John 17:20-26

This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on May 8, 2016.

James Tissot
James Tissot

All four canonical Gospels report that Jesus, after the supper and before his arrest, prayed. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the reported prayer is in Gethsemane and poured out in anguish for himself, for his being spared the cup of suffering, yet for the will of God to be done. In John’s Gospel, the reported prayer is in a room with his disciples and is substantially for them, as well as for future believers. The prayer has been understood by the church to be of enormous significance. It has often been called his “High-Priestly Prayer,” because it is offered on the verge of his final sacrifice, making supplication for his people in an intimate sanctity that could rightly be called “the Holy of Holies.”

One measure of its importance to the church is the fact that every year, parts of it are assigned to the final Sunday of the Easter season. The Revised Common Lectionary apportions John 17 as follows: Year A, 17:1-11; Year B, 17:6-19; Year C, 17:20-26. These divisions roughly correspond to the three natural divisions of the prayer: Jesus prays for himself (17:1-5), for his disciples (17:6-19), and for future believers (17:20-26).

Our text is the last of these, and is first and foremost a prayer for unity. Jesus prays for the next generation of believers and, by extension, for all future believers, “that they may all be one,” (17:21) and again, “that they may be one,” (17:22) and yet again, “that they may become completely one.” (17:23) He has already prayed this for his present disciples: “Holy Father, protect them in your name… that they may be one.” (17:11)

This prayer is both profoundly moving and deeply troubling. We are moved by the thought that on the precipice of his dying, his final prayer is for our oneness with each other, with him, with God. Yet we hear the words uneasily, knowing as we do how deep and how hostile are the divisions among Christians today. Apparently it has always been so, and, in fact, 1 and 2 John reveal that the Johannine community of Christians fell very soon into acrimonious and irreparable divisions. Portions of this final prayer of Jesus seem to have gone unanswered.

It is all the more important, then, to understand the nature, the source, and the goal of the unity for which he prays. We may notice first that our unity does not have its ground in some natural attraction to each other based on mutually congenial personalities, politics, preferences, styles, or even theologies. The gospel takes human differences into account—even celebrates them and puts them to indispensable, creative use. To be one with each other does not even depend on our always liking each other. What it does depend on, according to Jesus’ prayer, is this: “As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, so may they also be in us.” (17:21) Our unity is grounded in the divine unity. Our oneness is our consent to be joined within the Oneness of God.

The longing of Christ is that we who live in so many forms of separateness should turn and step into the Light, the one Light, in which we are all unconditionally, everlastingly, and beautifully held, and that we recognize each other in it, and in new ways move toward each other in it. We are one because the one love of God surrounds, permeates, and connects us. The secret of our oneness is not that we are alike, but that we are loved alike. As each of us consents to be gathered to that love and abide in it, we are inevitably gathered to each other.

If this sounds like an abstraction, it is not. Ongoing choices are required: to serve each other, listen to each other, pray for and with each other, give ourselves to each other, bear witness with each other, and above all, seek union with Christ alongside each other. This final element is the central one. Our focus is not on straining to make it work with each other, but on the love of God as known to us in Christ, which embraces all of us together. From this, all else will flow, and the Spirit will show us how.

Yet the unity of the family of Jesus has a reach far beyond itself. In asking the Father to make us one, Jesus adds, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (17:21) These words are of a piece with what he told his disciples when giving them the “new commandment” near the beginning of his final instruction to them: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciple, if you love one another.” (13:35) The unity of the church is essential to its outreaching mission; our oneness is our witness. If humankind, in ceaseless disharmony with itself, observes a people of manifest differences and great diversities living in joyous common cause and unwavering, grateful commitment to each other, and if these united people say that the love of Christ has done it and lives in their oneness, then conclusions may be reached about Jesus, and perhaps about the Oneness of love that is God.

It is said in the book of Hebrews (7:24-25) that Jesus, our High Priest forever, makes continual intercession for us before God. If so, the divine yearning for our oneness still rings through the universe and beyond. Into such a prayer we can live our life together and lift up hopeful, glad reply: “You are One—we are one!”


Paul Simpson DukeDr. Paul Simpson Duke

First Baptist Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan



Tags: church, high priest, oneness, unity

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