Easter 7 · John 17:11b-19 · May 24, 2009
By William W Schumacher
The vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of this text are rather simple. In fact, a pastor whose Greek has become rusty would be well advised to return his attention to the original languages with this week’s Gospel lesson. The impact and rhetoric of the text are another matter. Embedded in the narrative of our Lord’s Passion, this text is part of the High Priestly Prayer. Part of the challenge for the preacher is the problem of how to preach a sermon based on someone’s prayer. The application of a prayer may depend on who is doing the praying!
It is common for us to read parts of Jesus’ prayer to the Father as implicit or indirect commands to the disciples. In other words, Jesus prays to the Father and expresses his deep desires and wishes, and prays in such a way that the disciples can overhear and thus be motivated to strive for the Lord’s desired ends. For example, in verse 11 our Lord asks his Father to keep his disciples in the Father’s name, “that they may be one, even as we are one,” and this petition can easily be converted to a sermonic exhortation to the congregation: “Remain in God’s holy name, and strive for the kind of unity that reflects the unity of God himself!” Or, toward the end of the pericope in verse 17, Jesus pleads with God the Father to “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth;” and we might translate that prayer as an encouragement to our people to continue and increase their personal and corporate devotion to the Word of God, since that word is the key to their sanctification.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with exhortations and encouragements as such. But the problem is that this present text, the prayer of Jesus to his Father on our behalf—and remember that we are explicitly included in his prayer in the verse immediately following this pericope!—does not cast any of these things as a command directed at Jesus’ disciples. These are our Lord’s prayers for us. He asks the Father to do these things for us, and give these things to us. We can be confident that these are precisely the things the Father does and wants to do, just as we can be confident that the Father will do what the Son asks of him. That confidence means we can read Jesus’ prayer as future indicatives rather than as disguised imperatives. The Father will do these things for us, because the Son has asked and prayed, with his words and works and blood on our behalf. And that way of reading the prayer is very different from reading these as indirect imperatives calling for action by us as his disciples. The difference is tantamount to the difference between reading this text as gospel and reading it as law. The slogan for one reading of Jesus’ prayer might be “Yes we can—and must!” while a gospel reading of the prayer would acclaim, “Yes he does!”
Consider what it means to read the prayer of Jesus as gospel indicative rather than as sanctified imperative. Jesus prays that we disciples be “kept” in God’s name, kept from the evil one, filled with joy in despite experiencing the world’s hatred. As an exhortation—”Keep yourselves close to God, and be joyful even when you suffer!”—this seems like uncertain comfort in the face of danger and suffering. But if we remember that our Savior, just before giving himself for us, asks his dear Father to do these things for us, then we have no reason to doubt that the Father’s answer to the Son will be a resounding and unambiguous “Yes!” And since the Father’s “Yes!” is a response to our perfect Savior’s prayer, and not to our dubious performance, Jesus’ prayer for us comforts us and reassures us.
The Father’s answers to the Son’s prayers for us (in this text and throughout the High Priestly Prayer of John 17) are a summary of the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is not mentioned by name in this text, but his work for us and among us is anticipated in Jesus’ prayers. He is the one who places God’s name on us in our baptism. He keeps us in that name, sanctifies us by the Word of God, which is truth itself. He protects us from the evil one. He fills us with joy in spite of all suffering or hardship, a joy which the world cannot give or understand. The Spirit is the one who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth in the one true faith, applying to us the work and worth of Jesus our Savior. Jesus consecrates himself, and the Spirit sets us apart for holy service to God in Christ.
So this week’s “gospel prayers” are a perfect preparation for Pentecost. The outpouring of the Spirit, to be celebrated next week, does not come unexpectedly out of the blue, but comes as the Father’s gracious answer to Jesus’ pleading for us. As the Father answers Jesus’ prayer with a huge, divine “Yes!” the Spirit can, will, and does keep us in the Father’s name, guards us from evil, fills us with joy, brings us Jesus’ word of truth, holds us together in holy unity, and consecrates us. This is the prayer that brings down Pentecost for us and for the world, the prayer the Father answers without fail, and the prayer that keeps us safe and makes us one—not by our efforts and accomplishments, but because the Father says “Yes!” to the Son for us.