Sermons, Uncategorized

The Gracious Heart of Jesus

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[Jesus said:] “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” (John 17:20-21)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

According to John, it was the last thing Jesus said in the upper room on Maundy Thursday. After teaching His disciples many things about Himself, the world, and things to come, Jesus concludes His last evening with His disciples in prayer to the Father. And He concludes His prayer with the words in this text. As the saying goes, you can learn a lot about a man by listening in on his prayer. I would submit to you that you can learn so much more listening to the prayer of a man who knows that he will soon die.

And Jesus is headed to meet His death. In the next verse after our Gospel, John tells us that Jesus goes with His disciples across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas, who betrays Him, leads a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees to meet Jesus and to arrest Him.

What can we learn about Jesus through this prayer? It helps to pay close attention to the details. Notice that in these final petitions, Jesus isn’t praying for the world. Neither is He praying for the disciples. No, in our text, Jesus is praying for those who would believe in Him through the apostolic Word. In other words, He is praying for you, me, this congregation, the whole Church.

What does Jesus ask the Father? What does He want for (and from) us who follow Him? We find that in three clauses in verse 21: “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.”

Jesus first prays that all believers may be one just as Jesus and the Father are one. That’s really close! But that’s not all. Jesus also prays that these believers would be “in us.” In other words, Jesus doesn’t only desire for His people to be close to each other, but also close to Him and the Father. Indeed, the only real unity is unity around and in the triune God. Those first two clauses beginning with “that” help us understand the content of Jesus’ prayer.

But the third clause, the one that begins “so that” does something else. It is a purpose clause, and it points to the ends of this unity. Jesus desires that, through Christian unity, the world might believe that He was sent by the Father. Note that Jesus doesn’t pray for the world directly. Instead, He prays for the world through the unity of His people. The unity of the Church is a witness to the world. It is fundamental to the Church’s mission.

But an honest reflection would show that Christian unity is lacking these days. There’s the fragmentation of the Church into so many denominations—even so many church bodies that claim Lutheran heritage. There’s the biting and devouring that takes place between members of our own denomination. Closer to home, we may find the temptation to think only of our own congregation’s wants and ignore the need of the larger body of Christ. Or a lack of concern individual members of our congregation have for one another. Each of these hurt our Christian witness to the world. But they also hurt our fellow saints.

In a most perverse way, the devil will use affliction to tempt you away from God. We should know better: it was the afflicted and downtrodden whom Jesus especially sought out, who most joyously heard His Word because they knew this world only breaks you eventually. Sometimes, the hits keep on coming in the form of sickness, injury, financial loss, family troubles, grief, and more. Satan will use them to make you curl up in a ball in the corner, to turn your face to the wall—to separate yourself from sadness. That’s where isolation happens—divided from Christ and His body, the Church. The devil works hard at this one, because he knows how comforting the Gospel will be if you hear it at such a time. Remember that the Lord is your strength, and it is in His means of grace that He delivers grace and life to sustain you—even in the worst of trials.

This is a time when Christians often fail each other: when people are afflicted, the temptation is to leave them alone—because we don’t know what to say, we want to “give them space,” or because being with sad people makes us uncomfortable. The same is true for those who, because of health, can no longer make it to church. It’s a lonely existence. The inaction of others leaves the one who suffers isolated and alone—and the devil will use that to convince them that they are separated from God, too; that they are no longer part of the “one in Christ.” The Lord uses us as His hands and voice: let us not cease in visiting and caring for those who are in deep distress. And let’s not be afraid to let others know our needs.

If Jesus is all about restoring oneness, then the devil is going to be all about fostering division. That is what sin does: it divides. It shatters. It fragments and isolates. Plenty of sins divide and separate. Pride will have you alone on your pedestal, considering others below you and not worth your time. Greed will have you gather possessions to yourself, not friends or family. Lust will have you view others as objects to be used, not as fellow people for whom Christ has died. Many sins entice you to hide in a room with your sin, all alone. They work to destroy friendships, marriages, families, and congregations by division and subtraction.

