The Gospel text from John finds us seven Sundays into Eastertide and on the cusp of Pentecost. Yet Jesus’ prayer, which takes up the whole of Chapter 17, propels us back in time to the table where he shared supper with the disciples on the night of his arrest.
The text lives in three times: past, present, and future — stretching back to Jesus as the pre-existent Word that was in the beginning with God (John 1), to his human historical presence at supper when he washed the feet of his friends and shared bread and wine with them, to the future community of “those who will believe.” This of course includes us (the church today) and the future church. In this prayer, we see the arc of the love of God from creation through Christ’s incarnation and ministry through those he loves and calls to be the church, to be in him as he is in God, so that the world may believe.
As the season of Easter comes to its end, Jesus’ final word to his disciples then and now is a prayer for unity. I cannot imagine anything more needed today, in the church, the nation, and the world. Division faces us everywhere; it seems to deepen by the day. We seem hellbent on separating ourselves from the “other,” dwelling rabidly and proudly in our differences of tribe, race, political viewpoint, sexual identity, economic class, national identity or, perhaps most tragically, faith. Who is the “true” Christian? Who understands and follows Jesus “rightly”?
The unity for which Jesus prays could not be deeper or more intimate. He prays that we may be one even as he and God are 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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one as we are one” (vv. 21-22). In this prayer to his Father, Jesus brings us into the very heart of the Trinity. He prays that we may indwell with God Godself, even as Jesus so indwells.
An elder in a church I served once told me that he had difficulty saying the Apostles Creed each Sunday in worship because he did not understand what it meant to believe in the three-person God. While the Counselor or Holy Spirit is not directly mentioned in our text, it hovers throughout Jesus’ farewell words to the disciples in John. So I might explain to the elder that this intimate relationship, this deep unity, is who God is — a God of relationship. And that we are inextricably and lovingly bound into God through Jesus while we are also inextricably and lovingly bound to one another. In John, the oneness of the Father and Jesus is synonymous with love. Or in another way, I would say, the meaning of the Trinity is that we dwell innately in the heart of God where Jesus also dwells. In this same way, Jesus says, we dwell in each other.
This is a far deeper unity than agreeing with each other, liking each other, being attracted to one another, and sharing “tribe” with each other. At heart, such unity is mystery. And it is accomplished by God, not by our own effort. Our work is to receive it, and believe it. Then we can live out of its power.
Jesus’ farewell prayer for his disciples underscores the intimacy of prayer. It might offer the question: “What does it feel like to be prayed for?” During the pandemic, I have taught several online classes in spiritual direction and Bible study for my congregation in Philadelphia. Over the weeks of meeting together virtually, we have shared our journeys and come to know each other. At the end of each class, I invited class members to pray for each other by name. Tentatively at first, they began to feel able to pray aloud for one another. Several people told me this experience of being prayed for, and praying for another, by name was deeply meaningful. It bonded them together and to God in ways they had not previously experienced.
It is important when treating this text to recognize its gender language referring to God. The word “Father” occurs six times in the prayer in John 17. The intimacy conveyed by the Father-Son relationship between God and Jesus is central to our faith. Yet for some, the male language excludes rather than includes. Fourteenth-century anchoress Julian of Norwich can be helpful here. She understands that God is Mother too. She writes in Showings of the Trinity “Mothering God, you gave me birth. Mothering Christ, you took my form. Mothering Spirit, nurturing One.”
Another text in this week’s lectionary is Acts 16:16-34, which finds Paul and Silas in prison, having been beaten and put in chains by the Roman magistrates for casting out a spirit. Incarceration and issues of criminal justice are an important part of public discourse in America today. The preacher might challenge herself to reflect on how the text about unity and love in Jesus’ prayer in John speaks to the experience of imprisonment. I think of those who have been imprisoned and have humbly and sincerely prayed for their captors, as Paul and Silas prayed for their jailers. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Hitler’s Germany, Martin Luther King in a Birmingham jail, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. I think of my own dear friend from seminary, Abuna Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, who was imprisoned for six years under Haile Selassie and who prayed for his captors each day and taught them the Bible until his unexpected release. He would go on to earn his Ph.D. at Princeton Seminary, return to Addis Ababa, and become the patriarch of his church.
This is the unity – the love – for which Jesus prays for us. This is the unity for which Jesus intercedes for the entire world. And somehow, we must offer ourselves to this world, as he did, drawing all into the love of God.
The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and that we call The Lord’s Prayer is certainly the most well-known prayer in Scripture. We pray its words of petition to ask for bread, for forgiveness, for deliverance from evil. Yet perhaps Jesus’ farewell prayer in John’s Gospel is the prayer in which we are most deeply prayed for, and the prayer that unifies all humankind and that binds us – and the world – intimately to the God in whose heart we dwell.
Questions for reflection:
- Describe an occasion when you were prayed for by another person. What did it mean to you?
- Give an example of an experience of deep unity that you have shared with people who are of a different “tribe” than yours.
- How does this text in John illuminate or clarify or deepen the doctrine of the Trinity for you?
- How is this final prayer that Jesus prays in John’s gospel different from his final prayer of agony in Gethsemane in the other (synoptic) Gospels?
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