“Jesus Prays for Us” (Sermon on John 17:20-26, by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
“Jesus Prays for Us” (John 17:20-26)
Did you know you are mentioned in the Gospel reading for today? You are. Jesus is talking about you–in fact, he is praying for you–in the passage known as his “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17. In the first part of that chapter, Jesus has been praying for his disciples, the ones he would be sending out soon as his apostles. You know, Peter, James, John, Andrew, Matthew–those guys. But then at verse 20 of John 17, Jesus shifts his prayer to include others, as well. He says: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word. . . .”
OK, let’s pause right there. When he says “these only,” he’s referring to the disciples he’s just been praying for, those who would be his apostles. But then he goes on to say: “but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” And here he is talking about you. Yes, you. For you are among those who have believed in Jesus through the apostles’ word–the inspired witness of the apostles that we find in the New Testament Scriptures. Through the gospel that has been preached to you, through the apostles’ teaching, through the sacraments the apostles were commissioned to pass on to the church from generation to generation–through the apostolic ministry of Word and Sacrament, you and I have come to believe in, trust in, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so you and I are included in this prayer of Jesus when he prays for “those who will believe in me through their word.” Here in his High Priestly Prayer, “Jesus Prays for Us.”
Now what are the things that our Lord prays for us? What does he want for us, what is his will for us? Several things. The first thing he asks for us is this: “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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
This is the unity of the church Jesus is praying for here, a unity not based on warm fuzzies or in holding hands and singing Kumbaya, but more than that, it is a unity created by God’s own work of binding us to himself, giving us the gift of faith, his work of uniting us in the life of the triune God. Notice how Jesus describes this unity: “just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us,” and again, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.” In theology, this is what we call the “mystical union,” that all believers in Christ are one, incorporated into the life of the one true God, in the one true church. You know how we say in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic church”? Well, we believe in it, that is, we believe there to be but one church, because that is what God has created and what Christ here is praying for. This is the “una sancta catholica et apostolica ecclesia,” the “one holy catholic”–“catholic” in the best sense, meaning “universal”–the one “in all times and all places” church, consisting of all believers made holy by the blood of the Lamb and trusting in him, the church built on the foundation of the holy apostles. This is the unity that Jesus is praying for–praying for us–here in his High Priestly Prayer.
Thank God that he has brought us into his one church! The Holy Spirit has given us faith to believe in Christ our Savior, and now we know the Father’s love. We all believe in one true God, and we all have been baptized in the name of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This is a God-established unity that cannot fail. This unity exists even now, in spite of all the divisions and fractures and errors we see in visible Christendom. And this unity will last forever, when by God’s grace those warts and flaws in the church will no longer be seen, when they will be healed–when Christ will present the church to himself as a bride radiant and beautiful, holy and without blemish.
Now of course we want to do everything we can to walk in the oneness God has given his church. We want to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Speaking the truth in love, the church will be built up and grow strong, not being blown around by every wind of doctrine, but rather holding to the faith once delivered to the saints. We will work for concord in the church, seeking consensus in the pure doctrine and striving for a God-pleasing uniformity in church practice. This is a fitting follow-up to what Jesus is praying for us.
And there is an outcome that will follow, as we dwell in God and he in us and we are built up in the one apostolic faith. Our oneness in God results in mission, as Jesus says: “so that the world may believe that you have sent me,” and again, “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” More and more people will come to faith in Christ as the church lives in, and manifests, and testifies to, the love of God in Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is the love of God we have received and experienced, and that love then shines through us out into a sin-darkened world, drawing more and more people from every nation into the one holy church.
It’s happening all around the world today. What Jesus is praying for in this prayer is coming to pass as the church grows and the gospel goes into every corner of the world. In Africa, In Asia, in South America, the church is growing by leaps and bounds. In Ethiopia, in Kenya, in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore, in Argentina and Peru, we see the church expanding and new beachheads for the kingdom being established on every shore.
This is the same gospel that has saved you, my brothers and sisters. It speaks of God’s own Son coming down from heaven and being made incarnate here on earth. It is the good news of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, bearing the sins of the world in his body on the cross. He is the one and only Savior God has given for all men everywhere, the only one you need. In him you have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Christ won this for you on the cross, purchasing your salvation with his precious blood. And then he rose, victorious in the strife, defeating all your foes for you–death, the devil, the grave, the condemnation that you and I deserve by our sins. These all are overcome by the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Christ our Savior. Now ascended into heaven, he sits at God’s right hand, ever living to make intercession for us as our own High Priest. And he will come again at the last day, to take us home to be with him forever.
And that then is the other thing Jesus prays for us in this prayer of his in John 17. Jesus prays to his Father as follows: “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.”
Jesus prays this as he is about to go to the cross, to complete the saving mission for which he was sent. Then will come his resurrection and, forty days after that, his ascension into heaven. So when Jesus prays that we may be with him where he is, to see his glory, this is talking about our eternal life in heaven in the age to come. There we will see his glory, undimmed and undiminished. There we will be with him, and we will see him face to face. What a glorious day that will be! An endless, joyful eternity with our Lord and with all his people, in a paradise restored and made even better!
It’s what we see described in the reading from Revelation. The new Jerusalem, the holy city. The river of the water of life, flowing through the city, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. The tree of life–that tree we were barred from, when we were driven out of the garden after our fall into sin. But when the new day comes, when Christ returns and takes us home to be with him forever, then we will have access to the tree of life, eternal life, ours as a gift. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life.” That’s us. We have had our robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb, our sins washed away in the waters of Holy Baptism. Therefore, in Christ, we will have the right to the tree of life.
Friends, this is paradise restored–creation restored, and made even better. No more sin or sorrow or death. Only life and abundance and joy. The blessed vision of seeing our Lord Jesus in his glory. The joy of worship around the throne with the whole company of heaven. The heavenly banquet feast. This is what we have to look forward to. This is our hope, our lively hope that animates all our days. We look forward to that day with great expectation. “Come, Lord Jesus!” is the church’s fervent cry. And, dear ones, this will be the ultimate fulfillment of Jesus’ own prayer, his High Priestly Prayer, the prayer he prays for us, that we may be with him where he is. God grant it, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.