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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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Everything in Common

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“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35).

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

Here’s the plan. Everyone here start selling your property. Cash out your bank accounts and withdraw the funds from your IRAs and 401ks. Put your house and land on the market. And then bring in the proceeds and put it in the offering. I’ll make sure that it gets distributed to everyone who needs it. How’s that sound?

You heard our text, didn’t you? Isn’t that what the Church in its early days did? “They had everything in common.” The “owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” It worked wonderfully: “There was not a needy person among them.” Why shouldn’t we be doing the same?

Oh, I can see it by the looks on your faces. You know there’s something wrong with this plan. But what is it?

It’s not that it’s a form of socialism (though socialism has its own problems). The Bible does not put forward any economic system over another. It’s not just that your pastor would be the one who collects and distributes all the money as he sees fit. (Though that certainly has the potential for abuse, or even worse: developing into a cult.) No, there is a bigger problem with this plan: It is misusing scripture. It would be making this passage prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Let me explain the difference: Prescriptive texts prescribe—they tell you what you should be doing. So for instance, when the Lord says, “You shall not kill,” it’s prescriptive: He’s telling you what you should be doing, namely preserving life. Likewise, He tells you to repent, “Take and eat,” love your neighbor, etc. Those are prescriptive texts. On the other hand, descriptive texts simply describe things that happened without telling you to do anything. Some examples would be texts that tell that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish or that Jesus walked to Jerusalem. You don’t have to be swallowed by a great fish or walk to Jerusalem to be a Christian: these are simply things that happened.

Sometimes, people confuse the two and turn descriptions into laws. For instance, I’ve heard that since David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, we should include dance in worship. Or, since the apostles spoke in tongues on Pentecost, we must speak in tongues, too. Or since Jesus washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, we should have foot washing in our Maundy Thursday service. But this is bad interpretation: this is turning descriptions into commandments.

Our text is another example. It’s descriptive: it tells us what the first Christians did, how they handled their resources. But it isn’t prescriptive: there’s no command in the text that you must do the same thing to be a Christian. You don’t have to sell everything and give it to me to be a forgiven child of God.

So why is this text here—why is this description included? The answer may be unexpected, but also unsurprising: this description is here to point to Christ.

“There was not a needy person among them,” says our text; and while it doesn’t show up in the English, there’s a link in the language that points us back to Deuteronomy 15:4-5: “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.”

Back at Moses’ time, the Lord declared to the Israelites that there would be no needy people among them in the Promised Land if they were careful to obey all His commands. You know what happened: they failed to keep His commands and rebelled against Him. In consequence, there was poverty, hunger, invasion, and death. They were needy because they rejected the Lord who provides.

In Acts 4, the first Christians are in Jerusalem, the heart of the Promised Land. They have not carefully obeyed all of God’s commands, either—they’re sinful, and don’t deserve the Lord’s blessing. They would be lost and condemned, but they trust in Christ who has just died for their sins and risen again. For the sake of Jesus, God blesses them because He sees them as forgiven, He sees them as His beloved children who have kept His commands. Therefore, He fulfills His promise: there are no poor among them, because the Lord has blessed them.

First and foremost, He has blessed them with salvation in Christ. By means of the Word, great grace is upon them all. Next, He blesses them with what they need for this life. How? As He often does, He uses people to accomplish His will.  He uses Christians to share with each other so that there is no needy among them.

In other words: in Deuteronomy 15, the Lord declared that there would be no needy among His people when He blessed them. In Acts 4, the fact that there is no needy among them is an announcement that God has blessed them, He has blessed them with redemption in Christ. The fact that there are no needy among them is an announcement that the Messiah has come and saved His people.

We do not read of class conflict, of social cliques, in the Jerusalem church. What we find is people who are “of one heart and soul.” They have “everything in common.” The church’s unity expressed itself in a willingness to share. This was not a regulation of the apostles. The right to hold property and have personal possessions had not been abolished. But no one took the attitude of “what’s mine is mine.” Voluntarily, they used what they had to supply for the needs of others.

