Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
John chapter 17 contains the prayer Jesus offered to his Heavenly Father just before he was arrested. It’s a great chapter, some experts say it’s the most important passage in all the four gospels. We find in it Jesus’ wishes for the church, his bride, the body of believers. It teaches us that the church’s true life takes place on a higher plane than the turbulence of politics and the rush for money and status that we’re all familiar with and that disappoints everyone who gets caught up in it. The church is a different kind of community, and that’s what we’ll try to get at this morning.
John 17 is divided into three sections. In the first, Jesus prays for himself, in the second he prays for his disciples. The last section is his prayer for the church and all believers in the centuries that will come after his resurrection. After he finished his prayer, the soldiers came to bring him to his earthly judges. Here are verses 1 to 5:
“When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said: ‘Father, the hour has come, glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you, having accomplished the work you gave me to do, and now Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory I had with you before the world was made.”
Jesus is looking ahead to the heavenly glory he left behind when he took on human flesh. As the author of Hebrews said, he is willing to endure the suffering of the cross for the sake of the crown he will gain. His work is almost finished. He has done it well, and now he is about ready to return home. Did you notice that he described his work as glorifying his Father on earth? What he meant was that he revealed his Father so that everyone may know him. Eternal life is knowledge of God – not head knowledge only but heart knowledge, too, which means trust, faith, confidence. And also knowing the Son whom the Father sent. Again, not head-knowledge but openness of the heart to our Lord, the joyous affirmation of the soul. “I believe! I believe in Jesus!”
Many folks acknowledge Jesus to have been an exceptional man, a gifted spiritual teacher, maybe even a messenger from heaven. It’s a wonderful thing, though, to believe that Jesus is God. If you have that faith in your heart, then you are greatly blessed. That kind of faith can withstand the assaults of the world and the devil. It can make the vexing things of daily life seem trivial. To believe in the Father and the Son is the same thing as having eternal life.
So this first part of John 17 opens up for us the relationship between Jesus and his Father. It shows us how close they were to each other. We ourselves are brought into their fellowship. Now verses 6 through 10:
“I have manifested your name to the men you gave me out of the world; yours they were and you gave them to me and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you, for I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them, I am not praying for the world but for those you have sent me, for they are yours, all mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.”
Here Jesus prays for his disciples. The Lord has a lot of confidence in them. He knows their weaknesses, even that Peter will betray him in a few hours. He also says that they believe that everything he said and did came from the Father. They have the kind of faith that enlivens their souls and causes their hearts to burn with love and hope. He prays for them. He knows what is coming – that they will carry many burdens and endure much anguish, so to build them up he claims them as his and holds them up to the Father, for they bring glory to the Son. They are part of the harvest, the fruits of Jesus labors, just as believers today are part of the harvest, the reward Jesus received. He will not let them go. He will sustain them and support them; he will turn their sorrows to joys, their losses to gains. He is bringing them, you see, into the community of love that he and the Father have established.
Now, verses 11 and 12
“And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you, Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled.”
Jesus is going away. He leaves his disciples to face challenges and hardships that would crush ordinary human flesh. He asks that they be kept in the Father’s name. God’s name is very special. When we speak it, we mean everything that God is and does. People use words very casually, so the name of God can roll off our tongues quite loosely. God’s name is powerful and strong. One of the proverbs says that his name is a tower of strength. The Lord kept his disciples in the Father’s name while he was with them during his earthly ministry. Now he asks the Father himself to keep them – to guard their faith, to make them persistent and enduring. He knows that the Father will grant his request. Wherever they go, the disciples will know that the heavenly community – the power that rules the universe – will support them and hold them up.
So we come to verses 13 – 16
“But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”
Here, Jesus speaks about joy, his own joy that flows from his tie with his Heavenly Father and the joy he wants his disciples to have. Life with God is meant to be joyous. Paul said that we should rejoice at all times. If we ever find our joy receding, we trust that God will restore it. Our part is to bring our sorrows to him and he will strengthen our faith in him and his son. For believers, every situation turns to joy.
At the same time, Jesus does not pray that his Father take the disciples out of the world, for the world is where they must do the work of witnessing to him. If they go to paradise right away or to a restored Garden of Eden, with fruit growing in abundance and palm trees swaying in a breeze, they won’t be able to make their testimony. Jesus wants his community to grow, and so he keeps his disciples in the world. He does pray, though, that they be kept safe from Satan’s schemes, and the later history of Jesus’ first followers, as we read about it in the Book of Acts and the epistles, shows that the Father granted his Son’s wish. Their faith remained strong. They served with joy. The Father protected his community. He does so today. The true church is spiritually strong and inwardly joyful.
Now for verses 17 –19
“Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth. As you did send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake, I consecrate myself, that they may also be consecrated in truth.”
Jesus looks ahead to the future. He asks the Father to set his disciples apart, to make them holy so that they may serve God’s word among people who desperately need it. He prays that the disciples be focused and dedicated. We often wrestle with distractions, of which there are probably more in our time than any other, so we can picture in our minds what the disciples had to contend with. Jesus gave them the task of bearing witness to the good news about the hope of the world. He wanted them to keep their eyes on the ball, to resist temptation, and to have confidence in their abilities. His voluntary death made it possible for them to live up to his expectations and to theirs. His community lives in faith because the savior gave himself for the life of the world.
So we come to verses 20 – 23
“I do not pray for these only but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, even 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 have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Jesus now prays for the church to come, for the folks of St. Peter’s and the millions of others who have trusted in the Lord. Unity is one of his chief concerns. He wants believers to be one. He doesn’t mean a superficial, organizational unity, with everyone under the same bureaucracy, but a unity of faith – each believing that the Father is in the Son and that the Son is in the Father. The faith that has a powerful impact on individuals also lifts up communities and holds them together. When the Christian faith grows in the hearts of people, they love one another, and when the unbelieving world sees this love, they will know that the Father has sent the Son.
The visible church is divided now and will probably stay that way for a long time. Our divisions dim the power of our witness. Think what a positive effect the church would have if we were not split up into factions. Our divisions do have one benefit, though – they teach that it is God who creates unity, not human beings. Every denomination has its share of true believers, who know in their hearts that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus is God, and that salvation is the Father’s gift to everyone who believes in the Son he sent. God creates a unity, an everlasting community, from this group of believers. There will be a wonderful unity in heaven one day. What praise and thanks will fill the new creation. What a tribute to the power of the Holy Trinity to break down barriers that we humans create.
So – for the last three verses.
“Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you, and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.”
We live now with an unpredictable mixture of joys and sorrows. Earthly living isn’t guaranteed or certain. But a great and glorious day is coming when all believers will be with Jesus in the flesh and we will partake in full in the glory of the love between the Father and the Son. The key is to trust God’s word now while we have the chance – that the Father sent his Son to bring the gift of eternal life.
We live in the hope of glory, with many blessings and strengths in our private lives. We don’t receive the blessings on our own, but through a community. Jesus draws us together at St. Peter’s under his banner. He builds up our faith that the Father sent him and with the help of the Spirit, he draws us into their heavenly fellowship. He promises us that this fellowship is eternal. He commands us to see its value and to work to build it up. The heavenly community lives. St. Peters lives, and so we rejoice. In Jesus’ Name AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. Amen.