and said, “1982 hymnal! I’d rather burn in hell than sit next to heretic scum!”
Jesus prays that His Church be one as He and the Father are one. We worry a great deal about “unionism,” uniting with false teachers. And rightly so. But we also need to expend just as much energy worrying about separatism, creating needless divisions within the Church. Whoever divides the church is opposing the Lord of the Church and his prayer that the Church be one. He cannot succeed. We need to be very careful that we don’t create divisions where there aren’t any, or that we don’t create divisions of differences that result from different points of view or perspective. There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all. There is only one Bread and one Cup, one Body and Blood of one Savior named Jesus. And wherever you see and hear Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and forgiveness spoken in the name of crucified and risen Jesus, you have an infallible and inerrant sign that the prayer of Jesus is having its way, keeping the Church together in the Name of God.
Second, Jesus prays that the Church be protected from the devil. Jesus knew the enemy well. He’d tangled with him in the wilderness. And he knew that the devil would give His Church no rest. Doubts would creep in. Unbelief, despair. Jesus knew what His Church is up against. And so He prays for the Church’s protection.
Notice that Jesus does not pray that they be taken out of the world. He’s sending them into the world. That’s where the action is. He doesn’t set up some isolated camp or ideal community. Oh, the Church has tried that route, and still does. But isolationism never sits well with good news that demands to be preached. The Church exists to proclaim the reign of Jesus, His death and resurrection for the life of the world. And you can’t do that in isolation – whether that isolation is locked up in a monastery or locked up in your living room watching channel 40. Jesus sends His disciples out into the world with His protection against evil and the evil one.
I think we sometimes underestimate the danger. We think that the greatest enemy of the church is mismanagement or disorganization. But the greatest threat to the Church is the one you can’t see, the devil, who hates for people to be free, who hates it when sins are forgiven, and who hates to hear the great good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
We are in constant need of this prayer. Our prayers cannot stop the devil or protect us from him. But we have the Lord’s prayer, His intercession for us in which He pleads “guard them from the evil one.” That’s what keeps us safe, what ensures that the devil can’t harm us. Oh, he may work some mischief, as he’s prone to do. But as the Large Catechism reminds us, he “God’s devil,” and whatever he does God uses for His ultimate purpose to unite all things in Christ.
Third, Jesus prays that we be made holy. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” The Church is unique, set apart, different, weird even. In the Bible it’s called a royal priesthood, a chosen people, a holy nation. Salt sprinkled on the dish of the whole world. It is a light set up on a lamp stand. A “peculiar people” with a peculiar purpose – to proclaim the reign of Jesus’ death and resurrection over all things. And for that we must be sanctified, consecrated, set apart for holy use.
We do that with other things. We set apart certain tools for specific uses. I have a special set of tools that are reserved only for working with wood because metal would dull them or grease would make them dirty. Some of you may have special knives in the kitchen that are reserved for certain tasks. I always get in trouble when I use a pair of sewing scissors for some other purpose. These things were set apart for sewing.
Jesus has set apart His Church for the purpose of being a sacramental sign of salvation to the world. No one can see Jesus in His ascension. But the body of Christ becomes visible whenever the baptized get together to hear the word of Christ and receive the body and blood of Jesus. You are a sign of salvation to those around you. God has made an example out of you. He baptized you. If you’re like me, He didn’t wait for you to decide that it would be a good idea. He just did it. He set you apart to be a priest to Him in this world. To teach people to live in the freedom of Jesus. To teach people to live in the death of Jesus.
You are set apart by the truth, by the Word that is truth. You know the awful truth of your sin. And you know the greater truth of salvation in Jesus. That’s a gift of God. It makes you peculiar, different, set apart, holy. And it puts you in the cross hairs of Jesus’ prayer.
You are prayed for. Jesus, your High Priest, is continually praying for you. He prays that you would be united as one with all who believe in Him. He prays that you would be protected from evil and the evil one. He prays that you would be sanctified in the truth of the forgiveness of your sins. Remember that when you doubt, when you despair, when you think there is no future for the Church. When the Church seems so weak, so helpless, so out of touch with the world, so ill-equipped to face the religions of its day. Remember who prays for the Church – Jesus – the Church’s Lord and Bridegroom. He prays for you. And under the umbrella of the His prayer, you are safe.
In the Name of Jesus,