Text: John 17:11-19, 1 John 5:9-15 V Exaudi (7th Sunday of Easter)
In the World but Not Of the World
In the name of him who has given us his Father’s Word, dear friends in Christ: In this morning’s Gospel reading we heard Jesus praying to his Father on behalf of his followers. He knew that he would soon be leaving them behind in this world while he himself would be moving on – first to the cross and his death for our sin, and then after his resurrection, ultimately to ascend to his heavenly glory. We discussed this latter departure last week when we celebrated the Ascension. And as we did we emphasized that we really shouldn’t think of Jesus as being altogether absent; rather, now that he’s ascended to his throne of power and authority, he’s here with us in a more universal sense than he would be if he had remained here deliberately confining himself to the limitations of his human nature as he did during the years of his earthly ministry. That is to say, it’s precisely because he’s ascended that we understand that he is with us – really with us – at all times and in all places, and in particular when we gather in his name and he comes to us in his Word and Sacraments.
This is all true … and yet, it’s still something short of the fullness of his presence that we will enjoy when we too move on to be with him glory. So we’re still missing something. And as a result, we’re still living in this world by faith rather than by sight and concrete, personal, face to face experience – which is precisely why we heard Jesus praying for his disciples—all of them: from the ones who walked with him in the first century all the way down to include us, his disciples today and beyond. And since he stands forever for us as our high priest, we can be certain that he is even now interceding for us before his Father with the same prayer.
What’s he praying for? Our safekeeping. His prayer is actually twofold. First he prays that we would be kept in his Father’s name as one – a body of believers united in love, mind, and purpose just as the Father and the Son are one. And secondly he prays that we would be sanctified; that is, kept separate from the world and all of its evil and deceptive influences that would lead us away from the Lord and into sin and unbelief. That’s it: Jesus prays that we would be kept together as one and kept separate from the world so that we can continue to live in this world and yet not be of this world.
How is this accomplished? Jesus gives us the answer in the prayer itself. But before we get to it, let me ask you. How do you keep together what you want kept together and at the same time keep whatever it is apart from what you want it kept apart from? Well, I don’t know how they do it in Missouri (I’m told they’re none too bright down there); but here in Iowa anyone can tell you that you use a fence. That’s what they’re for. Fences keep the cattle where the cattle ought to be and they keep them out of the corn where they don’t belong. They keep the chickens together in their place where they can be fed and watered and you don’t have to search all over creation for the eggs they lay, and at the same time they keep the fox out so the chickens are safe. Most of you know I have a vegetable garden behind the parsonage, and that neighbors on two sides of me keep horses. I see them lustily eyeing my lettuce and greens, licking their big floppy lips with malicious intent. If it weren’t for some sturdy fences, they would soon make short work of the fruit of my labors. I understand very well the wisdom in the old saying: good fences make good neighbors. And I’m sure you do too.
In a very similar way then, let me suggest that good fences make good Christians. And they also make good Christian churches. Now, I don’t mean that in the sense that we’re trying to keep people out, not at all. The whole goal of the Church is to let people in so that they can be saved. The gate is Jesus Christ himself, just as he said at one time. But what the Church is – what makes a Christian a Christian – is a confession of faith. It’s believing the truths that God has revealed in his Word about his Son, Jesus Christ. It’s knowing and trusting Jesus as he reveals himself through his Word for forgiveness, for life, and for salvation. A person who is convicted of his sin, who recognizes his need for a Savior, and who believes that through his passion, death, and resurrection Jesus is the Savior – that person is a Christian and a part of his Church. He’s come in through the gate, so to speak – just as we saw little Makenzie do this morning as the miracle of faith was worked in her by the Spirit through water and the Word. Ah, but this morning we’re not talking about making people believers in Christ, we’re talking about keeping people united with Christ and one another in the faith and keeping them separate from the world. That’s where the fences come in.
Jesus prayed to his Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your Word is truth.” That is to say, he asks his Father to keep us together and keep us separate from the world by his Word which is truth. That’s what defines the boundaries. It’s along the line of truth that we can say on this side is what is true and on that side is what is false. The fence itself then is a statement of the truth. It’s a standard by which we can say this over here on this side is true and that over there on that side is not. In the Church we call these confessional statements or statements of belief. They’re also called creeds, doctrines, and confessional symbols. And they are extremely necessary because they do precisely what a fence does. They keep in what you want in, and they keep out what you want out.
What do I mean? Well, to illustrate, think about what this country was like when it was first being settled. Then there were no fences. It was wide open terrain. And settlers would come in and stake their claims, usually using temporary markers of some kind to identify the limits of their property. On the east, say, bounded by this trail or creek; on the north and south by certain markers scattered here and there that differentiated what’s mine from the neighbors’ who have staked their own claims; and to the west, for now let’s just say as far as I can see. This is pretty much the situation you had in the earliest days of the Christian Church. At that time people were coming to faith in Jesus. And as they did they came on to the property claimed by him, and within it – that is, within his truth – they began to build their lives together in Christ. So far, so good.
What happened next, though? Well, going back to our illustration, as people on the frontier began to farm and raise livestock and plant their gardens it became necessary to build some fences along the boundaries to keep our animals from wandering off on to the neighbor’s place and to keep the neighbors’ animals from trampling and eating what we planted. Or, say it another way, the fences had to be built along the lines of potential conflict. In fact, it was probably precisely where the worst violations of the property line had already taken place that the first fences were built. They were constructed to stop damage that was already being done.
