SERMON – John 17:28-23
One of the most difficult things to preach and teach, and even to believe, is how that which is unseen and indiscernible to all our senses, is actually absolutely and most importantly, true. Only with the “eyes of [our] heart,” (Eph. 1:18) through faith, can we know and believe with joy and certainty what "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Cor. 2:9). This holds true not only for those things prepared for us in heaven, but also for while we sojourn in this world, living by faith! True faith believes, even when our human eyes see everything to the contrary. Faith enables us to see beyond what our eyes see, or even what they don’t see!
Earlier in this Divine Service we confessed some powerful words! “I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints!” So it says in the Apostles’ Creed. These words are not mere words that we merely say in the Divine Service or in our devotions. Rather, they show us that the one holy Christian church on earth, outside of which there is no life and salvation, is, according to God's Word, the sum total of all those who truly believe in Christ and are sanctified through this faith. The church is both invisible and extended over the entire world. It is invisible because, according to the creed, it is an object of faith. And we do well to remember that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
The true Church is the communion of the hearts of all believers in Christ Jesus, their Lord. This fellowship of believers, the Church, came into being not by the action of men, but because of our faithful God, who called us “into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). Thus the church is made up of true believers. But such believers are not invisible spirits, but visible people. However, who can see the faith that has been worked in the soul by the Holy Spirit? We cannot tell merely by looking at a person whether he is a believer and a member of the Christian Church. But we and all people can readily discern where the true Church is because of its pure marks which identify the true church. It is wherever God’s Word is purely and clearly preached, and it is wherever the holy Sacraments are administered according to Christ’s command and institution. However, true Christians, who alone belong to the true Church, are mixed with false Christians, much like wheat grows alongside weeds in its midst. Who can now distinguish the true Christians from the false ones and thus recognize the Church? No one! While it is true that flesh and blood people can clearly be seen where the Church is located, it is most certainly true that only those who alone make up the Church are seen and known only by Him of whom it is said, "Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: 'The Lord knows those who are His' and, 'Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.'" (2 Timothy 2:19). "Therefore, Christ calls His Church a kingdom of God on earth, which does not come with outward signs. The apostle Paul calls the Church the body of Jesus Christ, the bride of the Lord, a spiritual house, the Jerusalem from above, and the congregation of the firstborn who are written in heaven" (Walther).
Despite its invisibility, the Church extends over the whole world. The apostles, following Christ’s command, preached the Gospel among all peoples, and there are now, in all regions of the globe, souls that truly believe in Christ and therefore belong to His Church. That Church, therefore, is wherever the blessed sound of the Gospel has entered, according to that irrevocable and eternally certain promise: "So shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11). And what is this "blessed sound of the Gospel"? It is the Word of God that is preached to us and believed in the hearts of faithful believers. In our epistle lesson for today, we heard how the Apostle Paul did not cease giving thanks to God and praying for the saints in Ephesus. What is more, Paul prayed that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, would give to them the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, and that the eyes of their understanding being enlightened; that they would know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:16-23).
What powerful words of great news is this! The Church is the body of Christ! And how can our understanding scarcely comprehend that the Church is the fullness of Him who fills all in all. And if this is not enough, Paul is also telling us that the same power God used to raise His Son from the dead is the same power for us. It is at work within us through the Spirit and the Word! Sadly, our human eyes and senses do not see this! Sometimes we see what seems like just the opposite. But faith looks beyond what is seen and felt! It listens carefully to the "blessed sound and message of the Gospel", which tells us that "No person is too insignificant to be included in this search and to be part of Christ’s effort to rescue souls. No person has strayed so far he cannot be found and raised up. No one has caused so great an offense that the Father and the Saviour no longer want to receive him. No person is such a great sinner that Christ would be ashamed of him. No, as Christ confesses before the haughty, hypocritical, and self-righteous Pharisees, He loves and is a Friend of all sinners and His heart breaks over the distress of each of them. He seeks them all. He does not cast away any who comes to Him; instead, He accepts them all. Oh, what a comfort this is! Each of us is under the watchful eye of the Good Shepherd. He and His mercy follow us from the first moment of our life. He wants to bring us back to His Father and finally to gather us in His heaven. He looks with tender love on those who have already recognized the error of their ways. He does not calculate the quantity, magnitude, and severity of our sins in order to weigh the grace He shows us. The fact that we are lost sinners is what moves Him to accept us" [Walther].
Christ’s Church is, indeed, holy and precious in His sight! And, we would do well to remember that His Church does not belong to any particular people, city, or country. Thus, no one, and no particular fellowship of churches can claim, “Here alone is the Church.” For example, even we in the STLK rejoice that God’s Word is purely preached, the holy Sacraments are faithfully administered – but we cannot say, "We alone are God’s house," for God’s Word tells us that Christ Himself rules in the midst of His enemies, that is, where unbelievers, mockers, tempters, heretics, and tyrants rage. We need to remember this, especially when we see so much of what is wrong, both around us and within us, within our very souls! Faith looks to what is unseen, it is certain of what it hopes for… such certainty can only come through the Spirit working true faith through the Word. Nevertheless, we take comfort that wherever God’s Word is still valued and reverenced, there Christ has His believers, even if false teachers pervert and falsify it. Wherever in the world the Word of His grace sounds, there Jesus makes subjects for Himself and establishes the holy kingdom of His Church in defiance of the gates of hell.
Lastly, our Gospel lesson tells us something much more than our hearts can begin to fathom and take in. In verses 22 and 23, we read the precious words that our Lord prayed shortly before He would be betrayed, mocked and rejected by men that He came to save, and by whom He would be crucified! He prayed, “"And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: "I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” Dear friends, this tells us that God loves us just as much as he loved and still loves Jesus! This love of Christ, Paul tells us, surpasses all knowledge, all comprehension. Experiencing this love that changes us is a main part of the necessary strengthening of every Christian. Thus, to become inwardly strong and certain of God’s love, “we must, as C.F.W. Walther writes, “learn more and more to recognize Christ’s love. We must learn to recognize its “width” that it is wider than the whole world; it embraces all sinners and, indeed, everything that lives in heaven and on earth. We must learn to recognize its “length” that this love is longer than the duration of the world; it is from eternity and extends until eternity. We must learn to recognize its “height” for this love is higher than all the mountains of the world; it reaches even to heaven. We must learn to recognize its “depth” for this love is deeper than the foundation of the earth; it is a deep, inexhaustible, unfathomable spring that flows from the depth of God’s own heart. Paul goes even further. We must learn that Christ’s love surpasses all knowledge, that it can never be completely learned, explored, or studied. It is as great, glorious and immeasurable, as God Himself. May we, then, continually open the book of Christ’s love and study it with prayer and meditation! What we will then experience! How often will we enjoy a foretaste of eternal life! How strong will we become in the inner man! By it, we will, as the apostle says, “be filled with all the fullness of God.””
Oh, dear friends, we who daily seek to become firmer in faith, more zealous in love, and richer in the knowledge and experience of Christ’s love! Let us strive to live as such Christians. To that end, let us gladly hear and read God’s Word. Then One day, we will behold Whom we have believed in, enjoyed and hoped for, as we stand face to face before our Lord. “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”
Quotes from C.F.W. Walther are taken from “God Grant It” (Kindle Locations 10095-10116). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.