On June 19, 2016, I preached a sermon at th Auburn Church of Christ. I am one of three ministers teaching a series on the mission and purpose of the church. My previous sermon was the first sermon of that series. And this sermon is the third part of that sermon series; it is also the last one that I will preach. I’ve provided the manuscript this time, though I have edited it some for content.
In March of 1943, life in Nazi Germany was bleak. The atrocities that Hitler and his subordinates were committing were coming to light, and many German leaders knew that Hitler was leading the country to total destruction. So some officials in the Nazi regime began planning various attempts to assassinate Hitler.
Several of these assassination attempts never materialized or failed. But in March 1943, after another plan failed from a group of conspirators, Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, agreed to try again. He took two bombs, with ten-minute fuses, and strapped them to his chest under a heavy overcoat. He was a part of a group that was to give Hitler a tour of some captured Soviet weapons. His plan was to stay close enough to Hitler that, after ten minutes, he could bear hug Hitler and blow him up. It was a suicide mission.
von Gersdorff started the ten minutes fuses. He calmly walked around with the group, waiting to be die in the explosion that was also planned to kill Hitler. He had ten minutes before the bomb exploded. Can you imagine that? But before the ten minutes was up, Hitler left. So von Gersdorff had to calmly excuse himself, go to the bathroom, and defuse the bombs strapped to his chest that would explode in just a few minutes.
Since I first read about this story, I’ve always wondered what he must have been thinking during those ten minutes? What did he wish he could say? Did he pray at all? What were his concerns for the family and friends he was leaving behind? If your mission requires you to die, what would you do in those final moments? What would you think about? What would you pray for?
This morning, I want to look at one of the final statements we have from Jesus. Thanks to the gospel writers, we know what Jesus’s concerns, thoughts, and prayers were in the moments before he died on the cross. And we can learn a lot from this prayer. In fact, I think Jesus wants his followers to learn from this final prayer.
Sermon Series Overview
This is the third part of a ten-week series called, Going Somewhere. If you are visiting, or have simply missed or forgotten the last two sermons, we have planned this ten-week series to look at how the Bible describes the mission of the church.
This morning, I want to look at Jesus’s prayer before he died, the prayer that John describes for us in John 17. It’s an incredibly important chapter. William Temple said that this passage was “perhaps the most sacred passage even in the four Gospels” (2:307).
As we look at this prayer, I want to ask a very specific question: What are the implications of Jesus’s prayer for the mission of the church? As you’ll see, in the moments before his death, the mission of his disciples was not far from his mind. Leon Morris writes:
“Clearly the right relationship of the disciples to the world was of great moment to our Lord as he contemplated leaving them.” (630)
I want to read the prayer in its entirety, and then I want to share with you a few observations from the prayer about the mission of the church.
After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed:
“1Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4 I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.
6 “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. 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. 12 While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.
13 “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. 14 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. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Glory to God Through Suffering
As we begin looking at this prayer, what first stands out to me is, well, the first verse. Jesus prays:
“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.”
To see why I think this statement matters for our church, ask yourself: how will the Father glorify Jesus so that Jesus brings glory to the Father?
Notice that Jesus says that the hour has come. What hour? The time of his death. So when Jesus talks about being glorified and bringing glory to the Father here, the primary reference is to Jesus’s dying on the cross. The glory of Jesus is seen, and so the glory of the Father is seen, when Jesus is lifted up on the cross as a sacrifice. As William Temple wrote: “The Cross is the glory of God because self-sacrifice is the expression of love” (2:308).
Jesus brought glory to God through his suffering and sacrifice on the cross. The church is told to glorify God. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:31 that whatever we do, “do it all for the glory of God.” And, as we see here, the model for glorifying God is through sacrifice and suffering.
A church should never forget that it is called to sacrifice and suffering, hard times and hard tasks. The glory we bring God as individuals and as a church will often be through suffering, not through what the world considers greatness. It is in these moments of sickness, emotional suffering, financial sacrifices, and the like, that the glory of God shines. Because it’s not just that we bring glory to God when we suffer; it’s that the glory of God is displayed through suffering, sacrifice, and weakness.
Jesus and the apostles didn’t bring show God’s glory by being the best dressed people in Palestine, with the biggest houses and driving the nicest chariots, with the biggest and most expensive synagogue buildings to meet in. God’s glory was shown through Jesus, who had no place to lay his head, being crucified.
Soren Kierkegaard gave what is, in my opinion, the best illustration of how greatness is displayed in suffering. In his book, Practice in Christianity, he compared Christians to the reflections in a lake of stars in a sky (p.198). The lower in the lake the star looks to be, the higher it really is. And so likewise with the Christian in this sin-distorted world. To be great and lofty in the Kingdom of God means appearing low and weak in this world.
And so, we should not be surprised by the need for suffering and sacrifice. We should expect it. Think about it this way: has the gospel ever gone to a new country or people group without great suffering from missionaries and great sacrifice from their supporting families and churches? On a smaller scale, then, I’m not sure that the kingdom will break into hearts here in our town and on our campus without suffering and sacrifice. We will be insulted and ignored, it’ll be more costly in time and money than we are comfortable with, and we will endure the hardships of illness and job losses and pressure on our marriages in the midst of it. We should expect that.