The same thing happened in the early Church. And a good example is how it became necessary to develop and clearly articulate the doctrine of the Trinity. At the time of Jesus’ Ascension this had yet not been done. Sure, the disciples had a vague understanding of it. They all believed that Jesus is God, that the Father is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God. And they also believed that there is only one God. But if you asked them how that works exactly, how they can be three and yet one, they probably wouldn’t have been able to give you a very complete or coherent answer. Why? Because there was no conflict there yet. They all understood about where the property line was between truth and falsehood concerning the Trinity of the Godhead. But it was only later when people came along into the Church who were saying things that aren’t true about the Trinity that it became necessary to clearly state what are the limits: this you can say about the Trinity, and that you cannot say about the Trinity. You see, some people tried to solve the apparent contradiction by teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in fact three different Gods. Others said, no, it’s more like he’s one God who uses three different disguises when dealing with us. Yet others taught that only the Father is truly God. They said that the Son is a lesser created being; and that the Holy Spirit is merely the force or power by which God operates – not a personal being but an impersonal energy.
It was being confronted by crazy ideas like these and more that forced the Church’s best and brightest theologians to build the fence – to state exactly what is true and what is not true concerning the Trinity. And where did they go to find the answers? To the Holy Scripture, of course, which is Christ’s Word of truth. By looking there, and by fervent study, prayer, and the inspiration of the Spirit, they were able to formulate the doctrine that there is one God who exists in three coequal and coeternal persons.
Something similar happened with the development of all the Christian Church’s doctrines and creeds concerning every article of faith you can name: the teachings on the person of Christ, Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the work of the Spirit, on and on. They arose as necessary to combat and prevent false teaching. You see, Satan is first and foremost a deceiver. He’s always trying to attack the Church by teaching and getting people to believe what is false. In one sense this is bad because by it people are led astray. But there’s a sense in which this is good too. False teaching shows us where the problem areas are. It shows us where we need to keep building in order to extend the fence – which in turn forces us back into God’s Word looking for more of his truth. You know, I mentioned a few weeks back that we should never shrink from religious controversy. Instead we should welcome it because it always sends us back into the Word to discover what the Lord has said about a particular matter. This is precisely what Jesus is praying for: that we would be kept together as one in mind and purpose and kept separate from the world by his Word of truth.
All right; all this being said, I’d like to quickly cover a few more things using this illustration of thinking as the Church’s creeds and doctrines as fences that separate truth from error. The first is that the fences are absolutely necessary for the Church to continue in this world. I’m sure you run into people all the time like I do who say that we don’t need any creeds. This is like a farmer saying that he doesn’t need any fences. He’s not going to be in business very long. The trouble with such an attitude in the Church is that there is no way to prevent ideas and teachings that you don’t want from coming in, or any way to keep the faithful from wandering off. The basic idea, though, is rather disingenuous because even Christians who say they don’t have any creeds believe something. And they’re usually more than happy to tell you where they think you’re wrong. So they do have fences even if they say they don’t.
Secondly, fences have to be high enough and sturdy enough to do the job. These days it’s becoming increasingly popular for Churches and individual Christians to call themselves “nondenominational”, by which they mean they have no specific standard of doctrine – no clearly defined fences. This too is usually disingenuous because I can guarantee that even though they may deny it, they hold to some formulation of doctrine that’s associated with one denomination or another – usually Baptist. But if they’re serious about being “nondenominational”, and some of them are, they tend to be especially susceptible to every bad and passing fad that infects the Church precisely because their fences aren’t high enough to keep the bad ideas out.
The third point I’d like to make is that fences need to be inspected and maintained in order to work properly. Satan is not just a liar, he’s also a rustler who sneaks in and steals by cutting holes even in long established fences. A good current example is that there are people calling themselves Christians who would like to see (or who don’t see any problem with) God’s design of holy marriage being redefined to include behavior that God calls an abomination. The fence here, what the Lord has said about marriage, is literally as old as creation itself. And until our day not even unbelievers would have trespassed this sacred ground. Now nothing seems safe from violation. It goes to show that there is no teaching of Scripture that does not need to be periodically reviewed, reinforced, and maintained in the hearts and minds of God’s people.
Fourth, we need to be careful not to build fences where they do not belong. People in the Church often raise to the standard of doctrine things about which the Lord has not spoken – or they make their standard more stringent than what the Lord has said. They do this based on personal preferences or by legalistic misreading of the Scriptures. And by it they unnecessarily burden consciences and lead people into the trap of pride and self-righteousness. Don’t build fences that serve no good purpose.
And my fifth and final point is that fences are not walls. You’ve got something like that going on with the Amish community. Their idea of living as Christians in the world but not being of it is to live in separated isolation. The trouble is that there is no meaningful interaction with those who are as yet caught up in the world. There’s no effort to reach out to the lost. As I said before, the fences we have in the Church are not against people; they are meant only to exclude ideas and teachings that are false. The nice thing about most fences is that they are relatively transparent. I want people to see the fence, that is, what we teach and confess. And I also want them to be able to look inside and see that for us on our side, the grass really is greener – that we have among us a fellowship that’s worth being a part of – that we have love for each other, and forgiveness for each other, and the blessed hope and joy of salvation in Christ. I want them to see this so that they will want to join us – so that they too will come through Him who is the gate; and with us be kept as one and sanctified in his truth while we live in this world but not of it, through our faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. In his holy name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!