Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 29, 2022
John 17:20-26 Commentary
Though Jesus prayed this prayer before his crucifixion and resurrection, as part of the season of Easter this passage continues to shape our understanding of the Resurrection New Life that God invites us to live. This is especially true because Christ’s prayer is for his people across time and space—and not just the disciples who have been with him for the last three years. We’ve already explored the themes of this prayer this Easter season: of being an apostle or witness (on Easter and May 1), and of love and glory (May 15). And, in a way, last week’s passage points us to the importance of following Jesus’ way of being with and for one another as the way of unity. In fact, I highly recommend re-reading the material from May 15, as this prayer is closely linked with Jesus’ teachings there.
In the Textual Point below, I lay out the structure of this week’s passage via the purpose clauses Jesus uses in his prayer. Bottom line: God has given us his very self, includes us in the love that flows among the Godhead, and includes us in God’s glory for the purpose of our unity—which then becomes a testimony to his love for the world.
Unity becomes our greatest witness to the world of God’s loving purposes on earth. Isn’t that something? It feels a bit like we’ve lost the plot on this one.
In Jesus’ own words, (and as pointed out by Herman Ridderbos) Christ’s greatest aim is our oneness. Put another way, in his prayer to the Father, Jesus says that we humans haven’t known the Father the way that he has and he wants to change that: Jesus wants to make us get caught up in the love of the Trinity, to be swept away by the glory of the Godhead, to be lost in the mystery of ultimate reality. If we were to be so caught up, then we would truly show the world who God is… we might become image bearers of the God who is three persons in unity ever and always seeking the good of all that exists.
In essence, the oneness that Jesus confesses to care so deeply about is just one way of describing a life of union with him. And we might consider his atoning work, often considered by evangelicals as God’s “big aim,” as part of what makes it possible for us to participate in God’s actual ultimate end: unity with God and one another.
Think of it this way: the forgiveness of God is just one way we know God loves us… We know love through our uniqueness, our interests and passions, in the beauty of the world, etc. The list could go on and on. These other experiences are just as much a source for bonds of unity as our status as “forgiven.” The scope of God’s work and presence is massive—far bigger than just the atonement. Even the Westminster Catechism highlights this broadness of blessing, describing the “chief end” of humanity as glorifying God and enjoying him forever!
A couple of weeks ago, I shared an illustration idea from the life and teaching of Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945). It was from Mother Maria that I first learned of the Orthodox doctrine (particularly Russian Orthodox) of sobornost and its outworking in sobornoe. (As I write this, Russia is waging an unjust, yet Russian Orthodox Church sanctioned, invasion in Ukraine; they too have lost the plot line of God’s love and unity…)
In her writings, Mother Maria makes the point that wise spiritual fathers and mothers have made throughout the church ages: knowing the love of God, being in deep relationship with God, leads to loving and expressing love through service to those around us. Contemplation and action flow into and out of us as we are in the loving presence of the Godhead.
Christ is truly the common denominator for this love, he is its source and connection, as we see in his prayer: Jesus is the one who is united to the Father through love, and the Son is the one who is mysteriously in us as he is in the Father. (See the brief note at the end of the Textual Point for how we might understand the Holy Spirit to be present.) But by its very expansive nature, the love of Christ is not isolating. It is known through sacrifice and humility, its power and growth. To be sure, it is best seen, and we come to understand it, by Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. But even in this act, we need to be reminded that the atonement, an act of making us at-one with God, is not merely an individual arrangement between one individual and God: it is the gift of God to all his people.
In fact, the Orthodox church voiced the doctrine of sobornost, which comes for the Russian word for “catholic” or “assembly,” as a way of responding to the individualistic viewpoint of Western Protestantism. It is not the fulfillment of the Christian life to be “saved by grace.” No, according to the prayer of Jesus Christ, it is to have the fullness of God and his love dwell within us in such a way that we are able to have unity with one another that witnesses to God in heaven. It is to become part of the story of God and his love.
There are a number of purpose statements in Jesus’ prayer and are worthy of following so that we understand what is at stake in our witness of unity. (In English, the purpose clauses often begin with “in order/so that”.)
Verses 20-21: Jesus is praying in order that all may be one (everyone who belongs to the holy catholic church, across time and space); in order that those who are one are also in the Father & Son; so that the world might believe the Father sent the Son to earth.
Verse 22: Jesus says that he has given us the glory he received from the Father in order that his prayer can be answered and we might be one as he and the Father are one.
Verse 23: Jesus describes this reality, saying that he is in us as the Father is in him, in order that we may have complete unity, so that the world might know that the Father sent the Son and loves the world as he loves the Son.
Verse 24: Jesus petitions the Father, saying that he wants those the Father has given him to be with him in order that they might see the glory the Father has given the Son (and that was borne out of the love of the Father before time began).
Verse 26: Jesus declares that he will make known the Father’s name (and love) in order that that same love will not only be with him and the Father, but in us.
When we follow the order of things, we come to understand that our witness is (1) a gift from God, an answer to Jesus’ continuing work of interceding for us. It is also (2) how Jesus continues to be with us even after his ascension. Our unity (3) is what happens when we know the love of God, and (4) is made out of the strongest bond in the universe, since it is the bond between the members of the Trinity. In fact, in his commentary, Dale Bruner confidently wonders whether or not this unity and love is actually another instance of Jesus praying for the Holy Spirit to come and be among his people…
Love, glory, the presence of God, and expressions of Christian unity are all tied up, mixed up, and inseparable from one another!
In his book A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together, Scot McKnight describes the gathering of the earliest Christian churches as an example of that oneness in spite of great diversity:
“A recent study by a British scholar has concluded that if the apostle Paul’s house churches were composed of about thirty people, this would have been their approximate make-up:
- a craftworker in whose home they meet, along with his wife, children, a couple of male slaves, a female domestic slave, and a dependent relative
- some tenants, with families and slaves and dependents, also living in the same home in rented rooms
- some family members of a householder who himself does not participate in the house church
- a couple of slaves whose owners do not attend
- some freed slaves who do not participate in the church
- a couple homeless people
- a few migrant workers renting small rooms in the home
Add to this mix some Jewish folks and a perhaps an enslaved prostitute and we see how many ‘different tastes’ were in a typical house church in Rome: men and women, citizens and freed slaves and slaves (who had no legal rights), Jews and Gentiles, people from all moral walks of life, and perhaps, most notably, people from elite classes all the way down the social scale to homeless people.”
All of these people found a reason to be together: Jesus Christ, the love and glory of God. When did that stop being enough for us?
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