by Bill Long
Gospel: John 17:20-26
Here is the Gospel text in the NRSV:
" ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ "
I. Introduction--The Context of Jesus' Prayer
John 17 is this Gospel author's version of the "Lord's Prayer." Rather than teaching us how to pray, which is the way that Matthew and Luke frame their Lord's Prayer, Jesus here shows us what is on his heart as he is preparing to depart from the world.
John 17 appears in the larger context of John 13-17. These five chapters are Jesus' departure discourse to the disciples. He is occasionally interrupted by their questions, but for the most part he comforts them, instructs them on the coming of the Spirit, urges them to be strong in the midst of coming persecution and then, in ch. 17, urges them to practice the unity of faith that is already theirs. John 13-14 has the tone of a "conversation" with the disciples, where they try, unsuccesfully usually, to pick up on what Jesus is trying to say by asking him questions that really are slightly off the mark. He patiently explains to Judas, or Thomas, or Philip or Peter the nature of his ministry and how he will be returning to the Father. John 15-16 has more of the tone of a "monologue" as Jesus begins to launch into areas closest to his heart--the connection of the disciples to Jesus ("I am the vine; you are the branches"), the coming of the Spirit, and the persecution the disciples will face in the future.
Transition to John's version of the "Lord's Prayer" occurs through a comment in 16:30. The disciples say: "Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; but this we believe that you came from God." Their confession of belief that Jesus "came from God" functions similarly to the "Greeks'" desire to see Jesus in 12:21. Their desire to seek Jesus leads to Jesus saying, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified" (12:23). So here. When the disciples say they know that Jesus has come from God, Jesus quickly tells them about the coming persecution (16:31-33) and then launches into his prayer for them and for the world in ch. 17.
II. The Character of Jesus' "High-Priestly" Prayer in John 17
The "flow" of John 17 is one of every growing or more inclusive circles. There are three "circles" which John 17 presents.
A. 17:1-5 stresses the relationship between Jesus and the Father, with emphasis on the concept of "glory"--John's beautiful all-inclusive word for the pre-existence, earthly life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Jesus asks for God to "glorify" him now with the "glory" he had before the world existed.
B. 17:6-19 prays for the disciples. We can see how important that little point from 16:30 is (the disciples believe Jesus came from God), because Jesus will mention it as the basis of his prayer:
"for the words that you gave me I have given to them, and they have received them and known in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me" (v. 8).
Jesus is "free to die" once the disciples understand the nature of Jesus' origin. For if Jesus came from God, and the disciples are the branches that cling to the "vine" which is Jesus, then the disciples' ministry in the world connects directly to the heart of God. Jesus' prayer for the disciples is passionate and direct. He prays primarily for two things: that they may be "one" (v. 11) and that they may be protected from the evil one (v. 15). This themes are united in one verse, so it might be good to pause on it for a moment.
"And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one" (v. 11).
Jesus realizes the dangers that are attendant upon discipleship. Certainly that was true in the time John was writing, and would be the case for the next three hundred years in the Roman Empire. But after Christianity became the religion of the Empire, and when there became that synthesis of government and faith in the High Middle Ages, the expectation was that one was a Christian. This notion continued until well into the 20th century, though now we are seeing in the West (Europe and America) that outspoken commitment to Christ as Lord is probably a minority phenomenon. I think we will do everything in our power to make sure that the religious wars of the 17th century in the West, which continue today in some places in the Middle East and Africa, will not be characteristic of our future. Yet, Jesus' words are comforting nevertheless; danger may accompany an outspoken profession of faith in Christ.
C. But the theme of unity, mentioned briefly in v. 11, will be the focus of 17:20-26, our passage. This next more inclusive category of Jesus' prayer asks for those who "will believe in me through their (i.e., the disciples') word" (v. 20). The two themes that I will develop in the next essay from this text are the way that unity of disciples mirrors that of the Father and the Son and the vision of the glory of Christ available to those of us who didn't enjoy that first encounter with him 2000 years ago.
III. Asking for the World
Now we are truly ready to read the passage for today. Jesus will pray for those brought to faith through the ministry of the disciples only after he has re-connected with God and has prayed for the original disciples. The intended recipients of the prayer in v. 20 include not simply the first generation of those evangelized but also those of us that have come to faith through the word first spoken by them. The amazing scope of v. 20 reaches down to us and even to those who come to faith or who are nurtured in faith through us. Just as Jesus is linked to the Father, and the disciples are joined to Jesus, so he will say in this prayer that those who come to faith through the ministry of the disciples will be linked to the earlier sources of this chain of beings. If the Scripture says elsewhere that a threefold cord cannot quickly be broken (Ecc. 4:12), this passage illustrates that truth through the connection from God, through Christ, to the first disciples, and continuing on to us. Let's turn to the important themes of the passage: (1) unity and (2) glory.
A. Though Christ prayed for the unity of the disciples in v. 11, that prayer was brief and quickly turned to the other theme of that section--protection of the disciples. Here, however, the theme of unity is the fervent prayer of Jesus. It might be good to look at the structure of v. 21 and vv. 22-23, the two verses where unity is mentioned. The Greek of v. 21 reads, literally:
"that all might be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, that also these might be in us (other ancient sources say 'one in us') that the world might believe that you have sent me..."