What held all these people together was their one faith; they were “those who believed.” Faith is the inner and essential bond of union in the Church. The communion of saints is such by faith alone. Mere outward connection with a church body does not constitute true membership, although it may lead to that. This is a spiritual state in the soul and not a matter of outward arrangement. Although faith, of course, produces many visible results, for those who believe will show their faith in many ways, and all these manifestations are valuable, but valuable only as evidences of the inner state, the precious saving faith itself.

So the first believers share what they have with one another. Thankful for grace and trusting that God will provide, they have everything in common. Like other signs in the days of the apostles, this bit of utopia won’t last long. Two verses after our text, we read of Ananias and Sapphira, who sell some property, say they are giving it all to Church, but secretly withhold some for themselves, and are struck dead. In the next chapter, some of the Greek believers complain that their widows are being neglected in favor of the Hebrews in the daily distribution.

And persecution is just around the corner. Those who have rejected the blessings of Jesus will come after His people. Rather than share and provide, they will take and confiscate. They’ll drive the believers out of Jerusalem: they’ll all be starved nearly to death before the Romans break down the walls and finish the job.

So there you go: the lesson of this text is not that you have to sell everything you have and give it to me. Rather, the charity of these first Christians is announcement that God has blessed His people by sending the Savior.

Having said all that, though, there is a danger in becoming too attached to the things that you are free to hold on to. Possessions so easily become idols that we must hold on to and can’t part with, even when it means ignoring those in need. In one of Aimee and my morning devotions this week, we read Hebrews 10:32-34, which says in part to early believers:

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

Already at the time of that writing, zeal is fading among Christians and the writer tells them to stir up one another to do good works. In the early days, they were willing to endure suffering—and rather than just give things away, they accepted the plundering of their property joyfully. Why? Because they knew they had a better possession, an abiding one. They knew the value of the salvation won by Christ. It is the same salvation that Christ bestows upon you.

Therefore, you are set free to be God’s instruments, to give what you have to those in need. And while you are in no way required to sell everything you have, a lack of charity to neighbors and offerings to God is a warning signal—an indication that your possessions may have become your gods. Face it: greed, covetousness, and a lack of compassion come easy to self-centered sinners like you and me, turning the daily bread God gives us into idols that seem more precious than the forgiveness Christ has won.

A natural response is along the lines of, “Well, how much should I give?” or “How much do I have to give?” or “How much do I get to keep?” These are all questions that call for a Law answer, a command about generosity. But you don’t give to others because you have to as a Christian; you do so because you are free to. You do so because you know that you have a better possession and an abiding one. For the sake of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is yours.

So I cannot tell you how much to give: I can tell you how much we need to meet our annual budget, but not how much of that is on you. Rather, I urge you to examine yourself for sins like greed or fear that would keep you from giving to others. I would bid you to confess them, lest those sins become unforgiven obstacles that eventually lead you to forsake the Lord. And as one forgiven, I would urge you to meditate upon the gift of life that God has given you. As you do so, I would predict that your motivation towards giving grows—not because you have to change, but because you have been changed.

For you have a better possession and an abiding one. You have unfailing grace and life all for the sake of Jesus Christ who was crucified for your sins and raised for your salvation. See, there’s one more bit of good news in how those first Christians shared when the Lord blessed them: it’s a foretaste of eternal life. It’s a preview of the restoration of Paradise.

Here, there is a poverty of life, health, joy, happiness—all because of sin. But when you are raised from the dead, all such poverty will be gone: the Lord “will wipe every tear from [your] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). All poverties will be vanquished, and all that is left is abundance: and abundance of every good gift from God.

That’s your hope, all for the sake of Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins and raised for your justification. Whatever your amount of daily bread, you are not needy for salvation, because the Lord showers it upon you by His Word and Sacrament. Great grace is upon you, and so you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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