Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
I have a friend who is brilliant and unclear all at the same time. He has fantastic ideas and thoughts which, I’m certain, are very clear in his own head. But when he sits down and tries to explain them to me they come out all fuzzy. I always leave our conversations thinking to myself, “I know I just heard something profound, I’m just not exactly sure what it was.”
Maybe you’ve noticed that John was a lot like my friend. I will often read a passage in his Gospel and know I am reading something very important, and yet the way in which it was written can leave me scratching my head. The passage we’re about to read is a perfect example of this. There is profound brilliance which, on first reading, may sound a bit fuzzy. So pray with me that God’s Spirit will help us unlock the life-changing message of grace and truth I believe God has for us here.
20“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be 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. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26, NRSV)
Imagine historians recovered a long-lost letter from some great historical figure, somebody like Abraham Lincoln or William Shakespeare, somebody we respect and admire. Now imagine that the letter, amazingly, was actually written about you. Even though it was written hundreds of years before you were even born, the writer was making clear and direct references to you and to your community.
That is exactly what is happening here in this last part of Jesus’ prayer. Having just prayed for his disciples, Jesus now prays for “those who will believe in me through their word.” Remember, after Christ’s resurrection the disciples went out and shared the message of the Gospel with others who, in turn, shared it with others who, in turn, shared it with others right on down through history until somebody eventually shared it with us. You and I are the ones Jesus is praying for here; we are the ones who have believed in him through the word of the disciples which was passed down through the ages.
Just think about that for a moment. Long before you were even born, Christ himself was praying for you. And as scripture teaches us elsewhere, Christ continues to pray for us even now. Jesus has been praying for you and for me for a long, long time.
This fact becomes even more astounding when we consider that scripture teaches us that if somebody prays according to God’s will that person’s prayer will be answered. I John 5:14-15 promises, “If we ask anything according to God’s will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.” Do you know what this means? Jesus is God. That means that Jesus’ will is God’s will; they are one in the same. And that means that when Jesus prays to his Father for you he is praying according to God’s will and so God will give Jesus whatever he asks for. Now, doesn’t that make you want to know what Jesus is asking for when he prays for you?
It can be summarized in one phrase. In verse 21 Jesus prays, referring to us, “that they may all be one.” For 2000 years now, when Jesus prays for those in the world who have faith in him, for the church, for us, he prays for unity. Jesus’ great desire is that we would be one.
Now, in my mind, and maybe in yours as well, Jesus’ prayer for unity raises two questions. First, what does this mean? What sort of unity is Jesus talking about here? And second, why is this important? What does it matter that we are one? This morning I want to spend the rest of our time answering these two questions. Thankfully, the text itself, particularly in the remainder of verse 22, plainly gives us the answers.
To begin with, right after Jesus prays that we would be one, he clarifies his prayer by saying, “[That they would be one] as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” In other words, the unity Jesus desires for us to experience is the very same unity that he experiences with his Father. As God is one, so we are to be one.
We’re going to paddle out into some very deep waters here for a few moments, so I need you to hold on tight. Grab a neighbor or hold on to the pew! The resounding declaration of the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, is that God is one God but is revealed to us in the three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christians use the term Trinity to describe this mysterious truth which has classically been stated this way: God is one God who exists and is revealed to us in three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is a great mystery we will never fully understand, but one that is affirmed over and over in scripture, especially, as we have seen this past year, in the Gospel of John.
Now, one of the things the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us is that there is a deep unity in God. We do not worship three gods, a Father, a Son and a Spirit. Let’s be clear, God is one God, indivisible in his nature and in his work. And yet, somehow this one God exists in a community of three. This truth, as it is believed, has great implications for our lives.
