Set Apart By the Truth (John 17:1lb-19)
The Seventh Sunday of Easter (May 16, 2021)
This past Thursday, the anniversary of a most significant and awesome event in the life and ministry of Jesus, came and went. For centuries the Christian Church has observed this 40th day after Easter as The Ascension of our Lord. Even though Jesus’ ascension truly was His coronation as the King of Heaven and Earth, our observance of it often passes with as little fanfare as did His actually ascension. As Luke records in the Book of Acts, having gathered His apostles together on the Mount of Olives and after having given them instruction that they would be His witnesses in all the world, “… as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (1:9). That was it. There were no trumpets… no choir of angels.
The lack of fanfare then or today, however, does not diminish in any way the wonderfulness…the glory… the tremendous significance of the occasion. The appointed Psalmody for Ascension Day proclaims: “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth…God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne” (Ps. 47:5-9).
Of no other god can this be said that “He goes up.” But it can be said of Jesus because He alone has come down. The second person of the Holy Trinity, the only true God, left His lofty throne to come down and in the womb of a woman and become man. Again, unique to Jesus, He came down so that He might be lifted up on a cross to atone for the sin of all humanity. At His ascension, this Son of Mary, Son of God, lifted up His human nature to occupy that place of all glory that His divine nature had always shared with the Father. On the night He was betrayed, Jesus prayed for this: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (Jn. 17:4,5).
Jesus’ ascension, therefore, declares more than Jesus’ victory over death and the grave. It also declares your victory and mine. For you see, He raised our shared human nature to the very throne of God! Hence Jesus gives a wonderful promise to all who themselves have been born from above by water and the Spirit (Jn. 3:3,5) in Holy Baptism and believe in Him to be the true God and only Savior of Sinners. He declares: “In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also”(Jn. 14:2,3). Jesus’ ascension enables us to sing, as in the compelling lyrics of Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn, “He has raised our human nature On the clouds to God’s right hand; There we sit in heav’nly places, There with Him in glory stand. Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne. By our mighty Lord’s ascension We by faith behold our own” (LSB #494, v. 5).
But today in our worship cycle, we stand between the observance of Jesus’ resurrection and the celebration of Jesus’ promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon His apostles which occurred on the fiftieth day, The Day of Pentecost. But the propers for this Seventh Sunday of Easter; the Introit, the collect, and the scripture readings, are all appointed to remind us that we are not simply in limbo or in some kind of waiting mode. Yes, Jesus has already ascended into heaven. And, yes, we await in faith His promised return “in the same way He left” to take us all to be with Him where He is in all glory. But Jesus has not left us alone nor has He left us without purpose. Even as we might feel like orphans abandoned to fend for ourselves in this anti-Christ world, the appointed Collect has us praying, “O King of glory, Lord of hosts, uplifted in triumph far above all heavens, leave us not without consolation but send us the Spirit of truth whom You promised from the Father, for You live and reign with Him and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”
Indeed, as our scripture readings remind us, we wait for Jesus’ return not simply by twiddling our thumbs. Jesus has left to us, and the Holy Spirit has brought to us through the ministry of the Holy Apostles, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is, as John writes in our Epistle reading, “…the testimony of God that He has borne concerning His Son…that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life…” (1 Jn 5:9-12).
Our first reading from Acts points out that this testimony of Christ was given to the Apostles to proclaim in all the world. Accordingly, their first order of business after Jesus’ ascension was to elect someone to fill the office vacated by Judas, who in His despair and unbelief hung himself. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Matthias is appointed to join the Eleven and become a witness with them of the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:12-26).
In our Gospel reading we hear Jesus, in His prayer for the apostles, acknowledge to the Father that He has given to the apostles His Word (Jn 17:14). As we also hear, it is that Word of Christ, that “testimony” concerning Him, that made the apostles stand out, set them apart, sanctify them, from the rest of the world. “Holy Father,” Jesus’ prays, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:16,17).
