Sunday’s lectionary Gospel (John 17:20-26) is a chunk of Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” after dinner on Maundy Thursday. It is a remarkable passage when taken as a whole — one of my favorites really.
And the lectionary does give us the whole thing. You just have to be patient. Every year, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, you’ll hear a third of it.
Throughout the “Farewell Discourse” (John 13-17), and here in this prayer, Jesus rolls through a set of themes. One of them is the Persons and relations of the Trinity. That gets hinted at here, but without reference to the Holy Spirit.
The themes that have always struck me in the larger section are the three relations that define the Christian life. Jesus sort of rings the changes on them, bouncing from one to the next and back again.
- He talks about his disciples having an intimate and growing relationship with God.
- He talks about his disciples having an intimate and growing relationship with each other, as loving community.
- And he talks about his disciples having a vitally important relationship with the world around them — with all the “non-disciples,” you might say, or perhaps the “at least not yet disciples.”
If you want a study and meditation project, comb these chapters to build a complete picture of what Jesus teaches about each of those three relations. You’ll be glad you did.
Now if you listen to the stories of Christians around you, it can be pretty hard to see these relationships working as a linear process.
You can start with any one of the three relations and, if it’s working right, you end up with the others as part of the package.
- I mean, one person falls in love with Christian community, and is led to faith in God—then eventually they come to serve God in the world.
- Another has a direct encounter with God and is led, step by step, toward community—and they are eventually transformed and able to serve in the world.
- A third starts with active caring for the world and is led back to community, or to God.
What looks like the cause in one place sounds like the effect in another. But that’s reality in the life of faith. It isn’t tidy or strictly logical.
I guess it’s like a dance. You can start by learning just one of the steps, but each one leads to the other until you have your whole self in, and you’re shankin’ it all around.
Think of the Hokey-Pokey. That’s what it’s all about.
A Non-Linear Process
In this small section of this big prayer the themes almost do sound like a process.
- He prays the disciples will come to be a particular quality or kind of community.
- He prays for his community to have a particular effect on the world around them.
- He prays for his disciples and the world to come to a particular kind of faith.
I’ll start with what seems like the end. Jesus prays that certain things will happen “so that” certain other things happen. Let’s look at those consequences.
In this passage the main “so that” is about the disciples having an effect on the world of non-disciples.
He prays for them to have unity with God
…so that the world may believe” (John 17:21 NRSV)
And this is going to happen for outsiders, the real subject of his prayer being
…those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20 NRSV)
And he prays a second time for their unity, this time with each other,
…so that the world may know” (John 17:23 NRSV)
It gives a sense of how important Jesus’ mission to the world is in everything. Believing and having unity are all for the sake of reaching out to God’s world.
Think of it as a reminder of how all of Scripture is about God’s purposes in the world, God’s mission. We need to see that so that we can live the life God intended, joining that mission.
If the mission is for the world to believe, it should lead us to ask what Jesus hopes the world will believe. We need a definition of the faith Jesus is looking for.
First it is a simple assertion:
…so that the world may believe
that you have sent me.” (John 17:20 NRSV)
Then Jesus expands it a bit:
…so that the world may know
that you have sent me
and have loved them
even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23 NRSV)
When he restates things later in the prayer, defining the faith that the disciples already have, he goes back to the basic version:
…the world does not know you, but I know you;
and these know that you have sent me.” (John 17:25 NRSV)
It seems a simple, even an inadequate kind of faith. Can it really be enough to believe that Jesus was sent by God?
Personally I take it as a description of entry level faith — not the end of the journey, but the necessary beginning point.
It is echoed in 1 John 4:9-14, where the Father having sent the Son is the expression of love that transforms believers and the community, and in 2 John 7, where denying that Jesus has come in the flesh is a marker of false teaching. Not to mention John 3:16, which you probably know by heart.
I suppose it works like this: Coming into right relationship with Jesus requires a true assessment of who he is and what he is about.
First we encounter someone’s testimony about him. Moving to real faith is coming to believe that this Jesus is not just some really nice guy.
We need to trust that he is the One who is directly sent to us by God the Father to solve our deepest personal and systemic problems. The sending of the Son then comes to imply the love of God for us, as in verse 23.
And if it still seems like too small a definition of saving and transforming faith, take note: He says “believe” once, but twice he says we will “know.”
Faith, of a substantial and life-changing kind is not just an opinion. It is a kind of knowledge.
John Calvin would approve:
Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it
a firm and certain knowledge
of God’s benevolence toward us,
founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ,
both revealed to our minds
and sealed upon our hearts
through the Holy Spirit.” (Institutes, 3.2.7)
This idea that faith is knowing, really knowing something about who Jesus is and why he came — and beyond that knowing him personally — well that’s a radical shift of perspective for many a Christian.
So how does Jesus pray that we and the world will get this knowledge?
You can put a fancier word on it, something like “unity” or “oneness,” but I suspect that pushes the reality further way, into the realm of theory.
Jesus wants us to be really, really, close. He prays for his assembled disciples and all who will come to believe,
…that they may all be one.
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you,
may they also be in us,…” (John 17:21 NRSV)
Note that the closeness, the unity, the oneness he describes first is really about that first relation of the Christian life. He wants us to be one, not just with each other, but with the Trinity. Just as the Father and the Son indwell each other, we are to indwell God.
That’s something big to live into. You don’t just follow a few daily steps and find yourself indwelling the Godhead.
But whether it comes first, follows after, or is simply a parallel process, we are to be close, united, one, with each other:
…so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may become completely one,…” (John 17:22-23 NRSV)
So it works two ways:
Christian unity is to be like the unity of the Trinity: “…as we are one…”
Christian unity is dependent on union with the Trinity: “…I in them…that they may become completely one…”
All of which I find both exciting and sobering.
It is thrilling, amazing, to think we are invited into that kind of unity with God, and that God has a vision of the Church embracing that kind of unity.
It is sobering because it is so far from the current reality.
My experience of unity within local churches feels fragmentary, fractured. The experience is less like being in the Trinity, and more like hoping someone will say “Hello!” If someone actually remembers my name it’s a good day.
The global Church’s experience of unity is not much better. Attempts to reunite East and West, or Protestant and Catholic, or the disparate branches of Protestantism, or even the divided strands of the Reformed Tradition struggle and fail.
I think the thing to note is that Jesus’ vision of unity is not something we merely claim, or strive for, or force through our structures. Unity among Christians is interdependent with, or maybe dependent upon, the unity of Christians with the Triune God.
So I’ll start where I am, and do what I can. I’ll draw as close to God as I can through prayer, and keep show up at church, trying to live into Christ’s vision.
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