The High Priestly Prayer of John 17 is replete with insights for the Church. Jesus reflects upon his witness, prepares himself for the Cross and intercedes for his present and future followers. Several great themes emerge from our Lord’s intercession. He prays that his followers will be kept safe through God’s name. Christ intercedes five times that believers would be one, fully united. He prays for protection from the evil one they will face as they live in the world – “the satan” that aims for their destruction (N.T. Wright). Jesus calls out to the Father that his friends would be sanctified through the Word of truth. Christ also commissions believers – they are sent just as the Father sent the Son. At the very end, we are offered a glimpse of the eternal, immanent Trinity as Jesus prays that his present and future followers know the love he and the Father have shared forever.
Unpacking the theology, spirituality, missional aims and devotional insights of this one chapter would be a lifetime’s work. The Missio Dei and the absolute divine attributes of holiness, unity and love offer untold riches for our contemplation and service. The oneness/unity of the people of God arises five times (verses 11, 21[2x], 22, 23). In once case, knowing that this prayer would be challenging, Jesus asks that his followers would be brought into “complete” or “perfect” unity in order that a watching world may believe the message of love and truth they are proclaiming.
Jesus prayed for unity. We can choose to be an answer to our Lord’s intercession. This month my colleagues are sharing on the importance of unity. St. Paul pleads with all his communities for oneness of heart as they carry our God’s work in the world (I Co. 12-14; Phil. 2:1-4; Eph. 4:1-6.) In the following paragraphs, I offer some insights about what Jesus was NOT praying for. In other words, we may need to unlearn a few ideas on unity before we can enjoy the fruits of our Lord’s conversation with the Father.
Jesus was not praying for religious conformity. It is vital to note the absence of Judaizing language. This is not because St. John or any of the Evangelists are anti-Jewish. Consistent with John’s portrait of Jesus and St. Paul’s insights on the unity and liberty of the new cruciform-and–risen community (Eph. 2:12-21; Col. 2:11ff), Jesus prays for divine life in his disciples, not the (optional) details of tradition. There is room in a united Body for diverse opinions of liturgies, mission strategies and household precepts reflecting unique circumstances.
Jesus was not praying for the dissolution of culture. Galatians 3:28-4:6 removes barriers to fellowship and friendship, ministry and mission. Christ transforms cultures, creates new identities and welcomes all the nations (the ethne). The manifold wisdom of God on display in the church includes diversity transformed by grace (Eph. 3:10). Jewish converts are not required to cease being Jewish and Gentile disciples are not compelled toward circumcision, kosher food and certain particulars of Sabbath-keeping. Other cultural issues, gender roles and the continuation of traditions must be brought to the Cross and transformed in the light of the Gospel.
Jesus was not praying that we would always be “nice.” Unity is not the absence of emotions, opinions and passions. Unity is fostered by agape love that allows for “iron sharpening iron” and loving correction. This said, there are too many folks claiming a “prophetic mantle” that think speaking the truth in love means nastiness and rudeness. Gentleness, humility, kindness and patience are always in order. “Nice” must not mean unconscionable acquiescence or compromise of biblical principle.
Jesus was not praying for a fusion of religious and political power. Disciples are holy, united and loving witnesses of the Cross and Triune God. While God may call some to places of political service, the Theodosian (381 AD) fusion of church and state and the ensuing subversions of the next millennium were not part of our Lord’s intercession. For 21st century believers, it is imperative that we not be cowed by secularists seeking our silence or by religious ideologues unwilling to live with liberty of conscience and proximate justice. The Religious Left and Right in the USA often speak around each other instead of to God with each other.
Finally, Jesus was not praying for an ecclesia dominated by command-control organizational and power structures. Divinely appointed and community affirmed leaders are important for the church. However, humility and sacrificial love are the hallmarks of biblical leadership (Mk. 10:45; Phil. 2:1-11). Paul and his companions embodied Jesus’ prayer and pattern of service in Thessalonica as they labored day and night and modeled love for this fledgling church (I Th. 1-2).
In a classic Peanuts cartoon strip, Charlie Brown was lamenting that his friend Linus would have to go to school twice as long as everyone else. When asked why, he replied, “To unlearn everything Lucy in teaching him.” As we grow in grace and truth, we are invited continually to “put off” the old and “put on” the new. This must include even the unconscious beliefs and practices we have inherited.
Jesus’ prayer will be answered through women and men exchanging suspicion for openness, legalism for loving holiness and immature concepts of unity for the richness of family life united in faith, hope and love.