All of that separation is awful enough, but it distracts us from what is worse: sin separates you, divides you from God. It keeps you unholy, and an unholy you cannot be one with your holy Savior. If you cannot be one with Him, all that is left is the ultimate, eternal separation of death and hell

It’s a problem that’s been going on ever since the Fall in the Garden. The Bible tells us that the first Church was in perfect unity with God and with one another. Adam and Eve were perfect, sinless, and holy. Furthermore, they were created in the image of God. Because God is righteous, they were righteous too. They reflected His glory. Furthermore, they could be in His presence. They could walk with God in the Garden. They could look upon His face. There was no shame, no guilt that would make them run away and hide.

Sin changed all that. As soon as Adam and Eve fell into sin and heard God walking in the Garden, they ran and hid from Him. When He asked what they had done, they blamed Him and each other. They were no longer one with God. They would no longer be as one with each other, because they would always have selfish, ulterior motives in dealing with one another. Because of their sin, God cast them out of the Garden, away from the tree of life—but not before He promised that the Savior would come and deliver them from death and devil. The Savior would come and reverse the curse of sin. He would bring people back to God by removing their unrighteous sin and make them holy once again.

The Savior is Jesus, the One praying in the Gospel. Remember what happens next: Jesus will be arrested and hauled out of the Garden of Gethsemane. He’ll be put on trial and sentenced to death for being guiltless. Then He’ll be taken from the city to the Place of the Skull, and He’ll be crucified.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they were driven from the Garden of Eden because of their sin. When the Passion of our Lord begins, He’s removed from a garden, too—because of His holiness. Where Adam was sentenced to death by God because of His guilt, Jesus is sentenced to death by man because of His innocence. Where God grieved at the sin and separation brought about by Adam, man rejoices to be separated from the Son of God when He dies on Calvary.

Jesus is undoing what Adam did. He’s taking Adam’s place to undergo Adam’s punishment: not just physical death, but far worse. He’s fully forsaken by God on the cross. That’s what it means when He cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The Son of God—one with the Father from eternity—suffers the ultimate separation from oneness with the Father. In other words, He suffers hell on the cross before He is restored to His Father again.

All of this lies less than a day away as Jesus prays this prayer; and listen again to what He prays about you: “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” (John 17:21). Jesus prays that you would be one with God and one another again, like Adam and Eve before the Fall into sin.

 In His prayer, we get a glimpse into the gracious heart of Jesus. Not only does He desire unity in the Church and unity with God. He does what it takes to make it happen. You see, there’s only one way for that prayer to be answered, and that is for Jesus to suffer the ultimate separation from God in your place. That’s what the cross is about. For Christ, separation and condemnation. For you, redemption. Restoration. Reconciliation. One with God and one another again.

Look around you here, and you will see a miraculous gathering of people. Not many in numbers, certainly; but more than that first two-member congregation. The Lord Himself has gathered you together, and it is He who keeps you together—who keeps you one with one another, His whole Church, and Himself. And He tells you how He does in our Gospel for today.

In His prayer, Jesus calls you “those who believe in Me through [the apostles’] Word.” He’s given you His Word, and His Word makes and keeps you one. Faith comes by hearing His Word, which He gave to us through His prophets and apostles. His Word is the means to gather us together, and His Word is His means to keep us together, one in Him. That is why we gladly repent of our sins of ignoring His Word in favor of our sinful, divisive desires.

Jesus has given you His glory. He prays to His Father, “The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one.” The glory of Jesus is foremost the cross, for that is the ultimate act of love for us, that is where we best see the gracious heart of Jesus.

Jesus has given His cross to you and it didn’t hurt you any more than three quick splashes of water. In Baptism, Jesus joined you to His cross, His death and resurrection. Without that, you’d have to die your own death for sin, isolated from God forever. But because He’s shared the glory of His cross with you, you are now one in Him. That is why we gladly repent of our sins that would separate us from His life and lead us death, for Christ has opened to us the way of salvation.

