A few questions might get us started as we begin to look at Jesus’ prayer in John 17. What does it mean for us to be one as the Triune God is one? How does that affect how our denominational churches position themselves in the marketplace of religion? How does it change the way in which you might lead your congregation? How might your closest relationships (marriages, child/parent, closest friend) be different if we sought to be one as God is one? How would our world be different?
In many ways, the prayer we find on Jesus’ lips at the end of this lengthy discourse serves as a summary of Jesus' life and ministry. Chapter 16 ends on a high note of confidence as Jesus proclaims that he has conquered the world. Nothing has and nothing will stop Jesus from finishing his mission. The disciples have gone through an intense time of training, both by way of practical experiences and through verbal instruction. The only thing left to do is to pray. So, Jesus directs his gaze toward the Father and begins to speak with him, offering a progression of petitions.
Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17 is not disconnected from the whole of John’s gospel. In fact, in some ways, it seems like the gospel is moving toward this point. Here, Jesus makes the explicit statement concerning what God desires for his followers, and for the world, that they may experience relationships in the same ways as the Father, Son, and Spirit experience relationship. That is, as in a mutual giving and a mutual glorifying manner.
Behind this prayer is Jesus’ desire that his followers might be one with each other as Jesus and the Father are one. In short, it’s a prayer for unity, but it goes beyond the scope of what we might normally call “Christian unity.” This Christian unity usually denotes an absence of conflict as well as an adherence to the pastor’s or leadership team’s specific vision for the church.
One of the homiletical directions you might take is to explore what a true Trinitarian understanding of Christian unity might look like. What exactly does it mean for us and our churches to “be one, as we are one” (v. 11)? Some specifics about what that looks like are given for us as Jesus begins this prayer.
Jesus petitions that the Father might glorify the Son as the Son has glorified the Father. While it takes the form of a petition, Jesus is confident that this mutual glorifying is what has and what will happen.
How does this mutual glorification take place? Jesus glorifies the Father through his complete obedience to and fulfillment of the work that the Father has given him to do. The Father then responds and glorifies the Son through the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Because Jesus has been completely faithful to his mission, he knows that the Father will be completely faithful to him in return. That’s just how their relationship works.
Jesus’ making God known is not just through his self-sacrificial and self-emptying love, which leads to the cross, nor just through being the recipient of God’s death defeating power through the resurrection, but also always through Jesus’ reinstatement to his rightful place at the right hand of God the Father. Even though Jesus gives up everything to glorify the Father, he loses absolutely nothing.
The disciples, and by consequence you and I, are direct beneficiaries of Jesus’ and the Father’s mutual glorifying. The disciples have truly come to know God through the Son and by corollary have received eternal life (v. 3). What they receive because of this mutual glorifying is a solid Trinitarian snapshot of Jesus’ relationship with the Father. While the Spirit isn’t directly mentioned here, talk of it has permeated the gospel so thoroughly that we cannot dismiss it.
Verses 6-8 unpacks what Jesus believes the disciples have now come to understand. They now know that everything that Jesus has is from the Father. Second, the words that Jesus has said are from the Father. Jesus didn’t make them up, he did not receive them because he has achieved some extra special spiritual knowledge, he spoke them because he and the Father are one. Finally, they have an assurance that Jesus did, in fact, come directly from the Father.
As a clearer picture of the relationship that exists within the Trinity emerges, it becomes clear that God’s vision for his followers is this same kind of mutual relationality, in other words, real Trinitarian unity. At verse 6, we move into the second petition that Jesus makes. It’s a petition for protection for his followers. Because the Father has given them to Jesus, and Jesus has in turn given himself to them, Jesus now desires that they are protected in the same way as he has been protected during his mission.
The disciples have begun to engage in the same kind of mutual glorifying with the Father and the Son that has been taking place between the Father and the Son. All that the Father has given the Son, the Son has given to his disciples. They, in turn, have glorified his name. The disciples are now being sent into the world in the same way as Jesus was sent into the world. Unlike Jesus, however, they are not yet fully one with the Father the way that Jesus has been. It will be difficult for them, and there will be many temptations that might prove too much of a distraction for them as they seek to fulfill their mission; therefore, they need the Father's protection.
I think there are several ways we can flesh this mutually glorifying Trinitarian unity out for our congregations. First, we can point to the way in which the universal church has not been united with one another as the Son and Father have been united. If your church needs to be moved toward an increased ecumenical participation within your community, this would be the way to go.
Second, we could highlight either the struggles or successes our churches have had in truly living in mutual faithfulness. If your church has lots of divisive factions, this could be a fruitful avenue to explore. We are sharing what we have received from the Father and the Son in the same kind of way that they have shared with us. The church is not ours to grasp or exploit but ours to freely give away as it has been given to us.
Finally, we could take a more interpersonal approach. Perhaps there are many broken or nearly broken relationship within our congregations, spouses, parents and children, close friends, that need a fresh way to view their relationships. The argument could be made that our ability to move forward with the mission that we have received from Jesus can only be possible when we seek to engage in relationships with each other in the same way as the Father, Son, and Spirit engage in relationship.
The prose of John's Jesus can be difficult to deal with, but if we've been attentive to what John has been saying about Jesus from the beginning of his gospel, we will not miss that his main concern is to help us understand who Jesus is. Once we understand who Jesus is, we will be better able to understand how we are to be in relationship with God and with one other. This week's passage gives us the opportunity to explicitly make that connection. If we are called to Christ-likeness, then we are called to seek relationships that look like the one that Jesus enjoys with the Father and Spirit. Father, make us one with one another as you, the Son, and Spirit are one.