That Word of truth Jesus Christ gave the apostles was not only the comfort and hope of their salvation in Jesus’ victory, it also gave them a look of “other worldliness.” The Word of Christ gave them identity as people of Christ in stark contrast to the rest of humanity who were people of this world. In a world darkened in all manner of falsehood, they were, as Jesus earlier described them, “like a city on a hill that cannot be hidden…the light of the world (Matt. 5:14; Jn 12:36).
Unfortunately, such sanctifying, such setting apart from the world, did not bring the apostles fame and fortune but rather, it set them up as Christ had been, as a lightning rod for the devil and the sinful world’s opposition and vitriol. Jesus is, therefore, compelled to petition His Heavenly Father on their behalf. He prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (Jn 17:14,15).
On the day of Pentecost, in a most visible and powerful way, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the holy apostles, to bring to their remembrance all that Jesus had taught them and to embolden them to proclaim in all truthfulness all that they had seen and heard concerning Christ even in the face of what was often violent opposition. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, even under the threat of imprisonment, beatings, and death, they boldly proclaimed Him Who is the Truth (Jn. 14:6).
But Jesus was never simply concerned with the twelve apostles alone. That is why in the verses directly following our Gospel text, in the same prayer, Jesus petitions the Heavenly Father, "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20). “These” for whom Jesus prayed would be you!
This is both comforting and sobering. On the one hand, you are reminded that through the truth of Christ proclaimed to you by the Holy Apostles contained in the Holy Bible, you are now the heirs of the apostles as bearers of the truth. Like them, you also have been set apart from this world and to God by this word of truth. But that also means, you can expect the same treatment from the world.
The more you and I boldly proclaim the truth of Christ, the more the enemies of Christ, who opposed Him, opposed His Eyewitnesses who handed down this truth to us, will oppose us. Jesus has said to all His disciples: “Take up your cross and follow me… If they persecuted me they will persecute you.”
Now, you would think the people of this world would welcome the truth, right? But true to our sinful human nature, the only truth people really want is that which comports with their own feelings, their own self-contrived ideologies, or their own reasoning. The Jews wanted a Messiah alright, but just not Jesus. He did not fit their scheme of a deliverer. …. A fourth century bishop by the name of Arius wanted to call Jesus’ Lord but just not his God. The Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed were developed in part to combat with the truth Arius’s heresy. …. The popes and leaders of the church of the Middle Ages confessed Jesus to be the Son of God, they just sought to discount His glory as God’s sacrificial Lamb by teaching that people could make atonement or satisfaction for their sins through their own good works. …. The reformer John Zwingli preached Jesus as the sinner’s Savior, but refused to believe that that same Jesus could actually give His atoning body and blood to repentant sinners in the Lord’s Supper….The nineteenth century saw the rise of atheism and rationalism which denied not only anything that is supernatural and miraculous, but also denied the very existence of God …And now, in our post-modern age and “woke” culture, the very notion that there can be an objective and an eternally transcendent truth is deemed absurd. Truth is considered to be in the eye of the beholder. In other words, it is falsely taught that truth is established by one’s own perceptions. What’s true for one might not be true for another.
Such notions have in essence done away with truth. The word truth by its very definition means something that is absolute, true for all times and in all generations whether anyone accepts it, believes it, or not. If truth is relative, there is no truth.
As heirs of the testimony of Jesus Christ through the apostles we are in the truth business. But if the world denies the existence of absolute truths, then we as proclaimers of Christ Jesus had better prepare for a real, rough road. It’s one thing to preach to people who believe the wrong things to be true. It’s a whole other matter to try to preach the truth of Christ to people who deny the very existence of truth.
The fruits of this post-modernism are seen everywhere. Despite the clear and scientific evidence that the earth is relatively young and that it came into existence suddenly, and is so intricate and complex that it cries out for a designer, the pervasive view of our culture is that the universe, the earth and even humankind simply evolved on their own over billions and billions of years. …… Despite the scientific evidence, not to mention the teachings of the Holy Bible, that the fetus is a person, a living human being, the pro-abortion crowd still insists that the fetus is merely a piece of tissue of the mother, which she can dispose of if she so chooses…. And no matter that from the beginning of time every culture of humanity has defined marriage as a union of a man and a woman, not to mention that God’s word clearly says that marriage is a union of one man and one woman, the homosexual lobby and political correctness crowd have coerced judges and even some legislatures to now legalize what is being termed “same sex marriage.”
