By Paul Koch –
Today’s reading from John 17 is a wonderful, surprising, and even haunting text. It is quite different from the bold doctrinal catechesis of St. Paul or passionate plea by Peter. It isn’t recounting a history or imparting divine wisdom through a parable. No, this unique text is one where you are invited to lean in a little closer and listen to our Lord as He prays to His Father. It is strange to be in such a situation, to eavesdrop on our Lord as He prays. What makes it even more uncomfortable is that He is praying about you.
The scene that we come upon in this text plays out on the night in which our Lord was betrayed. This is the very night that Judas turns Him over, the night when His tried before Caiaphas, and Peter denies Him. In fact, our Lord has already washed the disciples’ feet, demonstrating His love. He has taught them about the suffering and hardship that would come because of Him. He has promised them the pouring out of the Holy Spirit as a comforter and guide for what lies ahead. But now, right in the middle of all of that, He goes into the garden to pray. He prays to prepare himself for what is to come; He prays for you. He prays for your endurance, for your well-being, for your security in the blessings of God.
In His prayer, we hear Him say that the Father has given Him authority over all flesh in order to give eternal life to those whom God has given to Him. In fact, He declares that it is knowledge of God and faith in Christ that gives such a gift as life everlasting. In other words, what we are given to hear at the beginning of this prayer is that salvation lies completely in His hands. It is something He possesses and He alone gives. Christ’s work, His glory is to take your sins in His flesh. He is lifted up on that cross to die for transgressions that He did not commit, to pay the price demanded by the law, to set you free from condemnation. And what is gained by such work? Nothing short of entry into eternal life. And this flows to you through the gift of the Word, as we hear Him pray, “I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”
See, there you are in His prayer! Jesus is praying for you, for those who have received the Word and believed. But now the other shoe drops. When we realize that we are part of the prayers of our Lord, we rightly begin to wonder why. If you want to really freak someone out, walk up to them, and without any warning say, “Don’t worry, I’m praying for you.” And then leave. Perhaps they were having a really good day and then you say that. It catches them off-guard at first, but then they begin to question things in their life. They might begin to worry and ask themselves, “Do you know something I don’t? Is there something I should be worried about? Why are you praying for me?” It turns out, with this prayer of our Lord, the answer is yes. Yes, there is something to be worried about.
The problem that He addresses, the focus of His prayer comes at the end of our section today when Jesus prays, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” The issue is that of unity. The body of Christ, the church, will be plagued by divisions. Now of course, we know this. We’ve lived with these divisions our whole lives. The attacks on the unity happened early on in the church where wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing snuck in and began to confuse and destroy the sheep. And those attacks have never ceased. So our Lord prays for our unity, that we might be one.
Now, I don’t think it is terribly difficult to see the need and blessing that unity brings. When we are bound together in the Word of God there is a strength and resilience in our fellowship. Our unity bears witness to the world about our cause and enables us to endure the trials that we face. We know that we ought to be united. After all, that is what we hear our Lord pray for, and in fact we will often make intentional moves to be united.
But just as there is a danger that lurks within disunity, so there is a danger that is rooted in our own personal ideas of unity. When we set out to make unity by our own devises, it is almost always a sham. On the one hand, there is the desire to create unity by dismissing the particulars of our faith. This is the whole idea of agreeing to disagree. In other words, your confession about the Lord’s Supper or the role of works in our salvation may be different than mine, but who cares let’s all just get along and agree to disagree. On the other hand, there is the unity that is attempted in our own personal interpretation of things. That is a unity that bargained out like congress trying to pass a bill. You give here and I’ll give there and we will create a unity. But neither of these are real unity. They are lies that make us feel better without addressing the core issue. They give us the illusion that we can establish unity on our own, that it is something we create.
But true unity is something that we receive, it is a gift. It is found not in our ideas or efforts but in the Word and work of Christ, alone. Which is why he is praying for us, that we might remain in the unity that He establishes.
He says, “Holy Father, keep them in your name.” It is the name that establishes the unity of the church, the name is the thing that binds us together as His children. See, names mean things. To be named by another is to establish identity and lineage. People change their names when they get married, when a child is adopted they are often given a name that includes them in a new family. And so, when God places his name upon you it does something grand. It actually changes your identity, an identity that rests in His love, His sacrifice, His promises.
And so, as our Lord sends out His church, as He commissions them to do the work He has begun in this world, what is it that He says? He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.” Where His Word is taught and His name is given, there Christ himself resides. Where Christ is and only where Christ is, do we find unity.
Today we witnessed the giving of the name of God once again. We rejoiced as little James was washed in the waters of Holy Baptism and the name of God marked him as one of His own. That name given to him is the same name given to you, and with that name comes all the blessings of the kingdom. By that name, we are gathered unto our Lord. By that name, we are gathered into the household of faith: to pray to the same Father, to receive the same gifts, to declare that we are brothers and sisters. As brothers and sisters nourished by His Word we are strong and bold and resilient – for we are one.