Text: John 17:1-11
Date: Easter VII + 5/4/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
I’m always fascinated by this Sunday between the celebration of our Lord’s Ascension and the Day of Pentecost. For these are the ten days that the first disciples waited in Jerusalem as the Lord commanded them, telling them to “wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4-5). For today we see the infant Church in almost our exact situation. For as of today, look at where we’ve been since those first days of Advent and Christmas. We have traced and retold almost the entire story of the Gospel, that is, the earthly ministry of Jesus, beginning with His incarnation and birth, then in the Epiphany season a brief glimpse of His teaching, preaching and healing ministry, then the forty days in Lent were a sort of catechism instruction preparing us not only to hear and to celebrate but to participate in the most central event of the Gospel, the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ during Holy Week. Since that joyous Easter Day we recall the 40 days of our risen Lord appearing to his disciples and, this last Thursday, His glorious Ascension into heaven. We have retold almost the entire story of the Gospel. Almost! There’s just this one more thing. So today we join the first disciples and wait. It’s like everyone lined up at the starting line of the Church’s mission: “On your mark…get set….” We’re just waiting for the starting gun to fire, the green light, the bell to ring and the starting gates to fly open, the command to “Go!”
When you think about it, that’s sort of our feeling as the Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word. You’ve been through what may feel like a number of beginnings as a congregation, each one with its own dramatic twists and turns, some advances, some setbacks, but you still feel like you’re only at the starting line; “Get ready, get set….” All we want is a clear signal to “Go,” to get moving forward.
What did those first disciples do during that time of waiting? Well, St. Luke tells us, they devoted themselves to prayer and they had a voters’ meeting! Oh, certainly they did other things…the daily things, the routine things. They still met for worship at the temple or maybe the choir rehearsal room at the local synagogue. But in the light of the Lord’s resurrection and ascension and His promised return nothing, really, could ever be routine anymore. Or could it? Just think of it. Their prayers must have been charged with great joy and wonder, intensity and anticipation of this “promise of the Father” Jesus said He would send them soon, whatever that meant. And the voters’ meeting was to find a replacement for Judas Iscariot in order that the Apostles should number 12 again according to the Lord’s original design. And did you notice that no one actually voted! They chose the candidates, they prayed and then they “cast lots,” drew straws, flipped a coin, pulled a name out of the hat, trusting that the Lord had already chosen the right one, and the lot fell to Matthias. (I’ve always fantasized about conducting a Call meeting for a pastor that way). Now there were 12 again who were the authoritative witnesses of everything from the Lord’s baptism to His death and resurrection. “Now,” Peter must have felt, “now we’re on the mark, now we’re set and ready to go.” But were they? Are we?
They even knew where they were to go as the Lord said just before His leaving, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In every age the Church’s mission is to be a local, regional, national and even international endeavor. So we know where we are to go, we just don’t know when yet. Ready? Set?
And what is to be our witness? How and with what sort of words are we to make our witness, our testimony? What are we to say? Therefore the lectionary has us recall, one more time today, the words of our Lord on the night in which He was betrayed. His “High Priestly Prayer” with which He closed off that evening in the Upper Room begins to answer our question. It is called the “High Priestly Prayer” because He prays for us as our intercessor. His prayer is, first, for Himself, then for His apostles and disciples, and finally for all people. It is that first part that is most important because our witness is to be not about us but about Him, Jesus Christ.
First, Jesus glorifies His Father for saving the world from sin, death, and the power of the devil. God sent His Son into the world to make the forgiveness of sins possible through His holy death as the only sufficient payment for the sin of the whole world. Through forgiveness of sin He gives the gift of eternal life. “This is eternal life,” He says, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Eternal life is not the result of any works or righteousness of our own, but is the free gift of God through faith in Christ alone. Jesus did what He came to do. “I have finished the work which You have given Me to do.” Our witness is to tell the story (the factual account!) of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as the key and the only Way of forgiveness and salvation.
When Jesus prayed, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed,” we are reminded that this very real, human Jesus is, at the same time, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who has taken on our human nature, never to give it up again. Our witness is to be to tell people that the one, true and only God is this mystery of the Trinity. In other words our witness is to be doctrinal.
Now somehow, for some reason these days, that word “doctrine” turns people off. It conjures up thoughts of dry, academic details. Some say, “I just want to sit back and not have to think so much as to just simply believe.” But the question always follows, then, “what it is that you believe?” That’s really what’s behind what we mean when some of us call ourselves “confessional” Lutherans, implying that there are some who call themselves “Lutherans” who, by their words and actions, their “witness,” show that they are allowing other, contradictory voices and teachings (doctrines) to muddy the clarity of what they believe and confess. Maybe it’s because Jesus once criticized the Pharisees, saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:8-9) that they have a negative view of the word “doctrine.” But when the Bible uses the word “doctrine” it simply means “teaching,” as when St. John writes in his Second Epistle, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the doctrine (teaching) of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the doctrine (teaching) has both the Father and the Son” (2 Jn. 1:9).
That our witness is to be to confess the true, pure doctrine is made clear when Jesus prays for the unity of His disciples. “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, so Jesus desires that His disciples be united in Him, and that His Church be united in the apostolic faith and doctrine. Only when we have one, clear faith and doctrine are we enabled to give a clear witness.
It is an article of faith that “we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” It is an article of faith because it is a oneness that you cannot necessarily see with the eyes. All so-called “denominationalism,” like any division or separation, is the result of sin, some ignoring parts of God’s Word, others adding to that Word. True unity exists only where there is agreement in faith and doctrine.
In addition to unity, another theme emerges from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer when He says, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name,” and, a little further on, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is truth.”
“The world” here means those still separated from God by the sin of unbelief. We are still in the world. That is, surrounded by folks that just aren’t interested in the Gospel. In fact, there is always some of that unbelief in all of us even when we have come to faith. To be “of” this world, however, is to serve only yourself and your own wants, to have your eyes fixed on earthly pleasures and treasures, to live only according to the desires of your sinful flesh. To be “in” this world but no longer “of” it is to agree with the Apostle Paul when he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2), and, “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, putting on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24). We are in the world. It must be so for now, until God is ready to call us home. Thus we are called to use our time wisely. Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only. Live in His forgiveness. Serve your neighbor in need. Fix your eyes not on earthly treasures, but on heavenly treasures. And give a reason to those around you for the hope that is in you.
That is the sum and substance of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer for you. That you be united with Him and one another in faith and doctrine, and that you live in this world, but never become of this world.
When the ten days of waiting were over, the disciples received power when the Holy Spirit came upon them on the Day of Pentecost; power to be the Lord’s witnesses. You have received the same. We are on the mark, that is, made ready by the true faith and doctrine we have been given, summarized best in the Creeds of the Church. The Holy Spirit has come to guide us in all truth and to enable us to tell the Gospel to the world. Get ready, get set, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:19-20).