“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Note: My sermon on this text can be found here.
This text is part of Jesus’ grand closing prayer of John 17:1-26, which itself comes as a part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples. Jesus prays first for his return to glory (vs. 1-5), then for his disciples (vs. 6-19). This text from vs. 20-26 contain a third focus of Jesus’ prayer: those who will come to faith in future generations. The prayer is itself a symphony of three movements, with a gradual shift in focus from God to world. When Jesus begins praying he is addressing God in an intimate and personal way, and yet by the end of the prayer he is speaking not only to God but future generations of believers. There is a bit of a wink and a nudge from John here. John knows that the prayer will be read by the very Christian believers of whom Jesus speaks, and you can almost hear John whispering over your shoulder, “See that? He’s talking about you!” In other words, I’m in this prayer. You’re in this prayer. We are all in this prayer.
“I, You, We” is an appropriate pattern for discussing the subject of the prayer. Every Christian believer experiences first and foremost his or her own relationship to God. This is the “I” of faith. This is the part of faith that sings in the first person: “Jesus, thy boundless love to me…” “Just as I am, without one plea…” “My faith looks up to thee…” We are all probably best at speaking of faith in this intensely personal way, and I dare say that most contemporary praise music has taken this ball and run with it: “I’m so glad you’re in my life…” “Jesus you’re my God…” “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord… I want to see you…” This is not inherently a bad thing, of course. The Psalms are replete with first-person faith-speak, and most Christian believers connect with these expressions of personal relationship with God. However, we bear a responsibility to remind ourselves that faith doesn’t end with the first person. In fact, I would argue that an isolated Christian is not a Christian. The notion of community is so fundamental to following Jesus that one simply can’t live as a Christian without experiencing the faith of other believers. This is where the “you” of faith comes in.
For every Christian there are moments of disillusion in which the focus on personal relationship with God is disrupted by those pesky other believers out there who seem to be doing and saying something different. It’s the awkward silence in Sunday school after someone speaks up in the middle of a discussion and says, “I don’t see it that way at all.” It’s the person in the pew behind you who seemingly disagrees with everything you say. It’s the split congregational vote that polarizes a very important decision in the life of the church, and suddenly you see two congregations in one church. There are other people out there with different backgrounds, histories, and experiences, people who are bound to see the Bible, the church, and everything else differently than the person sitting next to them. There are other denominations out there who do things in horrifically different fashion, which makes you wonder if they’ve read the same Bible you have. There are other Christians out there living in vastly different cultures and social settings who practice their faith in ways that look alien to you. How do we live together? How do we worship together? How do we get from “I” and “you” to “we”.
This is, after all, what Jesus prays for. The primary focus this text is unity in the body of future believers. In today’s increasingly polarized world, this may seem to be a pipe dream, or at the very best something that is more easily said than done. We separate ourselves from each other according to theology. We separate ourselves from each other according to race. We separate ourselves from each other according to social standing. We separate ourselves from each other according to geography. We separate ourselves from each other according to gender, sexual orientation, appearance, age, politics, etc. The list goes on and on. With so much out there that divides us, how are we ever to achieve the kind of unity for which Jesus asks?
It helps, I think, to understand that the unity for which Jesus asks is not based on who we are, but on who God is. Jesus here does not pray for unity without also acknowledging the fundamental character of God: first, that God is one with Jesus Christ, and second, that God loves God’s people in the same way that God loves Jesus. The unity for which Jesus prays is not dependent upon our ability to overcome division, but God’s constant love for us in spite of it. There is a “we” of faith precisely because of the way in which God relates to each and every believer, not because of the way in which we relate to each other. Jesus is not praying for some monolithic expression of faith in which all believers believe the same things without variance. The “unity” here is not the absence of our disagreements. It is loving others in spite of them.
This isn’t to say that we shall simply be content with our division, however. Wherever there is division, discord, or disunity, the all-encompassing love of God is forever wearing away the walls that separate us, like waves ceaselessly wearing away the rocks out on the beach. The longer we spend in the environment of Christian community, the clearer it becomes to us that God loves us all with the same persistent love. Slowly, with God’s help, we come to see others through the eyes of Jesus Christ. “So that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them,” Jesus said. This is Jesus’ prayer for us, and it never ceases. Jesus prays for us even today.
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First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming gospel lectionary text, written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz. It is usually published on Mondays.