The Secret of the Church’s Life

John 17:11b-19 / 7 Easter B / 20 May 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

One of the great miracles of Christianity and the Christian Church is its continual survival. As I like to put it, it’s simply miraculous that the Church has survived nearly 2000 years of what can only be described honestly as “gross mismanagement.” The Christian faith we confess, the faith “once handed to the saints” as Jude says, the faith that has come down to us in the creeds and confessions of believers who came before us, has not changed across the centuries.

The Church has seen the rise and fall of nations and empires. It has survived governments that favored it, governments that tried to co-opt it for its own purposes, and governments that were downright hostile to it. Some people are concerned in our own day that we may be entering a “post-Christian” era in this country, and perhaps we are. Certainly interest in historic Christianity seems to be waning, church attendance is down across the board, regardless of denomination or “non-denomination,” and people are tending to roll their own “spiritualities” from whatever is available to them. And still, the church rolls on, sometimes struggling, sometimes faltering, sometimes small in number. But the church just keeps on going and going and going, like that Energizer bunny that just won’t quit.

The Church has survived communism, and amazingly, after the communist clouds lifted in the Soviet Union, out from deep underground emerges a new generation of believers again. The same is true in China, where in spite of official opposition, the number of Christians continues to grow. It was Stalin who once said that the Christian Church was like a hard, iron spike – the harder you drive it, the deeper it goes.

Businesses rise and fall with the economy and the ingenuity of their leaders. Countries rise and fall in power and greatness. And still the church rolls on. What’s the reason? What’s the secret behind the Church’s longevity? What keeps the Church going over and against every attempt to snuff it out or shove it to the margins of society or drive it underground?

The answer lies in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, the prayer that Jesus prayed in the upper room on the night of His betrayal. This is the same upper room where He instituted the Supper of His body and blood, where He washed His disciples’ feet as their servant, and taught them concerning His love for them, their love for each other, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and their union with Him as branches to a vine. And then Jesus prays this unique prayer, the true “Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer only the Lord Himself can pray. And it is this prayer that is the secret to the Church’s life and why the Church rolls on to this day and beyond today to the end of the days.

The prayer comes in three parts. The first part is between Father and Son. Jesus prays to the Father for Himself, for His mission in the world, for His impending death and resurrection, that He would bring glory to the Father in His death so that all might know the Father and the Son and so have eternal life.

Then He prays for His apostles, the men gathered in the upper room with Him who are hearing this prayer. They were given Him by the Father, and He has taught them everything. He has given them the words the Father gave Him, and they heard and believed them. As the Son is the apostle of the Father, so these men would be His apostles, His “sent ones,” His authorized representatives who would go out into the world to speak in His stead and by His command. He was “leaving,” in the sense that they would see Him no more, but they would remain. He was going to the Father, but they were going out into the world to bring glory to Him

And finally, in the third and last part, Jesus prays for the whole Church, for all believers everywhere, for “those who will believe in me through their word,” the apostolic word. That’s all of us too. He prays for their unity in union with Him, that the world would know that the Father sent His Son into the world and loves the world in His beloved Son. This is the prayer that has kept the Church going through all these years and decades and centuries for two millennia. This is the secret of the Church’s life, this High Priestly prayer of her Lord.

Today’s text, which you just heard, focuses on the apostles and their ministry. Apostolic ministry is not confined to these men, but it is an office, a set of authorities and responsibilities in the Church that can be filled and handed on to others. In the reading from Acts, we hear how Matthias was chosen and added to the apostles to fill the vacancy left by Judas. Apostolic ministry is greater than the man. Judas was gone. He had betrayed His Lord and hung himself in despair. His apostolic office remained and needed to be filled. Matthias was the man. Paul, too. The thirteenth apostle, “untimely born” on the road to Damascus. And then generation after generation of pastors, called and ordained into the same apostolic office that Jesus established in sending His Twelve.