Such denial of truth is placing countless souls under the wrath of God. People can deny the truthfulness of Biblical doctrine all they want to and they can deny the existence of God, heaven, and hell to their dying breaths. But in the end, at Christ’s second coming, they will be forced to look upon Him Who is the truth and know that they have placed themselves under His eternal wrath.
But you, who know the truth, through the apostolic testimony of Jesus’ apostles, can take comfort. You have an ace-in-the-hole! The Crucified, Risen and ascended Jesus is even right now petitioning His Father that He would, quite literally, keep (you) set apart from this world and unto Himself. Jesus is praying for your continued holiness. In other words, Jesus is praying that His Holy Father might make and keep you holy; keep you set apart unto Himself, the one and only, Holy God, through His Word of truth.
Know this also, in Holy Baptism, you were brought into God’s Name. There you were given birth by the Truth. You were baptized in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. There He gave you new birth of water and the Spirit into His holy family. There the blood of Jesus cleansed you from the iniquity of your sins. There you were set apart unto the true God, the Triune God. As a result your thoughts, words, or actions either honor God and your identity in Him or they betray and denigrate Him and His Holy name.
Now, I suppose, it is to be expected that the unbelieving world will profane God’s name. The world only knows the falsehoods of the Evil One, the devil. But far worse and much more deserving of the punishments of hell are we, when we Christians, those who have been made holy, set apart, by the Truth of Christ, treat God and His Name as unholy by considering them as merely common, or ordinary, even worse, as loathsome.
Jesus, the Holy Son of God, interceded for you. Jesus sanctified Himself for you. He did this by willingly setting Himself apart for God’s use as the sacrifice for your sins. Yes, to save you and me from our idolatries and profanities, not to mention all other sins, Jesus devoted Himself to destruction under God’s wrath rightfully due us. By so doing, Jesus purchased you from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with His precious blood and innocent suffering and death, that we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him with everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness (The Small Catechism). As believers in Jesus, therefore, you have been sanctified… set apart as God’s people, with truly holy blood of Him Who is the Truth!
Jesus, prays, literally, that Holy God would preserve in His name those whom the Father had given to Him so that not one of them might be lost, save the Evil One, Judas, who had spurned his holy calling and went his own way.
What will keep you set apart for God? The very same thing that sanctified you in the beginning; that is, The Word of truth concerning Jesus Christ. Jesus has said of Himself: “I am the Way, the Truth, an the Life. No one comes unto the Father except by me.” The truth about God, whether it be about His person, His will for sinners, or His plan of saving sinners, has only been made known to you through the Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ. Without the truth of Christ, you can’t possibly know the true God. Without the truth of Christ, you can’t know of God’s grace nor your redemption in Jesus Christ. It is only this Word concerning Christ that separates you from the rest of the world, making you holy unto God. Without the truth of Christ, yours would be a religion like all other religions in this world, simply the blind following the misguided, imaginative, false, teachings of men about God, and the enslavement of souls to manmade rules that lead to death and eternal destruction.
Do you, then, dear Christian, fully comprehend how blessed you are to be different? The truth of Jesus Christ, as delivered to you through the testimony of the Holy apostles, has set you apart from this world so that even though you are in this world you will not suffer its fate in eternal destruction. The truth of Jesus Christ has kept you from becoming of this world that you might always remain a child of heaven. The truth of Jesus Christ has kept you from the ignorance that condemns that you might enjoy the true knowledge that saves you.
This truth, therefore, has also made you valuable to this world to the extent that only from you as you proclaim the truth, whether under persecution or not, this world steeped in darkness can be made to see the light of the Truth that can save them.
So, fellow redeemed in Christ, treasure your holiness… your set apartness. Rejoice that you are different than this world. In your difference you not only have eternal hope but God has also made you a shining star of truth in this otherwise dark world of falsehood! In Christ you most definitely stand out from all the rest!