John 17:20-26

May 1, 2016



In Yakima, Washington, sometime back a dying man made a strange request. On his deathbed, Grant Flory said to his family: “Get me to the Mustangs’ playoffs. No matter what.” He was referring to his old high school team, The Prosser Mustangs. So in early December, when the Mustangs played in Seattle’s Kingdome, Flory’s cremated remains were in attendance. His son Dwight approached the stadium gate wearing a camera bag that contained his father’s urn. He was stopped by a guard who asked what was in the bag.

“It’s my dad,” he replied.

The guard looked puzzled but allowed the ashes inside. Family members said anyone who knew Grant Flory wouldn’t be surprised by his request. He was a real football fan.

It is the dream of every pastor to have a congregation filled with people who are that determined to be in worship every Sunday. I need not even say to you that there are church members who are much more dedicated to their favorite sports team than they are to God. They give more money to their team. They know more about the players on the roster than they ever will about the heroes of the Bible. And I will not live to see the days when people in the average congregation will sit in a cold, miserable rain to worship God like many will do to cheer on their favorite team. Perhaps that’s because we don’t understand the essential nature of the church. I believe if we could see the church as Christ sees the church, we would not take attendance as casually as we do. Jesus, in his prayer for the church recorded in John’s Gospel, helps us see the church as he means for it to be.

First of all, Jesus prays for our unity. He prays “that they all may be one.” Christ desires his church to be a close-knit family! He desires us to be unified. I suspect many of us underestimate how much we need one another–how much we crave contact— how much we hunger for true Christian Fellowship.

Recent research has indicated that those persons who attend church are less likely to be ill over time than those who do not attend church. I don’t know what that says to you. Possibly, it says something about a life of discipline. Perhaps it says something about avoiding self-destructive habits. My guess is, though, that it says the most about our need for one another.

Revealing studies have been done on depressed people. Depressed people want to be alone. Should we let them be? Not if we want them to improve. There is something about being with others that lifts our spirits. We need genuine fellowship. The church serves two vital functions in the world, and the first is to put us in touch with one another. We need one another–particularly when life caves in on us.

Harold Kushner tells of an incident from his youth that made a distinct impression on him. A business associate of his father’s died under particularly tragic circumstances. Kushner accompanied his father to the funeral. The man’s widow and children were surrounded by clergy and psychiatrists trying to ease their grief and make them feel better. They knew all the right words, but nothing helped. They were beyond being comforted. The widow kept saying, “You’re right, I know you’re right, but it doesn’t make any difference.” Then a man walked in, a big burly man in his 80s who was a legend in the toy and game industry. He had escaped from Russia as a youth after having been arrested and tortured by the Czar’s secret police. He had come to this country illiterate and penniless and had built up an immensely successful company. He was known as a hard bargainer, a ruthless competitor. Despite his success, he had never learned to read or write. He hired people to read his mail to him. The joke in the industry was that he could write a check for $1 million, and the hardest part would be signing his name at the bottom. He had been sick recently, and his face and his walking showed it.

But he walked over to the widow and started to cry, and she cried with him, and you could feel the atmosphere in the room change. This man who had never read a book in his life spoke the language of the heart and held the key that opened the gates of solace where learned doctors and clergy could not.

We need people who can speak the language of the heart. We need persons within the community of Christ to whom we feel especially close. There will come a time when we will need to reach out to them for comfort. There will be times they will need to reach out to us. Jesus’ first prayer is for our unity with one another.

His second prayer is for our unity with God. He prays to the Father “that they may also be in us …” There is more than a horizontal plane to the church. There is also a vertical plane. That’s what separates us from the average social club. We are here to get in touch with each other, but we are also here to get in touch with God.

Theodore White, Pulitzer prize-winning expert on American politics, coined a new word recently. Someone asked him about the effect of television on politicians. White answered, “Politicians remind me of a certain variety of plant–the kind that grow under porches and other places where the sun doesn’t penetrate. Botanists call these plants Heliotropic, meaning that as they grow they bend in the direction of the sun. Well, politicians today are what I call Videotropic. As they grow, they follow the camera because that’s where the votes are.”