Jesus prays for their joy, that they would have His joy fulfilled in themselves. John Kleinig, the Australian Lutheran theologian and pastor, speaks eloquently of the joy of the holy ministry, that no matter how challenging, difficult, at times dangerous, in both bad and good times, when the church is thriving and when it isn’t, there is this abiding and deep joy. It isn’t simply the joy of vocation or the joy of a job well done in spite of circumstances, but the joy of Christ who for the joy set before Him endured the cross and scorned its shame. The apostles and their successors would know that joy and share in it with each Baptism, every communion, every sinner absolved. After 20 years in the ministry, all of them here in this place, I can attest to that joy which seems to come literally out of nowhere and for no earthly good reason. A joy that can only come from the heart of Jesus. His prayer makes ministry a joy.

He prays for them because He is sending them into the world as marked men, as resident aliens, as messengers bringing a strange and foreign Word, as ones who are “in the world and yet not of the world.” We like to blend in, be part of the crowd. We don’t like to stick out, especially when standing out will bring ridicule or opposition or persecution. The tendency is to retreat, to hide, to circle the wagons, to remove ourselves from the world and barricade ourselves behind walls of isolation. But apostolic ministry is sent ministry, sent into a world that has been died for and redeemed by Jesus. Jesus’ prayer is not that they be taken out of the world, but that in the world they would be protected against the evil one.

The devil is real, my friends. That may sound a bit silly and superstitious and even childish in our sophisticated age, but the evil one is quite real, darkness masquerading as an angel of light, a liar and the father of lies, a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. The greatest threat to the church is not governments or human opposition or the ACLU or whatever other boogeymen we concoct. The greatest threat to the church is the old evil foe who knows the truth, that he is defeated, and who delights to spread the lie that Christ has not conquered Sin and Death for you and that you must atone for your own sins.

Jesus prays that His apostles would be sanctified in the truth. His ministry is a sanctified ministry, holy ministry. It isn’t holy because the apostles or their successors in office are holy in themselves. Anything but. They are sinners, justified for Jesus’ sake. But the apostolic ministry is holy because the Word is holy. It is sanctified by the truth of the Word.

The ministry is only as good as the Word it preaches. It seems today that churches are looking for all sorts of things from their pastors – dynamic leadership, inspirational messages, motivation, even miracles up to and including raising the dead it seems. The apostles Jesus sent into the world were not trained “church professionals” armed with the latest mission methodologies from corporate headquarters. They were four fishermen, a tax collector, a political operative, and who know what else. All they had was Jesus’ Word and the promised Holy Spirit. And with nothing more than the Word and Spirit, they started the ball of the Church that has rolled on to this day and to us.

And what has kept the ball rolling was not the ingenuity and initiative of men, but the power of this high priestly prayer and the High Priest who stands behind it. Jesus said that He consecrated Himself that His apostles would be sanctified in the truth. He holies Himself by dying and rising so that they would be holied in His death and resurrection.

He consecrates them to speak the truth. Truth-speaking is what the Church is supposed to be about. Speaking the truth in love. It isn’t about making people happy. Even the truth in love can hurt at times. It isn’t about fixing all of life’s problems or transforming society or improving the individual or all other countless ways we get it wrong. The Church is about speaking the truth – the truth of our condition, that we are so corrupted by the virus of Sin that everything we do must be forgiven. Even our church work and our noblest efforts must be forgiven because everything a sinner does, even if God Himself is working through him, is full of Sin. This actually frees us from the tedious and meaningless discussion over whether something is a sin or not. The only question is this: Did a sinner do it? Then, it’s Sin-full, full of Sin.

What sanctifies the apostles, what makes the ministry holy, is not the men who do it, but the Word of truth they speak. Remember that when you are disappointed by the church, by your fellow Christians, by your pastors, by me. Sooner or later I will do or say something that disappoints you. And you will do the same to each other. But what makes anything holy, whether it is Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, Holy Absolution, Holy Church, or Holy Ministry, is the Word of Jesus, the Holy One who shed His blood for the cleansing and forgiveness of all.

We say in the creed we believe in one, holy, apostolic Church. The Church that rests on the foundation of the apostles with Christ as the cornerstone. We believe in the Church because Christ is the Lord of that Church, and He prays for His Church and for His apostolic ministry. And because of that prayer, the Church rolls on today, tomorrow, and the next day to the end of the days. You can be certain of it.

In the name of Jesus,