It’s Mother’s Day, and, mothers, the rest of us have a question for you: what’s your secret? How do you know exactly where everything is – from toys to clothes to car keys? Where do you find the energy to stay up all night with a sick child only to turn around and work all day? How do you manage to keep everyone’s – including your husbands – schedules straight and get everyone where they need to be? What’s your secret to handling ungrateful children, helpless husbands and a houseful of chores with charm and grace? How do you love us when we’re so unlovable? It’s a secret to the rest of us, because we know that without you, we are lost. So, whatever your secret is, mothers, thank you and happy Mother’s Day.
Motherhood is a wonderful mystery of God’s grace, but we are here to consider a far greater mystery: the mystery of the church’s survival. For 2000 years she has survived empires that have tried to outlaw her, officials who have persecuted her, and laws and policies written to discourage and disrupt her. She has survived heretics and immoral leaders and synodical splits and unions and reformations. Perhaps even more surprising, while science and history and literature and technology and medicine are changing by the minute, the historic Christian faith, the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3), has remained unchanged. What’s the secret to the Church’s longevity? What keeps the Church going in spite of every attempt of Satan and the world to wipe her off the face of the earth?
The answer is found in our lesson for this morning, in Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer – the prayer that Jesus spoke in the upper room on the night he was betrayed. Like a mother praying for her children, Jesus prays for us. The hidden power behind the Church’s longevity, the only reason that neither the kingdoms of this world nor the weakness of her members nor the very gates of Hell (Matthew 16:18) shall ever overcome her – is this prayer, the Church’s secret weapon, in which Jesus prays for our protection and our sanctification.
Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me – so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by the name you gave me. One principle that has been largely forgotten is that Jesus never intended the church to be a self-sufficient, independent institution – he didn’t die and rise and say “My job is done, here you guys take over.” He is still the head of the Church and we are still his children. Children who are helpless to defend ourselves; who need protection. And so Jesus prays that, when he is gone, his Father would protect us by the power of his name. What does that mean? What is God’s name? God’s name is everything that he has revealed about himself. It’s not only the titles that describe his nature and essence, but everything he has said and everything he has done. God’s name is synonymous with God’s Word. Jesus is asking his Father to use the power of his Word to protect his disciples.
How does God do this? It begins, in most cases, with Baptism. In Baptism God unites water and the Word and unites us to himself in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19) Every time a sinner is baptized, God is answering Jesus’ prayer; he grants Jesus’ request to bring us – rebellious, stubborn children – under his protection. Once we have been baptized, Jesus’ prayer is that we would remain in that Baptismal grace, that we would remember that we have been united with his death and resurrection, that no matter how old and how smart we are – we will never think that we have outgrown our need for God’s guidance and protection. Through the Word God protects us, not from all danger and pain and tragedy (as we saw in Stephen’s example) but from the true enemies of our souls: pride and despair, false doctrine and immoral living, Satan’s lies and the world’s distractions – and keeps us in his name – the name he gave us at Baptism: redeemed child of God.
But that begs the question: what about Judas? What happened there? Did God’s protection fail? This verse has caused a lot of people a lot of trouble – so let’s take a closer look: None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. Two theological words help us understand what happened in Judas’ case: the antecedent and the consequent will of God. Even if these terms aren’t familiar, the concepts are. For example, at supper time my antecedent will – my primary desire – is that Levi would eat what we give him and then have dessert. But, should he refuse it, my consequent will is that he would not have any dessert. (Not my desire, but his choice.) God’s antecedent will is spelled out in 1 Timothy 2:6 – God our Savior wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. God’s primary desire for all mankind is for them to be saved – through hearing and believing the Gospel. However, not all people hear or believe the Gospel (and sadly, some baptized believers abandon their faith) – and this is where God’s consequent will comes in. This is spelled out in John 3:18 – whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. When a person refuses to hear or rejects the Gospel, God’s consequent will is that that person be damned to hell for all eternity. Judas was doomed to destruction in the same sense that every unbeliever is: he rejected Jesus as his Savior and forfeited his forgiveness. While God did not want or cause Judas to reject Jesus, he knew it would happen, and so he had it recorded in Holy Scripture. (Psalm 41:9) This is a clear warning to anyone who thinks that there is no danger in rejecting Christ and his Word.
