Download or listen to the Seventh Sunday of Easter: “His Word and His Name” (John 17:11b-19)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We are well into the political silly season. And it’s going to get much worse before it gets better. We are already surrounded and bombarded by claims and counter-claims; charges and counter-charges; ads and counter-ads and counter-counter-ads. The facts and figures are already flying fast and furiously. And if you sit down and try to sort it all out, try to figure who is telling the truth and who is lying, your head will quickly begin to spin. You’ll hear a perfectly plausible claim from one candidate, and then hear a perfectly plausible, opposite claim from another candidate. It almost seems that the politician’s job is to convince you, promise you, that everything will be okay as long as you vote for him, as long as you vote for her. I am surprised that anyone can still believe any political claim. It’s enough to make you take refuge in your ignorance of “the issues” and pray that November comes as quickly as possible. Or maybe that’s just me.
I say all this to illustrate the fact that we are confronted with claims every day that demand to be taken seriously as truth. And not just political claims. We hear claims to buy this or that product, see this or that movie. Some claims we ignore, some we accept, but who wouldn’t be a little cynical about claims in general? When day after day we hear claim after claim, and then we come here for one day, for one hour, and we hear another claim, who wouldn’t be a little skeptical? It’s no wonder that the world looks at the Church as just one claim among many, one more attempt to get people to buy what we’re selling, just another idea in the wide marketplace of ideas. (It doesn’t help that the Church often intentionally gives the impression that it is marketing and trying to get people to buy our “product.”)
Jesus does make a claim. He claims not only to be speaking the truth; He claims to be the Truth. He claims to be the Truth of God, the only true God. Jesus says that He is the Truth of God spoken into the world in flesh. Into this world, which, St. John reminds us, is under the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19). So when the Truth enters this world, there is bound to be conflict between the Truth of God, Jesus, and the evil one, the father of lies. There will be more than a little tension and friction between the Truth and this world, under the power of the evil one. And how can we tell which is the truth and which are lies? How can we distinguish between Christ and the world? You’d think it would be easy. But the devil doesn’t normally come with bald-faced lies. He doesn’t usually come with lies that Jesus isn’t God, or that He never existed, or that He didn’t rise from the dead. He does say those things, usually through so-called scholars and theologians. But to you, he is much more subtle. To the children of God, he brings lies that sound like the truth. Because he knows the best lies have a little of the truth in them. That’s what heresy is: a little of the truth taken to its extreme until it takes the place of Jesus; a little of the truth that is elevated until it takes the place of the Truth, Jesus. And the worst lies always sound the best because they contain a little truth. So he comes with lies about Jesus and about you that sound good: he says things like, Jesus is one of the most impressive teachers who ever lived. He only wants the best for you, for you to live your best life. He is the best example of what a loving human being is; all you have to do is follow His example, and He will be pleased with you. He says things like, you are really good at heart. Your intentions were good. You just made a mistake; don’t let it ruin your life. You’ll come out better and stronger in the end. Why are you so hard on yourself? After all, everyone’s a sinner. We like those things. They sound good to our sinful flesh. But they are lies, made to sound good because they imitate the truth.
But Jesus, the Truth, comes into the world to expose the lies for what they are. And He says: I did not come to teach you how to be the best you can be; I came to save you from yourself. He says, you are not good at heart; the heart is deceptive above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). You are good at deceiving yourself into thinking that you are good. That was not a “mistake;” it was an eternal affront to the holy and living God. That was you in open rebellion against your Creator. Saying that “everyone’s a sinner” is too often a way out of thinking of myself as a sinner. It’s too easy to compare myself with other people, and to avoid looking into the darkness of my own heart. It sounds so opposite of everything we like to say about ourselves. It sounds so untrue. But if what Jesus says about is wrong, and what we say is true, then why is it one of our greatest fears, maybe the greatest fear, that the truth will come out and people will finally see who and what we are; that we will be discovered; that our thoughts, and words, and actions will be seen in the light to be nothing but lies and evil. We may be good enough at lying to others about who are are; we may even be good enough to lie to ourselves about ourselves. But we cannot hide from Jesus; we cannot lie to the Truth. He knows very well the lies we are told and the lies we tell ourselves.
And that is why He prays. John 17 is a prayer from Jesus, the Son, to His Father. And the part we heard today is a prayer from Jesus, the Son, to His Father for His Apostles. It is a prayer for those whom He has claimed. See, Jesus does not come, first of all, presenting a claim to us, which we can then evaluate and decide whether it is true. He knows that will never work, because all men are liars (Psalm 116:11). Before He ever makes a claim to us, He makes a claim on us. He did not make a claim to the Apostles; He simply claimed them. One of them, Judas, rejected that claim. In fact, Jesus is praying this prayer on the night that Judas betrayed Him to those who wanted to kill Him. Whatever Judas thought he was doing, he was not doing what Jesus was doing. It may have appeared right, or seemed good, or looked true, but Judas found out that it was all a lie from the evil one; that he had chosen destruction rather than the Truth. Nonetheless, Jesus had claimed him, and the other eleven, and Jesus prays for those eleven. He prays for those whom He has claimed, that His Father would keep them in His Name and in His Word, which He had given and shared with the Son and the Holy Spirit. Seven times in John 17, Jesus prays about the Father’s Word and the Father’s Name. He prays that the Father would make the Apostles holy by that Name and that Word, which is the Truth. How would they be made holy? By Jesus making Himself holy. Not that He was unholy before, but because He was going to set Himself aside as the holy sacrifice for sinners, to make them holy in Himself. This was His prayer for His Apostles, and it is His prayer for you.
Because He has claimed you. Before you had an opportunity to consider His claim to truth based on your reason and experience, He put His Name on you, and claimed you for His own. And He prays for you, whom He has claimed, that His Father would keep you in His Word and in His Name. The Name He put on you in holy Baptism. The Word that He speaks to you: I forgive you all your sins. The Word by which He gives you His risen and ascended Body and Blood in the bread and wine. By this Name and this Word He gives you Himself as your holy sacrifice, to make you holy in Himself.
This world is still under the power of the evil one; we are still surrounded by lies and the claims of the world. We will have trouble in this world, and things may indeed get much worse before the end. But Jesus is the truth: Take heart, He says, I have overcome the world. I have overcome the evil one. I have overcome all of the lies by being the Truth. “I know well that you are exposed to danger and wrong at every moment. But let this comfort suffice you: they shall have no power over you. For you do not belong to the world[,to the evil one, to the lie,] but to my Father” (Luther, LW 69:90). He does not pray that the Father would take us out of this world, but that while we are in this world, He would keep us from the evil one. And He does, because we are in the Truth, His Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 5:20), and the one who has been born from God, the one conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, He keeps you, and the evil one cannot touch you (1 John 5:18).
In the Name, and in the Word, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/19/12