“Jesus Prays That We Be One” (John 17:20-26)
“Pray for me.” That’s a common request among Christians. Or you might ask to have a prayer offered on behalf of a friend who is ill or who is having a difficult time.
The invitation to prayer is one of the greatest gifts God has given to his Church. To bring your requests, your concerns, your needs, your fears, your confessions to Almighty God, your heavenly Father … and to know that he promises to hear you and answer according to his will … is an astounding privilege. And yet, too often, you and I take this privilege for granted. We neglect to take time to pray. It’s far down on our list of priorities.
For Jesus, prayer was always a priority. He often took time away from the press of the crowds to speak to his Father (Mt. 14:23; Mk. 6:46; Lk. 5:16; 6:12; 9:28). He taught his disciples how to pray when he taught them what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” And in John 17, the evangelist records for us what is known as “The High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus. This is in the upper room at the Last Supper. It is the night before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. He knows what is ahead. He knows what agony awaits him. And what does he do? He shows concern for his followers. He prays for them. Jesus is still with his disciples. But already he anticipates his resurrection and ascension into heaven (which we remembered on Thursday). He prays, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (Jn. 17:11). And if there’s anyone whose prayer is going to be heard and answered, you can be sure it’s the Son of the Father!
What’s more, in this High Priestly Prayer Jesus also prays for you! His prayer anticipates the gifts of God to his Church, specifically to all those who would believe in Christ through the apostle’s testimony. The second half of the prayer begins in this way: “I do not ask for these only” … meaning his chosen apostles who were with him in the upper room … “but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me.” Did you ever stop to think how amazing this is? On the night Jesus was betrayed, the night he instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, the night before Jesus went to the cross to shed his blood for your sins … he prayed for you! You were on his mind. That’s how much he loves you.
What did Jesus pray for? He prayed for our oneness with God and our oneness with each other, and that the goal of this oneness would be manifested in the world: that the world may believe that Jesus was sent from the Father (v. 21), and that the world may know that God loves them in Christ (v. 23).
Jesus enjoys oneness with the Father in his essence as God. The members of the Holy Trinity all share in a common divine nature. Brought into God’s kingdom by baptism and by faith in the Word of God, we are made to be one with the Triune God. The Holy Spirit is given to us and binds us together in the intimate fellowship that the members of the Trinity share with each other.
And in this divine life, Jesus shares his glory with us. “The glory that you have given me I have given to them,” Jesus prayed.
Jesus shared his glory with the world in his incarnation. He is God made flesh for the salvation of the world. At the very beginning of his Gospel, St. John writes, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). In the womb of the Virgin, God’s glory was manifested. In the manger bed, God’s glory was manifested. In his miraculous signs, God’s glory was manifested. At the cross, God’s glory was manifested, although hidden under our Lord’s humiliation. But it was glory nonetheless, because that is where God’s love was supremely manifested. By nature, we are not one with God. We are separated from him, from his life and from his love. We are under his wrath. But Jesus came to unite us with the Father. He brings us back into fellowship with God. Our sins are forgiven because the flesh of God made Man was pierced for us.
Jesus also shares with us the glory of his resurrection and ascension. In his prayer, Jesus prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” Once again, Jesus is already looking ahead to what is to come. He is so sure and certain of his destiny that he prays as if his resurrection and ascension have already occurred. And because you and I are one with Jesus in Holy Baptism, we will one day see and share in his glory. In his Ascension, Jesus removed his visible presence from us and is now seated at the right hand of God, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph. 1:21). Jesus removed his visible presence from us, but this does not mean he is far removed from us. Enthroned and exalted as our everlasting King, Jesus fills all things, especially his Church, “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). Jesus also promised that he will return visibly on the Last Day. In John 14, Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (Jn. 14:3). “Surely I am coming soon,” he says in the Revelation to St. John. And the faithful reply of the Church is, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
Jesus prays for our oneness with God. He also prays for our oneness with each other. Twice he makes this request: “That they may be one even as we are one … that they may become perfectly one.”
We live in a disconnected world. Everywhere we see signs of disunity and separation. We see it in our communities. We see it in our families. We even see it in the church. Congregations are divided internally. Denominations are divided externally. We must repent of the ways in which we have brought this upon ourselves and contributed to this division.
In spite of this, we do have a real, spiritual oneness with each other. Jesus prayed for it. It’s a gift. And this oneness even reaches across denominational lines. All Christians are united to one another by faith in Christ. This does not mean, however, that we should ignore our differences. This is all the more reason why should seek to achieve unity on the basis of a common confession of God’s Word. A good example to follow is the way the early church handled their problems. Look at today’s reading from Acts 1. There it says the followers of Jesus were “with one accord devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). They had the same mind and spirit. They prayerfully made decisions, working through their challenges. Here it was who should replace Judas in the apostolic “roster.” Later the church would deal with other problems … personal, pragmatic, and doctrinal. And this has continued down to our present day. But rather than teaching us to “go along to get along,” St. Paul taught the Corinthian congregation that they should all “agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10).
How do we do this today? We seek unity on the basis of a common confession of what God’s Word teaches. But we should do this lovingly, charitably, not mocking those who hold to a different confession, but loving them as fellow believers in Christ. And we should also be ready to repent if we find that we have mistakenly been holding to something that God’s Word does not teach.
In his prayer, Jesus gives the goal of this oneness for which he prays: That the world may believe that Jesus was sent from the Father (v. 21), and that the world may know that God loves them in Christ (v. 23). Jesus unites his church spiritually so that we can all play a part in proclaiming to the world that Jesus is the Savior of the world, and that in Christ people are dearly loved by God. The world that is opposed to Christ will always mock and discredit the Church because of the divisions that they see. But we can rejoice whenever the Gospel is proclaimed … by whomever it is proclaimed. God’s Word is so powerful that it will go forth and achieve the purpose for which he sends it (Is. 55:11).
Take comfort in the fact that your Lord Jesus prayed for you. Take comfort that your Lord Jesus, risen and ascended for you, fills all things and rules and reigns for the good of his Church … for you, his baptized child. In a world full of disharmony and disunity, take comfort that Jesus makes you to be one with him and with the Father and with the Spirit. Give thanks that the love with which the Father loved Jesus is in you. Give thanks that Jesus himself, your risen and ascended Savior, still dwells in you today to forgive you, to strengthen you, and to give you his peace until the day when he visibly returns. Then finally, all our sinful divisions will be done away with, and we will be one with him for all eternity.