Verses 22-23 are quite similar:
"so that they might be one just as we (i.e., Jesus and the Father) are one; I in them and su in me, that they may be perfectly formed into one, so that the world might know that you have sent me.
We should notice a few points from these verses. First, unity is something that is a present reality and not a future hope. That is, the tenses of the verb are always present. There are ample ways of saying things that are about to happen or will happen in the future in Greek, but John employs none of these. Thus, the unity for which Christ prays is something that the disciples and those who believe in Christ through their ministry already possess. When we try to unite in formal ecumenical understanding, or when we connect in informal ways across denominational lines, we are not "making this passage happen." Rather, we may be demonstrating, to a small degree, the truth which this passage proclaims is already ours.
A second thing about unity is the fruit or result of it. Unity is valuable for the sake of itself but in each instance quoted above it is important "so that the world might know that you have sent me." Since the disciples' realization that Jesus came from God triggered Jesus' prayer to be glorified (i.e., to "get on" with the drama of death/resurrection), so the world's realization that Jesus came from God is the result of the unity of the disciples. Unity may be important in and of itself (that will be my third point), but here the emphasis is on the world's realization that the Father sent Jesus. Once the world realizes this, then Jesus becomes the focus of study and discipleship for all. That is the basic question, then, isn't it. Did Jesus come from God or not? If we say "yes," then we look into the world of Jesus as portrayed by the Evangelists; if we say "no," we may study Jesus but we see him just as an interesting historical figure.
A third thing about unity is the nature of our present experience of it. Jesus prays not only that we "be" one, but that it be a unity that is just like that between Christ and the Father. Earlier Jesus had said, "The Father and I are one" (10:30), and so we understand how we should manifest unity with others by studying the way that Christ and the Father are united. This, then, gives us a completely different focus and eagerness in study of the Gospel of John. We not only study it to get comfort or insight about living, but to learn about the nature of the unity of Father and Son in its pages. For that is the kind of unity that disciples of all ages and times should manifest for each other.
But we can take things one step further. The interesting phrasing of v. 23 tells us even more about this unity. After the "customary" language of "I in them" and "you in me," there is the phrase, "so that they might be perfectly into one." The Greek participle is from the word teleo, a verb meaning to complete or to render perfect. Alone of the Gospels, the Gospel of John has Jesus say on the cross, "It is finished!" (completed, perfected--tetelestai--John 19:30). Thus, the unity of the disciples with each other is something that is "perfectly one"--as perfect and complete as was the giving of Christ for the life of the world.
Is this true today? Of course not. Is it getting closer to being true? I don't really know. But if we truly read and want the Scriptures to form us, to shape us, we will have to conform our thoughts and actions to its parameters. We are already one. We are to be perfectly one in him. There really isn't any equivocation or explanation beyond this.
Finishing with Glory
Jesus' final wish is that for the disciples to see his glory (v. 24). There is a little ambiguity in the passage. It appears in the broader context of Jesus' prayer for those who come to faith through the ministry of the disciples (i.e., even reaching to us), and so the thought could be that Jesus is praying for us to behold his glory. A more limited interpretation would see Jesus' prayer as only for the disciples--that they would see his glory. I think both have support in the text, but I will read it in the context of 17:20-26 to suggest that we, too, can behold the glory of Christ.
Jesus prays that those whom God has given him (i.e., all disciples, in my reading) will be "with me" and "see my glory." Many commentators think of this as a sort of post-death experience where we will be "with Christ." But I think the power of Jesus' prayer and John's conception of glory is that it is already available to those who have eyes to see. Recall that even in the first few verses of the Gospel John "tips his hand" on the subject of glory.
"And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (1:14).
Even though the word "glory" in this Gospel has a future dimension to it (Jesus prays for God to glorify his name; he says that he would be glorified shortly after the Greeks come and ask for him--12:23), "glory" is also something Christ shared with God from the foundation of the world. It is an enormously rich concept, a sort of timeless intimacy, comprising in its two syllables all the riches of historical life as well as heavenly existence. To behold Christ's glory means not simply to have seen him in the flesh or to be a witness to his death and resurrection, but to be "with him" or, in the language of John 15, to "abide in him." Christ prays for us in John 17 to "see" his glory, and we do so by realizing that our very lifeblood is drawn from Christ, that apart from him we are nothing, that the Spirit leads us into all truth, that Christ can and will do even greater works in us than the Father did in him. The power-packed concluding verse of the prayer, then, is that we, too, can join in the seeing and experiencing of this glory of Christ.
Words seemingly fail in trying to explain the concept, but I will close with a quotation from Paul who was wrestling with the same idea. When speaking of the "gospel of the glory of Christ" to the Corinthians, he breaks into this incomparable thought:
"For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (II Cor. 4:6).
That is the promise of the Gospel this morning. And that is its mystery. Long for the face of Christ, for the manifestation of his glory. I think it is a revolutionary thought.
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Homily on John XVII. 21–23
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Homily on John XVII. 24–26
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The True Lord's Prayer
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The Longest Prayer
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Devotional Thoughts for the Sunday before Pentecost
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Lord Jesus’ High-Priestly Prayer
by Very Rev. K. Mathai Cor-Episcopa
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for Sunday Before Pentecost
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