Overheard isn't Necessarily Understood
We're told of our Lord praying 27 times in the New Testament. Most of the time we're not told what Jesus said. Jesus makes sure we overhear all of the prayer in our text. But just because you overhear something doesn't mean you understand it.
To understand this prayer, we have to pay attention to context. First we pay attention to what hasn't happened yet. Jesus prays this on Maundy Thursday evening. He has yet to be arrested, tried, tortured, crucified, killed, risen or ascended into heaven. All of this is in the future but Jesus knows it. Jesus prays in light of His suffering for us, His redeeming us, and His ascending over all things to rule.
As important as paying attention to what hasn't yet happened, it's just as important to pay attention to what has. All of these things have happened before Jesus prays: The dispute in the upper room about which disciple was the greatest, Jesus washing the disciples' feet, Jesus announcing that one of them would betray Him and they all in turn asking, "Is it I?", and Judas leaving abruptly to betray Jesus.
Pay attention to what hasn't happened, what has happened, and to what is missing. John devotes more time to events before Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday than any other Gospel writer 4 whole chapters. Yet, something big, real big is missing. What? There's no institution of the Lord's Supper or record of them actually eating the Lord's Supper. Why would John leave these out?
You'll note that John does a similar thing with Baptism. He has nothing about the Baptism Jesus commands. This is strange; John is the one who focuses on the words of Jesus, yet nothing about the Lord's Supper or Baptism, or is there? John relates the Nicodemus account where Jesus says, "Except you be born again by water and the Spirit you can't enter into the kingdom of heaven." John writes after the other 3 Gospels. Knowing what we do from them, we can't but hear Jesus' words to Nicodemus in the context of Christ's Baptism. So here we can't but hear this prayer in the context of the Supper we know Jesus just got done instituting.
Pay attention to what hasn't happened, to what has, to what is missing, and pay attention to the great realities surrounding you as you hear it. This prayer first prayed in the 1st century is about you in the 21st century. Jesus says, "I pray also for those who will believe in Me through the Word of the apostles." You believe in Jesus: He kept God's Law in your place; He suffered the just penalty of your sins; He rose victorious over your sins, your death, and the power of the devil that oppresses you; He ascended into heaven to reign on your behalf.
Stop right there. What does Scripture say Jesus is doing in heaven? Hebrews says He is there always making intercession for you, i.e. always praying for you. The Words of Jesus are Spirit and life; the Words of Jesus are powerful and eternal. He didn't just pray this prayer on Maundy Thursday but has been praying it ever since. Pay attention to this great reality.
The second great reality to pay attention to is what is before your eyes this morning: the very same Supper Jesus celebrated right before praying this prayer the first time. Hear His prayer in the context of the Lord's Supper because that is the context Jesus first prayed it in. Stop viewing the Lord's Supper like some sort of desert at the end of the main meal, or as addendum to the main event. The Lord's Supper is the main meal; it is the main event of the divine service. All we do here: praising, praying, hearing, confessing is about this Meal, about the great reality that our God comes among us to forgive us, to feed us, to strengthen us.
To understand the prayer we overhear in this text, we must pay attention to the context, but even more we must listen to the actual words of the prayer. Jesus prays that all believers of the apostolic Word would be united to each other and the true God. Where else does this happen but in Communion? If you don't root this unity in something objective, something that God does outside of you, you end up with friendship not fellowship, with your feelings not faith in what God does. Then rather than certainty you will have just a bunch of questions: How close am I to the person beside me at Communion? How can I be united with a person so different than I? Do I feel united to God?
No, we follow St. Paul who says, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." Unity is not something we make by feeling or forcing. Jesus gives unity in His Supper. Stop hearing Jesus praying for what He wishes would happen. What Jesus prays for does happen. You just have to look in the right place.
Hear Jesus' prayer right now echoing in heaven. Hear Him praying that the world would know the Father sent the Son. How on earth is that going to happen apart from this Meal? Where do you see the Lord Jesus visibly on earth today? Where do you bow before Him, reverence Him in a local place except at this Meal? The Muslim bows toward Mecca, the Buddhists before Buddha, the Hindu before countless gods; what do we bow before? Visible Bread and Wine that our Lord tells us is His Body and Blood. Where on earth do Christians make confession that God the Father sent His Son to shed His blood for the sins of the world? Paul answers, "As often as you eat His body and drink His blood you confess the Lord's death until He comes."
When we celebrate communion in remembrance of Jesus we testify in a concrete way that God sent His Son for us and He is still here. You want to talk evangelism? Then talk the Lord's Supper. No, not giving the Lord's Supper to whoever feels like they should have it. Evangelism happens when you participate in the Lord's Supper. Luther writes, "God instituted this sacrament chiefly for the sake of this remembrance[The person who does this] assists in augmenting and preserving Christianity, in confirming the Gospel and the sacrament, in converting sinners and in assaulting the devil's kingdomas much as if he preached and taught people to believe in Christ" (LW 38, 111-2).
Listen to the words Jesus is praying even now as He makes intercession for us. Hear Him praying that the world would know believers are loved by the Father even as the Father loves the Son. Where else are they going to know this if not in the Lord's Supper? Do you think the world can know we are loved by God by what happens to us? No, Jesus promises us tribulation, suffering, and chastisement in the world. He tells us we are sheep appointed for slaughter.
When a woman shows you a pretty necklace or ring what is she really showing you? The love of her husband. It's true; Scripture does tell us that God shows His great love for us by afflicting us, but we can't point the world to this. That is craziness to them. It's also true that the world trips at the miracle of Jesus placing His Body and His Blood on our altar, but even the world can understand that if someone gives their body and blood for you that is a great testimony of love. A person donating blood in our society is considered loving. A person donating a piece of their body - a kidney, bone marrow - is also considered loving.
Our God gave the Body and Blood of His only beloved Son over to eternal torment and death to spare us. The eternal wrath of God is simmering and seething against sinners. It can't be quenched by anything we promise, do, or give. It takes the Body and Blood of God the Son to put it out, to satisfy it. And now our God gives to us that same Body for Daily Bread and that same Blood for sweet wine. Here love is incarnate; here love comes down from heaven; here is a concrete place and a point in time where the world can see God is love.
What Jesus prays for happens because Jesus is God in flesh and blood. Hear Him praying right now that believers of the apostolic Word, you, would be where He is and see the glory He had before the creation of the world. Wow! That's a tall order. How can this happen? How else but by the Holy Communion? It's true, Paul says, "Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." By faith we can ascend into heaven and see the glory of our Lord. When Jesus said to us today, "I am the Alpha and the Omega," by faith we could see Him. But that same faith can be focused here, on this Meal.
The Meal begins with the pastor inviting us to, "Lift up your hearts," to see heavenly realities on earth, and we say that we do "with angels, arch- angels and all the company of heaven." When we sing to the Lord of Sab-a-oth, our eyes aren't focused on the heavens but on the Sacrament. No, less than Jerusalem sang Hosanna to the Jesus before their eyes do we sing to the Jesus before our eyes, "Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord." After the Words declaring this bread is Jesus' body and this wine is Jesus' blood, the pastor places His hand on that altar where our Lord is and says, "The peace of the Lord be with you always." Then we burst out in song again to Christ the Lamb of God to have mercy on us. And after communion we take leave of our Lord confessing that we, no less than Simeon saw Baby Jesus, have seen God's glorious Salvation with our own eyes.
Overheard is not necessarily understood, and even though we understand better now, don't think for a moment we understand it all. But now we can understand Holy Communion not only as an answer to our prayers but His. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventh Sunday of Easter (20070520); John 17: 20-26