For example, other major religions of the world like Judaism and Islam which also declare there is only one God do not declare this God exists in three persons. This means, among other things, that in their view of God, all things revolve around God. God, as one person, is in the center of all things which orbit around him. Another way to say this is to say that self-centeredness is at the heart of God. In this view it has to be. God is one there is no other.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, however, teaches that God is one God but exists in a community of three. It also teaches that each member of the Trinity is not centered on themselves but centered on the other two. The Father is centered on the Son and the Spirit. The Son is centered on the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit is centered on the Father and the Son. I could give you countless examples in scripture where we see this. Even at the beginning of this prayer in John 17, a passage we looked at two weeks ago, we heard Jesus pray that his goal in life and in death was not to glorify himself, but to glorify his Father, to center his life around his Father.
As Christians, therefore, scripture teaches us that it is not self-centeredness which is at the heart of God but rather mutual self-giving which is at God’s heart. God is not, by nature, self-focused but other-focused. Put simply, God is love.
Think about it. It is very hard for people of other faith traditions which reject the Trinity to talk about God as eternally loving. If God has always been just one, period, how is one able to love? Before creation, when all that existed was God, how could God all by himself have been love? Love, by definition, is relational. Love requires another. If I just love myself, is that love?
It is precisely because God is not only one but also three that the Bible is able to declare that love is the very essence of God. This is also why Jesus declared that the most important thing we can ever do is love. Love is at the very heart of God – Father loving Son loving Spirit loving Father loving Son loving Spirit, this divine eternal dance of love that is at the very fabric of creation.
This is the truth. This is the truth about God. Is it a truth that is easy to understand? No. But it is nonetheless the true and clear testimony of scripture. As somebody once said, “The Trinity is a mystery to be confessed, not a mathematical problem to be solved.” Are you with me? Is your head still above water?
Now this is the part that blows my mind. When Jesus prays for us he prays that we would be one in the same way that the he and his Father are one. Again, Jesus tells his Father, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” Are you kidding me? Do you understand what Jesus is praying? He is not praying that we become divine. No, that has nothing to do with it. He is, however, asking his Father to welcome us into this dance. Jesus wants those who believe in him, all those who believe in him, to enter into this mutually self-giving community of love which he has shared with his Father and the Spirit for all of eternity. Take a moment just to let that sink in.
Icons are religious works of art, mostly paintings, which have long been common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of the church. Some of you may have noticed some of the icons used by the EthiopianChurch in Link Hall. These images are meant to point beyond themselves to some deeper truth about God or about life. Icons have been described as windows out of the obvious realities of everyday life and into the realm of God.
One of the most famous icons was painted in the 15th century by a Russian painter named Andrei Rublev. It’s an icon which is meant to show us something about the Trinity. This icon pictures the mysterious story in Genesis 18 where Abraham receives three visitors as he camps by the oak of Mamre. Some of you might remember that as the story progresses it becomes apparent that Abraham is not talking to men or to angels but somehow directly to God. Rublev uses this story as a window to help us see something about the very nature of God and our relation to him.
The icon is rich with symbolism, too much to point out today. For starters, God is pictured here as three, Father on the left, Son in the middle, Spirit on the right, each seated around a table. In the center of the table is a cup which contains a lamb, a lamb which has been killed. The scene is clearly meant to point us to the Lord’s Supper where we are invited to the table to celebrate the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and makes possible eternal life for all who would believe.
What I want you to notice here is the open space. God is seated around the table, but only around three sides of the table. There’s an open space at the table, and that open space is on our side. We are invited to complete the circle. If nothing else, this icon is a window giving us a glimpse of God’s union, and God’s invitation to us to join that union. The community of God is gathered. They are gathered in the shade of the tree of life. The home of God is just beyond, with doors wide open. The table is set and ready. Arms are extended towards us. There is a place for us at the table. We are invited to come.
What is that we are invited to join? Again, we are invited into a mutually self-giving community of love. The Father, Son and Spirit love one another in this way but they also love us in this way. In fact, God, in Christ, gave up everything for us when he came to earth and died on the cross. We, then, are invited to do the same, to no longer live lives of self-centeredness but of love. As Jesus put it, we are invited to love God with all heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love one another as we love ourselves.
