The 17th chapter of John’s Gospel has been given the unofficial title of the High Priestly Prayer. The whole chapter contains the words of an intimate prayer between the Son of God and our Heavenly Father. A prayer that happens on the night in which he was betrayed, the very night he knows that his disciples will all abandon him, they will be scattered and afraid as he begins the horrible trials of suffering and betrayal that culminate in his crucifixion on that fateful Friday afternoon. So, he lifts his eyes towards the heavens and begins to pray. But this prayer isn’t about his own suffering and death, it isn’t about his trials but about the ones that face his disciples. It is called the High Priestly Prayer because Jesus is interceding like a true high priest. He is praying on behalf of his disciples. He is imploring God for their care, for their endurance through the days that are coming.
Now, one of the great words we are given in this prayer, one of the themes that tends to jump out at us, is the desire that we are one. Our Lord prays that his own disciples, the elect church of God, stand united. Jesus says, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:11) To stand together, to be one, this is a constant desire of the people of God. Think about it, we speak about the gathering of Christians differently than anything else. Though we may be members of a certain congregation or even church body or denomination, we prefer to speak with the language of family. We call each other brothers and sisters; we expect there to be a certain level of familial love in the household of God’s children. It is part of what we miss when we can’t gather together.
Now, throughout the years the reality of this unity has been regularly challenged. The church has been marred time and again by division and schism. In fact, our attempts at unity often fail. And it’s not even over huge matters of doctrine. When I lived down in Georgia one of our regular jokes was there all you needed for a new church was a disagreement over what sort of carpet you were going to put in the sanctuary and that would cause a split. Those who wanted the blue carpet would simply head across the street and start a new church, call it the Tabernacle of the Faithful Redeemed or something like that, but you can bet they would have blue carpet. And even more than that they would despise those folks who dared to put green carpet in their church. Unity may very well be the desire of the church, but we don’t do a very good job of making or sustaining that unity.
But if we pay attention to our Lord’s prayer this day, if we listen in on what he says to his Father we learn that we can never be the ones who establish the unity in the first place. Unity in the church is not something that you and I create. We cannot heal the divisions by simply wanting to, or by deciding to ignore them saying, “Let’s just agree to disagree.” Unity is established in one place and one place alone, the Word of God. Jesus says to his Father, “I have given them the words that you gave me…” (John 17:8) The Son of God is the living Word of God and he speaks that word into the ears of his disciples. This Word is the thing that binds them together, this Word creates and sustains their faith and it is the Word alone that must establish the unity of the children of God. And so, our gathering together, our fellowship is created by the Word. The practice of the church, the reason for our meeting together, the care we show for one another must flow from the Word. Anything else is doomed to failure or will simply be reduced to some quaint nicety that does good deeds like the Rotary Club.
In fact, Jesus says that God’s people are those that he has gathered out of the world. They are in the world of course; you are part of the world. But you have been called and chosen by the Word of God to live now in a promise that is bigger than this world. And since you have been separated then from this world there is a need to circle the wagons around each other. We need that unity, not simply because it looks good or feels good, the unity is our security, it is how we endure. Remember in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus is telling his disciples to not be anxious about tomorrow. He says to them, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) All the things that they are worried about, the needs of this life, food and clothing and their future, it is found by seeking the kingdom of God.
Now how does God’s kingdom manage to provide these things for people? It does so by providing them with other people, providing them with brothers and sister, providing them with a family. One of the great lessons that my wife and I really learned when we were in Georgia was how powerful a church could be when it acted like a family. See we lived in a small military town. Almost all of our members were from somewhere else. So, when there was a birth or a baptism or confirmation or even a wedding there wasn’t a lot of family support for these individuals. But there was the church. When there was a baptism it was a huge celebration often with some good barbeque, a keg of beer and horseshoes out back. The children of God encircled each other in their time of need to provide for them and see them through, to lift them up when they falter and give them courage when they are terrified of the unknown.
So, we hear Jesus praying for his disciples, we know our deep need for the church to be a family, but we often spend our days unsure if we as individuals are actually part of it. Perhaps you think that that other person is part of the church and you are sort of a curious observer of it. You sit on the sideline unsure if you want to commit to such a place. Or perhaps you have been wounded by this family before. There was a brother or sister in Christ who acted like anything but one who loves you. They betrayed a confidence or simply treated you with indifference and so you keep the family at arm’s length, not wanting to risk being hurt again.
But here’s the thing, this, this moment right now is how God works to gather his people, to create his family, to bind us together. He works through means, through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. He has been at work to bring you to this moment so that you might not wonder or wish if you belonged to his family but know that you are his own. In this prayer we see the work of the Father and the Son to bend all their efforts towards your salvation. The Father has called you by his Spirit, he has given you to his Son and his Son has not lost a single one of you. He has prayed for you and suffered for you and died for you and rose again from the grave for you. And then he gives you back to his Father clothed now in his righteous garments and presents you as his pure and holy children.
You then live as part of the family. Go ahead, throw yourself into it. You are not alone in this world, you are part of a unity that is rooted in the promises of Christ. We are a bold and dangerous group because we have one another. For a unity that is not established by our love but our Lords, a unity that is driven not by our promises but His, a unity that is strengthened not by our presence but Christ’s is a radical and shocking way of life to our dying world. And I have to tell you, I am thrilled to caught up in this family with you by my side. Let us live in this hope and this confidence as we care for one another and press on to the new day.