Jesus prays for the Church. He prays for those who believe through the apostolic Word by the Holy Spirit. He prays for you, each of you, as baptized believing members of His Body. 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 their feet as an example of humble service, at that very table, He prayed for His apostles and for 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 Spirit.
When you look out over 2000 years of church history, when you consider the Church that began as 120 believers gathered in one room on the eve of Pentecost, you have to ask yourself how has the Church managed to survive throughout the centuries. Empires have come and gone. Nations have fallen and risen. Great cultures have reached their pinnacle and then disappeared. Antagonists have risen up: Islam, communism, atheism, rationalism, agnosticism, skepticism. 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 yet, like the dandelions in your Spring lawn or weeds in your vegetable garden or the Energizer bunny that keeps on ticking and ticking, the Church seems to march on, popping up here and there all over the world. Oh, it isn’t uniformly strong and vibrant everywhere at the same time. It’s like that field with the four kinds of soil in the parable that Jesus told. Some parts of the Church are simply unproductive hard pavement, where the Word gets barely a hearing. Some are like the shallow soil that spring up with rapid growth that 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.
Luther recognized this. He called the Gospel a “local rain,” that showers for a while in one place and then moves on to another. Churches that once were busting full with people now stand nearly empty, while churches pop up somewhere else. We see it in our own area here in southern California. Churches that were once the great mother churches of the region are barely alive; while areas that barely had a presence of the Church is not thriving. The greatest resurgence of Christianity is found not in America but in Africa. And through it all, there remains one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith, one Baptism, one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Jesus promised that He would build His church on the confession that He is the Christ, the Son of God, and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against that Church. That doesn’t mean every congregation is bullet-proof. Certainly not. Sometimes growth in one part of the Church entails loss in another part. The Church is a living, dynamic body, not a static institution or corporation.
The Church is also 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 doing. 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 also prays for you. This part of Jesus’ high priestly prayer, you get 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.” He prays, first of all, for our union with Him in the Father, that just as He and the Father are one, united in the godhead, so we would be 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 it is not simply for ourselves. It is “so that the world may believe that you sent Me.” The Church exists for the benefit and blessing of the world, just as OT Israel existed for the benefit and blessing of itself, as though it were some kind of holiness club that had exclusive dining room privileges with the Lord, but Israel and its NT counterpart the Church exist “for the life of the world.” “That the world may know and believe that the Father sent the Son to save the world by His death.
This is the first place where churches go wrong. They become institutionalized, self-protective, worried about themselves instead of others, concerned with their own affairs and not with the unbaptized, unbelieving world. We 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 a line and building a wall instead of breaking through walls. Jesus’ desire and His prayer is that our unity with Him and the Father would manifest God’s love to the world in Christ 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, Jesus wants you to share in His glory. “The glory that you have given me I have given to them.” This past Thursday, we celebrated Jesus’ ascension, the withdrawal of His visible (but not actual!) presence. In ascending to the highest majesty of rule and dominion at the right hand of the Father, Jesus has glorified our humanity. Think about it. Jesus embodies all of humanity in His human body as the second Adam, 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, 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 man-made glitter, like so much 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 thinks she does. She is beautiful to Christ as 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’s not enough that we believe in Him unseeing; 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 seeing through a glass dimly. Glass was a fascination in the ancient world. Especially clear glass. That’s why the streets of 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, you too will 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. And you are held safely in that prayer forever. In the name of Jesus, Amen