This reminds us that Jesus doesn’t just want us to be one with God but also one with each other. If the community of the church is, in fact, seated at the fourth side of this table, then the community of the church is going to begin to take on the character of the community around the table, which is God himself. Instead of a community of people physically together but isolated in their self-centeredness, by God’s grace the church is to become a community of people who are, whether or not they are physically together, united in their mutual love for one another. It’s a bit messy, yes, but beautiful nonetheless.
Follow me here. When, through faith, we are in Christ and Christ is in us, we then not only become one with God but also one with each another. God becomes our Father and we become, one to another, brothers and sisters in a way that otherwise would never have been possible. The unity Christ prays we would have is a unity of love which cuts across the barriers that have traditionally divided people, barriers like race, and culture, and class, and age, and gender, and personality, and politics.
If you have been around this church for any length of time you know what I’m talking about. We are an odd community. Things which divide other communities don’t divide us as easily. We have racial differences. Some of us have lots of wealth while others of us do not. We are young and old. Our leaders are men and women. We have very diverse and often contrary ideas when it comes to government policy and social issues. We don’t all naturally even like each other. In spite of all this, when the church is working like it’s supposed to work, these differences which otherwise might make us walk away from each other are overcome by our unity in Christ. In Christ, I am not the center of things any longer. Others are the center. Christ is the center. You are the center. My focus is less and less on myself and more and more outside myself.
Now, does the church always work in this way? No. We struggle with this. We fail, often. I fail often. We are, too frequently, divided. And this is exactly why Jesus prays for us. It’s why he prays specifically for our unity. In fact, I believe if you could overhear Jesus praying for us today I think we would still hear him praying for us to be one. And we should be praying right along with him.
Why? Well, that leads us to our second question. We’ve now seen what it means to be one. Buy why does it matter? Why is it so important? Once again, the answer is in what Jesus prays in verse 22. Jesus asks his Father, “May they all be 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.” Jesus so desires the unity of God to be manifest and displayed in the church so that the world will take notice and come to faith and share in this unity. The open place at the table, you see, is reserved not only for those of us who believe but also for those in this world who do not yet believe!
Jim’s story last week about his move to Phoenix reminded me of the time in 4th grade when my family moved from Denver to the Bay Area. It was the middle of the school year and to this day I have a vivid memory of walking into Mrs. Morrison’s class at ArundelElementary School that January morning. I did not recognize a single face in that room. All these kids were friends, some of them for years. Some were more popular than others but all of them, to some extent, belonged. On that winter morning it was only me who didn’t belong. And that sense of exclusion was so strong that even today I can vividly recall the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach. I have to admit that I would have done just about anything at that point to fit in. I also have to admit that 4th grade wasn’t the last time I felt this way. Maybe you can relate.
When you belong you are loved. That’s really the essence of belonging, knowing that others accept you and truly want the best for you. We so desire this because we were made for this. We were created to be loved and to belong. This is the reason why every person on this planet spends his or her life desperately striving, in one way or another, to be loved and to belong. We’ll do just about anything to be loved and belong, to justify ourselves so that we imagine others will accept us. We strive for wealth, we work for reputation, we hope our children are success will justify our own lives, we compromise our integrity, we even exclude others, anything to find belonging and acceptance. Everybody you know is pouring their life into this goal of belonging but, sadly, many people are coming up short. Some people have come up so short and are so tired of the struggle that they have concluded the only way out is to medicate themselves or even take their own life.
Sometime after we moved to California our family joined a church in our neighborhood. As I look back it may have been the single best decision my parents ever made on my behalf. For it was in that church where I eventually come to know and trust Christ, where I came to tangibly experience the love and the hospitality of God. But before I found belonging in Christ, I first found belonging in that community. I would never have put it in these words back in those days, but as a very young man I discovered a level of love, and grace, and belonging in that church that I had never experienced before. And it changed my life. Forever.