It also means that despite the constant temptation otherwise, the mission of the church is not to aim towards worldly greatness, that is, a greatness that the world would recognize. But Jesus’s prayer teaches us that the Kingdom’s greatness appears in forms the world scorns or simply ignores. And I think Christians in America have often given into this temptation over the past few decades, at least. We have thought glory was in getting a Christian into the presidency, when perhaps true Kingdom glory is in a family quietly stretching their finances to the breaking point to foster and adopt a child; we have thought glory was in being the biggest church in an area, the church that everyone talks about as exciting even if they don’t find the gospel all that exciting, when maybe true Kingdom glory is in being a church that, without much announcements or fanfare, takes the money it would’ve spent on itself and makes sure the widows and orphans among them are supported. It is those sacrificial, often quiet, tasks that display God’s glory.
And so, at the very beginning of his prayer, Jesus presents a radical call for his disciples to show God’s glory through sacrifice and suffering.
The Power of Unity
The second part of this prayer that I want us to look at, and perhaps one of the most surprising request in this prayer, is what Jesus says in verses 20-23.:
“20My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Notice that Jesus prayed that they may be one. One of the last things that Jesus ever prayed about was the unity of the church. If you think he shouldn’t have been concerned about this, then you haven’t been paying attention to the history of Christianity.
What Jesus desires, but what has been so incredibly difficult for the church, is for the church to have a unity that’s modeled on the unity of the Father and Son. That is a lofty, glorious ideal! The church should be as united as the Father and Son are: a perfect unity of love, fellowship, and shared purpose.
If you’ve ever read through the New Testament letters, you might have noticed how much of the letters deal with issues of unity — theological disagreements, members fighting, ethnic disputes, leaders abusing their powers and so destroying the church, members gossiping and dealing with matters in a way that divides the church. The New Testament’s dominant concern, besides protecting the message about Jesus Christ from being perverted, is pleading for Christians to be united. It’s so central for Paul that in Titus, he says that a divisive member — who threatens the unity of the church — should be kicked out.
So one of the few things Jesus prays for is the unity of the disciples. Ask yourself: why would Jesus be this concerned about unity? Jesus gives two answers. First, our unity is an image of the unity between the Father and the Son. But it’s the second I want to focus on.
Unity Accomplishes the Mission
In verse 23, Jesus prays for the unity of the church so that the world would know Jesus was sent by the Father — that is, that they would know Jesus was who he said he was — and that the world would know that the community of disciples was loved by God. What is remarkable about this is that the power of the church’s mission to the world is connected to our unity.
How does the unity of the church accomplish the mission? Why should being “one” help the spread of the gospel?
In my last sermon, I said that the central goal of Jesus’s message was to return the world to how God intended it to be. We go out and proclaim the message that Jesus’s ministry and death and resurrection are accomplishing that. But that isn’t all we do. We not only proclaim the gospel, but we display it before the world. Our community is a living example of the power of God to bring restoration. George R. Beasley-Murray writes in his commentary on this section:
“The Church is to be the embodiment of the revelation and the redemption of Christ before the world, so that the world may not only hear that Jesus is the Christ, who has achieved redemption for all, but they may see that the redemptive revelation of the Christ has power to transform fallen men and women into the likeness of God and to bring about the kind of community that the world needs.” (p. 303)
One of the most important tasks that we can do to pursue the mission of God is to fight for our unity. If we are going to live out our mission, then any obstacle to our unity in God has to be torn down and destroyed.
We so often stay locked in divisions because we value our preferences, hurt pride or grudges more than our unity with other Christians. But that doesn’t show the world a community with a supernatural unity and love. Your preference for different music isn’t more important than the unity of the disciples; nor is your anger at what someone told you that someone else said about you; nor is your disagreement about peripheral theological matters. It doesn’t matter how amazing you are at teaching the bible or organizing an event or sharing the gospel with your co-worker…it doesn’t matter how amazing our services are or efficient our ministry programs are…we won’t be furthering the mission of God if we allow divisions to dominant.
God is calling you to pursue peace with any Christian with whom you are angry or feuding, with whom you refuse to speak or spend time around. The most mission-focused thing you could do this week is to put an end to any contempt, resentment or hostility for another Christian, and to ensure that your relationships within the church are filled with the peace, love, and grace of God.
The Centrality of Prayer
The third part of this prayer that we should observe is not anything Jesus said during the prayer, but instead the very fact that he prayed at all.
Jesus was in a moment in which his disciples’ hearts were troubled and their future uncertain to them, when he was in anguish (as the other gospels tell us) about his future, on the cusp of the moment that His mission would be carried on through the church, decided to pray, what does that tell us about prayer?
A shocking realization, but an important one for our self-reliant culture, is that the most important and effective thing we can do for our mission is prayer. We cannot look at prayer as simply one of the five parts of the true worship of the true church. It’s not something that we fit into two-or-three moments during our services. Our community life and personal lives should be characterized by it. Let me be so bold as to make this claim: if a church isn’t praying for mission, it isn’t living the mission.
Matthew and Luke teach this in another way. In both Gospels, Jesus looks out and sees the multitudes and tells his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” The first thing that Jesus tells his disciples to do when faced with the enormous mission and the need for the church to go out on mission is pray! David Platt wrote that these words surprised him. He wrote:
“[In] light of all the sick, poor, and needy around Jesus, I would have expected him to immediately start giving marching orders to his disciples. ‘Peter, you go to that person. John, you care for that guy. Andrew, you help her over there.’ But that’s not what he said….Before he told them to do anything else, Jesus told them to pray.” (186-87)
And so, we should ask ourselves: Is prayer a top priority in our lives as we pursue God’s mission?
Given that Jesus prayed, we should continue to pray for the mission and our church. This could be the most important and effective thing we do for mission
Join other dedicated readers of Thinking and Believing and subscribe to the email list. You'll receive every new post in your inbox, so you never have to worry about missing a post. Click here to subscribe.