Furthermore, Jesus prays, “I made known to them Your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” Jesus has made His name known to you: He has made known to you that He is the Savior of all nations, forgiving you all of your sins. He’s put His name on you—marked you as His own! You are not left as individuals trying to find your way to an unknown God through any variety of religions. And with His name, the Lord has also made known to you His will. He tells you that He has gathered you in, forgiven your sins, made you one with Him by His sacrifice. That’s why we gladly repent and confess our pursuits of other gods that cannot save, including our own desires and wishes, for salvation is found in Christ.

Jesus has given us His Word, His glory, and His name. It is in these gifts that we best see the gracious heart of Jesus for you and me. It is by these gifts that He has made us one. It is by these gifts that He keeps us one.

I give great thanks this day, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, to be united in Him and with you. This is all the Lord’s doing, and so you can be sure: you are one with His body, the Church, and one with Christ: for His Word, His glory, and His name are all summed up in these words: you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Holy Father, Keep Them

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[Jesus said:] Holy Father, keep them in Your name, which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one” (John 17:11b).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“The Bucket List,” tells the story of two men who have little in common except the room they share while they await treatment for terminal cancer. As their friendship develops they compile a “bucket list,” or things they want to do before they “kick the bucket.” You can tell a lot about what a person thinks is important by what they choose to say and do in their final days or hours on this earth.

Jesus is no exception. In addition to teaching His disciples about true greatness through serving, telling them one more time that He was going to return to the Father, and instituting the new covenant of His body and blood, Jesus prayed—first for Himself, then His disciples, and then for all believers to come.

In our text, Jesus prayed specifically for His disciples. The disciples were His special charges, and they needed help and strength to face what was coming. Jesus was going to leave the world and go to the Father, but His disciples had to remain in the world. So Jesus prayed for them.

“Holy Father,” Jesus prayed, stressing the reverence that is due God’s name. Then He called for the Father to keep and guard the disciples in His name. God’s name is everything we can know about Him: His person, His power, His character—His entire revelation of Himself through the Word. Here God’s name clearly implies His power that saves His followers from the forces of evil.

Jesus was given the Father’s name to guard and to proclaim in word, and to display in deed, as the incarnate Word of God. Through it all, He revealed and implemented the saving love of His Father. Now as He was completing His work, He was assigning the guarding and proclaiming of the name to His apostles.

“Keep them in Your name,” Jesus prayed, “that they may [continue to] be one as We are one.” All who believe and follow Jesus enjoy a God-given spiritual union in Him, reflecting Jesus’ own eternal oneness with the Father and the Holy Spirit as God in three persons. This oneness helps us as we are sent into the world.

Jesus had used the power of God’s name to protect His disciples. It worked. They were kept safe. Not one was lost, except the one foretold by Scripture. Instead of remaining a child of God by faith in Jesus, Judas Iscariot was headed for damnation. Even as he received the bread of the Last Supper from the Lord’s hand, Satan had entered into him. At that moment, even as Jesus prayed for His disciples, Judas was betraying his Master for thirty pieces of silver.

That one of the Twelve was doomed to destruction by his negative role in God’s will for His Son is hard to understand. But let us remember: Judas was not a puppet on a string manipulated by God to be the villain in the drama of Jesus’ saving mission. He was chosen by Jesus to be an apostle out of the same gracious intention that He had for all the others. Judas was evidently a believer—but in the dreadful moment of having to choose, he chose to implement his own desire and will over that of the Lord. All of this, foreknown by God, made him the “son of perdition,” “doomed to destruction.” The lesson should not be lost on us. By the name of God, Jesus’ disciples are kept for God. But those who reject His name in unbelief are on the road to destruction.

Jesus’ time had come. He was to complete His work of salvation and return to His Father. But now while He was still on earth with the disciples, He prayed that they might have the fullness of Jesus’ joy in themselves. Just hearing the prayer would help sustain the disciples in the troubled hours ahead, and it laid the foundation for the joy to follow. Jesus’ joy was to complete the work the Father gave Him and return to His glory. The disciples received the full measure of that joy in the assurance that Jesus succeeded for them and all people.