Why has Jesus been praying for 2000 years for the unity of the Church to reflect the unity of God? Why? So that a world desperate to belong will see, in the community of the church, the unity for which they have always longed and thus be drawn themselves to the table which has been set for them as much as it has been set for us. Jesus does not only long for us to be one with him, but for the whole world to be one with him.
Before I close, let me point out something very startling in this passage. Beginning in verse 22 Jesus prays, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
I have heard this called this the most shocking remark in all the gospels. Christ is not only praying that through the church the world would come to know that he is truly from God, but he is also praying that the world would come to know that he loves them just as much as the Father loves him. Trust me when I tell you that you will never wrap your head around this. Christ loves you much more than you think he does. I guarantee it. And that’s hard enough to get your head around. Here Christ tells us that he loves everybody in the world much more than you think he does. Everybody! Christ loves the person you see as totally unlovable, and loves that person with the same love that the Father has for the Son.
Jesus’ love is so unlike our love. And yet it is Jesus’ prayer that those who believe would come to love like he loves. It is Jesus’ prayer that those who believe would be made one like he and the Father and the Spirit are one. It is Jesus’ prayer that those who believe would be so unified that many in our world would take notice and believe themselves. This is Jesus’ prayer for those who believe and, as I said at the beginning, Jesus always gets what Jesus prays for. And so the only question left to answer is whether we will be counted among those who believe.
Father God, along with your Son, we pray this day for those who believe, for ourselves and others around this world who confess Christ as Lord and Savior. We pray, Lord, that you would make us one. Make us one in heart and mind. Make us one as you, Lord, are one – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Make our lives centered not on ourselves but on you and on one another.
We know you want us to belong to one another, Lord. But we cannot belong to each other if we do not first belong to you. We cannot be united to one another unless we are united to you. There is too much that divides us, Lord, too much which keeps us apart. So we pray for your Spirit. We pray for your Spirit here in this community and in all places where your people are gathered.
Father, as you make us into a united community that is marked by love and servanthood, may we then be a light to the world around us, that others would also believe that Christ is from you and that you sent him out of love. In the church, in this church and others like it, may a world which does not know your love and grace see evidence of your love and grace lived out before them.
Lord, with Christ we pray that we would be right where you are. We want to know Christ. We want to know the love of Christ. How can it be that Christ loves us with the same love that you, Father, have for him? Such a thing is too much to comprehend. All we can offer you is our praise, our thanks, our very lives.
We pray these things in the name of our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ, your Son, who is God, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read John 17:20-26. What stands out to you from this last part of Jesus’ prayer?
2000 years before we were even born, Jesus was already praying for us. What do you think about this?
Jesus prays that we would be one just as he and the Father are one (verse 22). What do you think this means?
Do you believe in the Trinity, that God is one God but existing and revealed in three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Why does this matter?
Take a look at the Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. It’s meant as a window into the realm of God. What do you notice here? How does this image help you better understand the life of God and our part in it?
How have you seen Jesus prayer for unity answered here at Faith Presbyterian Church? Are we “one” in the way Jesus wants us to be one?
What does the unity of the church have to do with those outside the church who do not yet trust Christ as Lord and Savior?
How do you feel led to pray with Jesus for the unity of the church? What is one area of disunity which you see that is heavy on your heart?
 I stole this analogy from N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Volume II, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 98.
 See Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 7:25.
 John 17:1.
 As a side note, people who say that all faiths, at their core, really teach the same thing truly have no idea what all faiths really teach. The core truths of the Christians faith are radically different from the core truths of all other religious perspectives and those differences have massive implications for life, for salvation, for our future. By no means do all religions teach the same thing.
 Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), p. 95.
 Read a great description of this icon at http://www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon%20explanation.htm I borrowed heavily from this site in my description here.