Jesus goes on with a happier thought: I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. Jesus spoke this prayer so that his disciples could hear it with their own ears. Why? Because he knew that once the world had murdered him, it would direct it’s hatred at Jesus’ disciples. He knew that the world’s constant attacks can suck the joy out of our hearts, stifle our hope and suffocate our faith. We could spend all day considering examples of the world’s hatred, but Martin Luther provided a good summary: “It is the devil’s custom to hate the works of the Lord. He’s hostile to whatever God holds dear: the church, marriage, government. He’d like to have [promiscuity] and uncleanness, for if he does, he knows very well that people will no longer trouble themselves about God.” (AE 54:422) The church, marriage, government – are they under attack? Why? Because these institutions are silent reminders that we are not independent, free individuals – that we are accountable to God. We who confess and defend and uphold these institutions are living reminders to the world that there is a God to whom they are accountable. That is why the world hated Jesus and why it hates us. But there is good news: I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33) The church’s secret weapon is her Savior’s prayer for protection – the world can hate us, mock us, persecute us, it can even kill us, but it cannot rob us of the name given to us in Baptism: redeemed child of God. This truth is our joy in this joyless world.
Now, common sense dictates that if someone hates you, you run away from them. But, contrary to reason Jesus does NOT tell us to run away from the world and isolate ourselves in monasteries or communes. He continues: My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one (better: evil). They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Jesus wants us to live, work, go to school, shop, travel, get married and raise children – and everything else we do – in this world. But while we are in the world we are not to be of the world. We are in the world but we do not think, talk, or live like the world. The world is all about self: self-advancement, self-preservation, self-glorification. The world lusts after power, wealth, beauty and popularity. The world craves instant gratification. The mothers of this world only want their children to be happy and healthy and successful. The world doesn’t care who it has to walk over to get to the top. The world denies the existence of absolute, objective right and wrong; its highest principle is: if it feels good, do it!
But baptized believers have been sanctified (set apart) from the world. Believers put the needs of others before their own. Believers strive for contentment, purity, honesty, love, and peace. Believers don’t live for this life – they long for eternal life. Believers pray for their enemies and trust the Lord’s justice. Believing mothers want their children to be safe and healthy – but above all they want them to know and believe in Christ. Believers find objective, absolute right and wrong in the unchanging will of God. The believer’s ruling principle is: God’s will is always right, even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it is countercultural, even when it hurts. That is what God has made us in Christ – and that is what we are to be.
If only it were that simple. We don’t like to stick out. We want to fit in. Being in the world we are tempted to just go along with the world. So often we feel like the Psalm writer: I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills…this is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth. (Psalm 73:3-5, 12) And sometimes, if we’re honest (like we were at the beginning of the service) we actually want to blend into the world, we want to take the easy road, we give in to the world’s seductions and Satan’s lies. Left to ourselves, we – and the Church – would be swallowed up by the world.
Which is why our Savior prayed: Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself that they too may be truly sanctified. The Father has given us his secret weapon to keep us separate from the world: his Word. Through the Word God leads us to see how sick and depraved the ways of the world are – and how sick and depraved we are when we go along with it. Through the Law God leads us to do the one thing the world will never do: repent and beg for forgiveness. And in the Gospel he gives us what we ask for. In fact, providing us with forgiveness, righteousness, and purity was what Jesus was about to do even as he was praying for us. He was determined to sanctify himself by going to the cross, not only to defeat the devil and the world, but to defeat, to crucify the sinful flesh that lives inside each of us. We are forgiven, we are free, we are set apart from this world because of Christ. Paul writes: we were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4) We often think of sanctification as something that we must do. But that’s not how Jesus describes it here. Through Baptism Christ has sanctified us – set us apart from the unbelieving world; and through the Word God continues to keep us separate by leading us to repent of our sins, to believe the good news that our sins are forgiven, and to see that the ways of the world do not lead to happiness and peace but to separation from God forever. We are in the world, but we are not of it any more than Jesus was. Grounded in the Word, the Church continues to stand out from the world as a living witness to God’s power and love – not by our own efforts or ingenuity, but by the power of our Savior’s prayer for our sanctification.
To some it may seem like a secret, a mystery how the church has survived this long in a hostile world, but it’s really no secret at all, is it? The Church survives because Jesus prayed and continues to pray for her. On the night before he suffered and died to save us from our sins, Jesus wasn’t thinking about himself, he was thinking about us. He prayed for us. He asked his almighty Father to use his almighty Word to protect and set us apart from this wicked world. And because that Word will stand forever (1 Peter 1:25), the Church – and we – will survive and thrive throughout time and eternity. Your Risen Savior guarantees it. Amen.