Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is sort of a strange moment in the Church year, this Seventh Sunday of Easter. It’s strange because it falls between Jesus’ ascension (which we celebrated on Thursday), and Pentecost, when Jesus send the promised Holy Spirit from His Father. It’s a strange, in-between time, these ten days between Ascension on the fortieth day after Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost on the fiftieth day after His resurrection. It’s not there, during the forty days Jesus spent with His disciples after His resurrection; and it’s not here, after the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh.
But as strange as it is for us—or even if it doesn’t seem too strange—imagine what it must have been like for those apostles, and the other disciples, including the women, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Jesus’ brothers. We just live it in the cycle of the Church year; they actually did live those ten days. Before His ascension, Jesus had told them to stay in Jerusalem until He sent the promise of His Father. He didn’t say how long it would be; He just told them it would happen. So they stayed in the city, and they waited. What did they do while they waited? They devoted themselves with one mind, with a single purpose, to prayer. They waited and they prayed, but what did they pray for? I certainly don’t know everything for which they prayed, but I am certain about two things: they prayed that the Lord would show them which disciple would take the place of Judas. There had to be twelve apostles, just as there were twelve tribes of Israel. And they needed someone who had been with them from the beginning, from the baptism of John all the way to the death and resurrection of Jesus. They prayed, and then they cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. (That’s not the only way to see what God’s answer is, but since human sin often gets in the way, maybe it’s not the worst way, either!)
And they must have prayed for at least one other thing: that Jesus would keep His promise. They had no idea what the promise of the Holy Spirit would look like; they didn’t know when it was going to happen; only that it would be in Jerusalem, and it would happen in the not too distant future. So they prayed. Jesus had promised that He would not leave them, but be with them all the days until the completion of the age; He promised that He would not leave them as orphans, but that He would send another Helper, another Comforter, to bring to their minds everything that He had said. They prayed in the full confidence of those words.
We, too, find ourselves in a strange moment in the history of the Church. Even though we are living after Pentecost, we still wait. We’re not waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, but we are waiting for Jesus to return in the same way as the Apostles saw Him go into heaven. Waiting doesn’t mean doing nothing, but we are waiting. We still have all things by faith, and we, like those first disciples, have no idea how long it’s going to be. But while we wait and while we do the various things that God has given each of us to do, we also have the promises of Jesus. And not only do we have the same promises that the Apostles had, we have the same prayers that they had. And that, first of all, means the prayers of Jesus. As we wait and struggle and fear and grieve, Jesus prays for us. We hear part of His prayer in the verses from John 17. Right after the verses we heard this morning, Jesus prays not only for those Apostles who were present in the upper room before He died; He says that He prays also for those who will believe in Him through their word. That means you and me, among others. His prayer takes up all of chapter 17, but we hear some of things for which Jesus asks in 11-19: Jesus prays that His Father would keep His disciples in His Name; He prays that the Father would keep them and us from the evil one; He prays that His Father would sanctify—make holy—them and us in His Word, which is the Truth. And if you’ve read the Gospel of John, that means Jesus, the Word made flesh, who says that He Himself is the Truth. Jesus prays that the Father would make us holy in Himself, who sets Himself apart as holy for death and resurrection.
But there is another significant thing for which Jesus prays. In verse 11, Jesus prays to His “Holy Father,” and in verse 25, Jesus prays to His “Righteous Father.” And in between He prays for the Apostles and us the same thing four times: “that they may be one” (17:11); “that they may all be one” (17:21); “that they may be one” (17:22); “that they may become perfectly one” (17:23). Often we hear this prayer, and we look around at the state of Christianity in the world, and we can’t help but think that Jesus’ prayer has not been answered. You could drive around the Wenatchee valley and see numerous churches with different names on their signs, different traditions, different confessions. So we hear the prayer and we see the way thing are, and we want to make it different. We want to make happen the unity for which Jesus prays. But the first thing to see about this prayer is that it is a prayer. It is not a command. Jesus does not command His apostles or us to be one. And He isn’t praying to us. He prays to His Father that we may be one. Unity will be the Father’s work, not ours.
The second thing we do is try to do, besides making the unity happen, is make the unity visible. So the Roman Church claims that the unity of the Church is visible. For them, the Church’s unity is seen in the Bishop of Rome. So whoever is in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome is part of the visible, united Church. Whoever is not is not part of the Church. On the other hand, the ecumenical movement has likewise tried to make the unity of the Church visible by joining outwardly together, despite different confessions about what the most significant words of Jesus mean. Both try to make something happen in this creation that will not happen until the new creation. When have the revealed things of God ever been visible to our sight? Can you see faith? Can you see the forgiveness of sins? You may see their effects, but you don’t see the things themselves. Can you see the Holy Spirit or Jesus or the Father? Can you see the death and resurrection that happens in baptism? Can you see the Body and Blood of Christ with the bread and wine? Can you see the resurrection? No. None of those are visible. Which is exactly what we confess every time we say the Creed: I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe the holy, catholic—universal—Church; I believe the communion of saints; I believe the forgiveness of sins; I believe the resurrection of the body; I believe the life everlasting. If we could see any of those things, we wouldn’t need faith. Where there is sight, there is no need for faith. So if we believe the Church, we cannot see it or its unity. It is an article of faith.
So is Jesus’ prayer true? Has it been answered. Yes, of course it has. Whatever Jesus prays is heard and answered by the Father. Just because we cannot see it does not mean it is not real. St. Paul in Ephesians 4 says, “There is one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The unity exists, as certainly as the unity of the Father and the Son and the Spirit exists. But it doesn’t happen because we want it to, or because we ignore our confession to pretend it exists. It happens only as the Father answers the prayer of Jesus to keep us with the Apostles in the Name we share, in the Word and Truth which are Jesus. And Jesus only has one Body, the Church.
This is His promise and His prayer. He ascended to the right hand of God, and Paul says that He intercedes for us there. I saw a picture painted of Jesus’ ascension, where John and Mary are watching Jesus ascend into heaven and Jesus has His left arm wrapped around His cross. That picture tells us the truth: that Jesus ascends into heaven to plead for His people, by His blood, and His cross, and His resurrection. He still prays for us today. The prayer that He gave us to pray to “Our Father who art in heaven…” and the prayer in John 17 are still the prayers He prays, and still the prayers the Father hears, and still the prayers the Father answers, for the sake of His Son. That means that we don’t have to make or produce the unity for which Jesus prays. It is true because He is the perfect Son of God. But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to do. While we wait, we also devote ourselves to prayer with one mind, submitting only to the Word of God, by which the Spirit will strengthen the unity which He gives. We devote ourselves to the Apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship and communion that we have in the Word of Christ, to the prayers of the whole Church, and to the breaking of the bread, by which we have unity with each other simply because we share the same Body and the same Blood in the one bread and cup. And we do these things because we hope in the one Lord. As Paul urged the Christians in Ephesus, so he urges us: to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called: in humility, in patience, in gentleness, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Wherever Christ’s Word is preached in its purity and His sacraments are given out according to His word, the Church must be, even if we cannot see it. So where those things happen, we confess that unity which we cannot see, and we unite outwardly in witness to that unity. All of this we do while we wait for that day when we will see Jesus, when we will see His saints, when we will see the unity that exists in His Body because He is one. The same unity in which we will rejoice on that day is the unity in which we rejoice today and each Lord’s Day around this altar.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/10/18