The passage cited in the Lectionary, John 17:1-11, is just the beginning of what’s often called Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer”; it goes on all the way through the end of the chapter. It can seem a little repetitive at times, and Jesus circles back on himself a few times to reiterate or strengthen certain points. I encourage you to read through it several times, maybe even diagram the sentences if you’re the kind of person who’s into that sort of thing.
Jesus starts with a request of the Father, that the Father might glorify Him even as He has glorified the Father. Unpacking that, Jesus says that the way he glorified the Father is by offering eternal life to those whom the Father gave Him. Unpacking that unpacking, Jesus defines “offering eternal life” as “making the Father known and making Himself known as the Christ”, and “all whom the Father gave Him” as “all flesh”, but especially those whom the Father had given Him out of the world. In other words, Jesus’ mission was to make eternal life available to all flesh by revealing the Father in His own person to His disciples.
As evidence that His mission was a success Jesus offers His disciples who have believed in Him, and believed that the Father had sent Him. Having accomplished His earthly mission, Jesus asks that the Father now reciprocate the glory He gave Him, by returning Him to the state of glory which He had before the cosmos was made. Jesus defines that glory in terms of the perfect love and unity which the Father and Son have lived in from eternity.
And here’s where the High Priestly bit comes in; Jesus next turns His attention to what will become of His disciples after He is no longer physically present with them. We’ve already learned earlier in the prayer that Jesus’ mission was to make eternal life through the knowledge of the Father available to all flesh through those whom the Father gave Him out of the world. That means, those whom the Father gave Him out of the world now need to turn around and make the Father known to all flesh, even as Jesus had made the Father known to them. In other words, they now need to be Jesus to the world.
For that very reason Jesus says; “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one… As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” (Jhn 17:15&18 NASB95) Jesus is preparing to return to the Father, not because the world no longer needs His physical presence, but because He has finished preparing His disciples to be His physical presence in the world; and He’s commissioned them to make disciples who will then continue on to do the same.
All the same, even though He believes they are ready to serve this function because they have believed Him, Jesus asks for one further grace for them so that they can do the job properly: John 17:20–23 (NASB95) 20“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; 23I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”
Here again, Jesus speaks of glory as the natural result of unity. The Father is glorified in the Son, because the Son makes the Father known by perfectly bearing His image into the world out of the unity which He has shared with the Father from the beginning. The Son is glorified by the Father as the Father vindicates the Son by raising Him from the dead, and returning Him to His right hand. The Father and the Son are glorified by the Church when the Church bears Christ’s image into the world, and in so doing bears the image of the Father into the world. That image is born of unity with one another and unity with God; so if we in unity bear God’s image into the world, we glorify Him, and in His glory we have glory.
Jesus knows that’s not going to be easy; even within the small group of 11 (the 12 minus Judas Iscariot), you have Matthew who collected taxes on behalf of the Roman oppressors, and you have Simon, not Peter, who is numbered among the new, and violently anti-Roman Zealot faction that was just beginning to form on the radical fringes of Galilean society. But Jesus has made clear already that He intends for them to cross far deeper schisms of culture and values than that. In the next generation, this Jewish movement will incorporate Greeks, Romans, Pheonecians, Scythians, Mesopotamians, Persians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Anatolians, and according to some traditions, even several cultures in the Indian subcontinent.
Jesus knew that if it took the literal incarnation of God to bring a small handful of Jews from opposing political factions together, it would take a massive outpouring of God’s restorative and creational power to overcome these much greater divides. So that’s exactly what He prays for; “that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved me.”
We continue to require an act of God to overcome the brokenness within us, and within our societies so that we might be perfected in unity. One need not look far for evidence that secular attempts at multiculturalism are fragile and prone to cultural backlash, nor to find evidence of a wayward church becoming complicit in that backlash. But the thing is, the world is in the process of becoming a cultural pressure cooker. The number of climate refugees (not to mention political and economic refugees) grows by staggering numbers year after year; and now more than ever the world is in desperate need of the perfect unity we are offered in Christ.
When the church fails to stand up against the evils that divide us, we’re failing at a huge chunk of what it’s supposed to mean to be the church. When we allow narratives of cultural or ethnic superiority in our midst, we are admitting heresy in place of the Gospel. When we spout rhetoric of us versus them, or even us before them, we’re putting down the cross and taking up a sword. If we are to glorify God, then we have to bear His image, and His image can only be born in perfect unity with and perfect love for one another; because that’s the image of the Trinity. One God; Father, Son, and Spirit, in perfect unity and love. His image is one church; many expressions, many languages, many cultures, all bearing the image together in perfect unity and love.