I might build on that analogy, you and I are here because we are Theotropic–that is, we are drawn irresistibly in the direction of God. In God is our help and our strength. We gather here each Lord’s day to acknowledge that He is our hope in the foundation of our lives.

During a frightful storm in the Georgian Bay of Canada years ago, a ship was wrecked. Many perished. The mate, with six strong men and one timid girl, escaped in a boat, but the waves were high and the craft turned over and over until, one by one, the strong men lost their hold and disappeared beneath the angry billows.

The mate, however, lashed the girl to the boat, and thus she drifted to the shore where she was found, safe and unharmed. When the stalwart men went down with shrieks of despair, she alone was saved. She didn’t escape by her skill or wisdom. She escaped because she was fastened firmly to that which would not sink.

Here in this house of worship we fasten ourselves firmly to that which will not sink. We find it in our unity with one another, but even more so, in our unity with God.

But Jesus has one more prayer for us. He prays for our final unity with him in glory. Listen to his prayer: “Father, I desire that they may also be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me and Thy love for me …” I take that to be in Heaven.

We don’t talk about Heaven much in the church anymore–except perhaps at funerals. I’m reminded of that wonderful story about a time when Senator Jacob Javits of New York was visiting England. A constituent happened to be in Washington DC, and decided to stop in and see his Senator. He found Javit’s office, introduced himself, and asked to see the senator.

“I’m sorry,” said the secretary, “but Sen. Javits has gone to the United Kingdom.”

“Oh, my goodness!” exclaimed the visitor, clearly taken aback. “Is it too late to send flowers?”

We don’t talk much about Heaven. And I suspect one reason is that Christ gave us so few details as to what it will be like. Some of the popular images of Heaven do it a disservice, I am certain. I was amused to read something former Prime Minister Lloyd George once said about the celestial realm. He said, “When I was a boy the thought of heaven used to frighten me more than the thought of hell. I pictured heaven as a place where time would be perpetual Sundays, with perpetual services from which there would be no break. It was a horrible nightmare and made me an atheist for 10 years.”

None of our language about Heaven can possibly do it justice, our minds are too small to get around the concept of eternity. There’s only one thing we can say about Heaven. We will be united–with Christ and with those we love. The unity we have here is but a poor reflection of a more perfect unity there.

Writer and speaker Carol Kent expresses this truth in a beautiful way. She tells about a couple she met in Indianapolis, Indiana, named Pam and Bill Mutz. She was immediately impressed with the quality parenting these two were giving their three children. Carol asked her hostess what made their home so uniquely special. She began her story:

A few years earlier, when their older daughter, Cari, was just 2½ years old and their son, Jonathan, was seven months old, the children were in the bathtub together. That week Pam and Bill had out-of-town company, and the guest had brought two dogs with him that were left outside in the yard. While Pam was bathing her children, she became concerned that the dogs might get too far from the house. Jonathan had been sitting up well on his own, and Pam turned to Cari and said, “Honey, please watch your brother for just a minute while Mama checks on these dogs.”

Pam was gone a short time, but when she returned, Jonathan was underwater. Cari didn’t realize the danger. Pam grabbed her son and screamed for the guest, who came down and did mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while Pam called for an ambulance.

“They laid my Jonathan on a stretcher and worked feverishly over him, but even before we reached the hospital, I knew he was gone,” Pam said. In the days that followed, friends and family gathered, feeling Pam and Bill’s grief as their very own.

Carol asked Pam about the long-term effect of this crisis point in their home. She said, “Carol, God has done an emotional and spiritual healing here that even psychologists do not understand. We know it’s the Lord.”

She continued, “Cari speaks often of her brother and looks forward to seeing him in heaven someday. Every time she gets a helium balloon, she rushes outside. Then she lets it go as she shouts into the heavens, ‘Jesus, this is for Jonathan, and tell him it’s from Cari!’ I just know those balloons will make it–all the way! One day, perhaps, Jonathan will greet us with an arm full of balloons when we have the privilege of joining him in heaven!”

Jesus’ prayer is that each of us would have the same confidence. He wants us to have unity with one another. He wants us also to have unity with God. God is our refuge and strength. He also wants us to know that the bonds that join us to one another and to God are eternal. Nothing will ever break them. Not even death will snatch us from him or from those we love.