The disciples could depend on Jesus’ Word, which was also the Father’s Word. Through that Word, Jesus’ disciples were separated from this unbelieving world and consecrated for God. They were not part of the world any longer, just as Jesus was not part of the world. They needed the Father’s protection. They would face hatred from the world for the same reason the world hated the Lord: God’s Word exposes and judges human sin as it calls people to forgiveness in Christ.

But please notice: Jesus did not pray for God to take the disciples out of the world and keep them safe. They had work to do for God following Jesus’ departure. As the disciples carried out their mission, they would face fierce, hellish opposition, no less than Jesus had encountered. They needed Jesus’ prayer.

We must never underestimate the power of the evil one. On the night when He was betrayed, Jesus made this clear to His disciples. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you [all the disciples] as wheat. When Peter declared that he would remain at Jesus’ side even if all the others left, Jesus added: “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). When Peter insisted he was ready to go with Jesus to prison or death, Jesus was more blunt: “I tell you Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:34).

Later, St. Peter could draw from his own personal experience of the destructive power of the evil one as he wrote: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

Peter knew the sting of Satan’s bite, but he also knew the restoration of the Lord. That’s why he could continue: “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10-11).

Although Peter failed to live up to his prideful boast, by God’s grace his faith did not fail, as Judas’ had. Rather than fall into despair after his shameful denial of Christ, Peter turned back in repentance. The resurrected Lord forgave Peter and restored him to leadership, as we see in our First Lesson for today.

As you prepare to battle Satan each day, keep the following precious promise in your heart and mind: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

To this end, God also gives you His Sacraments. Through Baptism, Jesus protects you from Satan’s destructive powers. When you are baptized into Christ, the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ comes to live within you. He is someone the devil definitely wants to avoid. St. Paul explains, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

God also gives His devil-defeating power to His children in a special way in Holy Communion. Communion is more than a mere ritual of remembrance. Jesus’ body and blood are a living, spiritual medicine, which is able to suppress the devil and control the power of sin. Receiving the Lord’s Supper regularly is especially important at the time of illness and near death. Luther writes: “As long as I am living, it is necessary for me to go to the Sacrament in order to strengthen my faith so that death (in case it comes swiftly) may not scare me and cause me to despair.”

Pastors today need to explain the benefits and blessings of frequent and regular distribution and reception of Holy Communion to their people so that always and particularly, at the hour of death, these children of God may desire Communion, especially to fight the devil’s final attacks.

For every Christian, each day is a struggle against the demonic power of sin. Thank God daily that Jesus has given you another special weapon to fight the power of sin: His gift of prayer. When His disciples asked for advice on how to pray, Jesus said to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Pray the Lord’s Prayer daily, with the confidence that God will not only hear you, He will surely answer your prayer for protection from sin and every evil.

Using prayer for protection from the power of sin is not a human idea. In our text, Jesus prays that very thing for His disciples: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one.” Jesus told His disciples also to use this divine weapon, and now He commands you: “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40).

And as you pray, don’t forget to ask for help from God’s holy angels. Angels are “ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). The psalmist writes: “[The Lord] will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all of your ways. They will bear you up in their hands, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”

The devil may try to tempt or even destroy you, but God provides His holy angels to be present at your side at all times to strengthen and deliver you! Even when you sometimes stumble and fall, your heavenly Father sends His angels to protect and bring you new hope and strength.

No wonder, Luther, in his Small Catechism, gave this example of prayer for the head of the family to teach his household to pray each morning: “I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that you have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.”

Your help and only hope to overcome the evil one is in your Savior, Jesus Christ. When you are baptized, Christ lives within you to guide your thinking and to fight the devil every time he tries to tempt, control, or destroy you. Through His Supper, our Lord strengthens your faith that you might resist temptation. Just as He prayed for His disciples, our ascended Lord is at the Father’s right hand interceding on your behalf. His Holy Spirit helps you to pray that you would not be led into temptation, but delivered from the power of the evil one.

And should you fall into temptation, repent and take heart, trusting that this sin has also been paid for. You have been redeemed by the holy, precious blood of Christ, and His innocent suffering and death. Indeed, for His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.