Unity, it seems, is that elusive description for God’s church. We hear the calls for it but disagree on the terms. We know it is part of God’s solution for what ails humanity, but we cannot grasp the way of sacrifice on the road to peace. We rightly identify it as the way that Jesus describes it—as part of our witness to the world of the Triune God—and even still, we do not have it.
Here, at the last meal that Jesus has with his disciples, the last moments of peace and “normalcy,” Jesus ends the evening with a lengthy prayer that makes up all of chapter 17 that is about protecting his beloveds, about his disciples being unified, and about the glorious unity of the Trinity. Jesus lifts his eyes up to heaven and begins, “Father,” allowing his disciples to listen in on his prayer for them—a way of praying we can still trust Jesus is praying for us as our great Mediator.
Jesus’s prayer points us to the fact that all that has transpired and all that will transpire is going to be used for the glorification of the Son as well as the Father. The mutual glorifying between the Father and Son rests squarely on who benefits: God’s people. We are the ones who have received greatly, from eternal life to the leadership of the Son, to the gift of Holy Spirit who is forever with us. Through all of this, we have been made to know the “only true God” and ought to be able to discern this true God from all of the counterfeits (even the ones we ourselves have made).
But Jesus Christ is also praying for himself here. Part of his glorification is returning to a way of being in unity with the Trinity that he had before he became Incarnate. In verse 5 he prays: “So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” Though everywhere is home to King Jesus, it’s important for us to remember that he emptied himself (Phil 2) and took on at least some of the limits of humanity. When he ascends to heaven, some of those limits are transformed; this too is part of his glorification process. Jesus’s desire, as part of this glory, is that his beloveds on earth are protected so that they might know the sort of unity that exists within the Godhead. In other words, Jesus Christ sees our unity as part of God’s unity, our unity as part of his glory. In the best possible sense of the term, Jesus’s “blaze of glory” on earth is our witness to unity. Our unity is his legacy, our unity is his prayer for himself.
When I get discouraged about our unifying witness, this is what I think about. Remembering that it is Jesus who is praying for our unity and our protection for the purpose of unity is immensely encouraging, both in how I feel and in how I pray about this.
First of all, Jesus Christ is the one who prays it. He is the most trustworthy, faithful witness to the will of God ever to walk this earth. He prays for the right stuff in the right kind of way. And here, he’s praying for unity among us and for our protection. His example here is just as much a teaching of how to pray as the Lord’s Prayer is (in fact, Dale Bruner connects the John 17 prayer to the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer). And we see that Jesus does pray for himself, but in the way of a humble servant who wishes to be a blessing. Jesus’s prayer for glory is wrapped in the well-being of others and his concern for reputation is only measured by the fruit of the living within the authority and call that God has given him among the people given to him.
Secondly, and because of everything in the first point, Jesus’s prayer is not empty of power. Jesus is voicing his commitment to the task of unity, protection, and glory. And he lets us hear him commit to it! This is the most encouraging part for me. I look around (and within) and am discouraged by the lack of unity among us, and then I remember that God’s not done yet. Each person of the Trinity wants to see us be unified and they are actively working to bring this prayer to bear.
And so, the question becomes, are we? We know that ultimately we will know and be the answer to Jesus’s prayer when he returns and ushers in the new heaven and earth. But what might happen if we joined Jesus and the Spirit in praying for the right kind of protection that leads to true unity of God’s body here on earth? What if we learned from the way of Christ that unity comes from protecting the vulnerable, seeking the glory of God through humble servitude and sacrifice, through knowing the true God and turning away from the idols of our time that lead to our divisions? What if we kept God’s word?
The first thing that Jesus prays is that “the hour has come.” Twice before this in the Gospel of John, we’ve been told that the time/hour had not come. The first involves the ‘works’ (miracles) ministry of Jesus’s time on earth (chp 2), the second involves his teaching ministry (chp 7). Here, the two meet: Jesus’s prayer is a teaching and works (blessing) ministry, and the events of the next three days—the crucifixion and resurrection encapsulate the glory of the second person of the Trinity. The appointed time for Christ’s greatest gift to humanity is here.
A friend of mine once shared his memories of prayer at his childhood family dinner table—but not for the encouraging reason we might hope! He remembers listening to his parents pray aloud, he and his siblings listening along as they were prayed for… to get better grades, to pay more attention in class, to honour their parents better by trying harder at their music practice… you get the idea. Prayers were a place to ‘encourage’ being better, as defined by the adult at the top. Jesus’s call to unity is an encouraging prayer for us, and we do need to do better, but this admonishment-disguised-as-prayer isn’t the way that Jesus is praying for his disciples. We can be ever grateful for that.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 21, 2023
John 17:1-11 Commentary