[Jesus said:] “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, just 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 have sent Me” (John 17:20-21)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
According to John, it was the last thing Jesus said in the upper room on Maundy Thursday. After teaching His disciples many things about Himself, the world, and things to come, Jesus concludes His last evening with His disciples in prayer to the Father. And He concludes His prayer with the words in this text. As the saying goes, you can learn a lot about a man by listening in on his prayer. I would submit to you that you can learn so much more listening to the prayer of a man who knows that he will soon die.
And Jesus is headed to meet His death. In the next verse after our Gospel, John tells us that Jesus goes with His disciples across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas, who betrays Him, leads a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees to meet Jesus and to arrest Him.
What can we learn about Jesus through this prayer? It helps to pay close attention to the details. Notice that in these final petitions, Jesus isn’t praying for the world. Neither is He praying for the disciples. No, in our text, Jesus is praying for those who would believe in Him through the apostolic Word. In other words, He is praying for you, me, this congregation, the whole Church.
What does Jesus ask the Father? What does He want for (and from) us who follow Him? We find that in three clauses in verse 21: “That they may all be one, just 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 have sent Me.”
Jesus first prays that all believers may be one just as Jesus and the Father are one. That’s really close! But that’s not all. Jesus also prays that these believers would be “in us.” In other words, Jesus doesn’t only desire for His people to be close to each other, but also close to Him and the Father. Indeed, the only real unity is unity around and in the triune God. Those first two clauses beginning with “that” help us understand the content of Jesus’ prayer.
But the third clause, the one that begins “so that” does something else. It is a purpose clause, and it points to the ends of this unity. Jesus desires that, through Christian unity, the world might believe that He was sent by the Father. Note that Jesus doesn’t pray for the world directly. Instead, He prays for the world through the unity of His people. The unity of the Church is a witness to the world. It is fundamental to the Church’s mission.
But an honest reflection would show that Christian unity is lacking these days. There’s the fragmentation of the Church into so many denominations—even so many church bodies that claim Lutheran heritage. There’s the biting and devouring that takes place between members of our own denomination. Closer to home, we may find the temptation to think only of our own congregation’s wants and ignore the need of the larger body of Christ. Or a lack of concern individual members of our congregation have for one another. Each of these hurt our Christian witness to the world. But they also hurt our fellow saints.
In a most perverse way, the devil will use affliction to tempt you away from God. We should know better: it was the afflicted and downtrodden whom Jesus especially sought out, who most joyously heard His Word because they knew this world only breaks you eventually. Sometimes, the hits keep on coming in the form of sickness, injury, financial loss, family troubles, grief, and more. Satan will use them to make you curl up in a ball in the corner, to turn your face to the wall—to separate yourself from sadness. That’s where isolation happens—divided from Christ and His body, the Church. The devil works hard at this one, because he knows how comforting the Gospel will be if you hear it at such a time. Remember that the Lord is your strength, and it is in His means of grace that He delivers grace and life to sustain you—even in the worst of trials.
This is a time when Christians often fail each other: when people are afflicted, the temptation is to leave them alone—because we don’t know what to say, we want to “give them space,” or because being with sad people makes us uncomfortable. The same is true for those who, because of health, can no longer make it to church. It’s a lonely existence. The inaction of others leaves the one who suffers isolated and alone—and the devil will use that to convince them that they are separated from God, too; that they are no longer part of the “one in Christ.” The Lord uses us as His hands and voice: let us not cease in visiting and caring for those who are in deep distress. And let’s not be afraid to let others know our needs.
If Jesus is all about restoring oneness, then the devil is going to be all about fostering division. That is what sin does: it divides. It shatters. It fragments and isolates. Plenty of sins divide and separate. Pride will have you alone on your pedestal, considering others below you and not worth your time. Greed will have you gather possessions to yourself, not friends or family. Lust will have you view others as objects to be used, not as fellow people for whom Christ has died. Many sins entice you to hide in a room with your sin, all alone. They work to destroy friendships, marriages, families, and congregations by division and subtraction.
All of that separation is awful enough, but it distracts us from what is worse: sin separates you, divides you from God. It keeps you unholy, and an unholy you cannot be one with your holy Savior. If you cannot be one with Him, all that is left is the ultimate, eternal separation of death and hell
It’s a problem that’s been going on ever since the Fall in the Garden. The Bible tells us that the first Church was in perfect unity with God and with one another. Adam and Eve were perfect, sinless, and holy. Furthermore, they were created in the image of God. Because God is righteous, they were righteous too. They reflected His glory. Furthermore, they could be in His presence. They could walk with God in the Garden. They could look upon His face. There was no shame, no guilt that would make them run away and hide.
Sin changed all that. As soon as Adam and Eve fell into sin and heard God walking in the Garden, they ran and hid from Him. When He asked what they had done, they blamed Him and each other. They were no longer one with God. They would no longer be as one with each other, because they would always have selfish, ulterior motives in dealing with one another. Because of their sin, God cast them out of the Garden, away from the tree of life—but not before He promised that the Savior would come and deliver them from death and devil. The Savior would come and reverse the curse of sin. He would bring people back to God by removing their unrighteous sin and make them holy once again.
The Savior is Jesus, the One praying in the Gospel. Remember what happens next: Jesus will be arrested and hauled out of the Garden of Gethsemane. He’ll be put on trial and sentenced to death for being guiltless. Then He’ll be taken from the city to the Place of the Skull, and He’ll be crucified.
When Adam and Eve sinned, they were driven from the Garden of Eden because of their sin. When the Passion of our Lord begins, He’s removed from a garden, too—because of His holiness. Where Adam was sentenced to death by God because of His guilt, Jesus is sentenced to death by man because of His innocence. Where God grieved at the sin and separation brought about by Adam, man rejoices to be separated from the Son of God when He dies on Calvary.
Jesus is undoing what Adam did. He’s taking Adam’s place to undergo Adam’s punishment: not just physical death, but far worse. He’s fully forsaken by God on the cross. That’s what it means when He cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The Son of God—one with the Father from eternity—suffers the ultimate separation from oneness with the Father. In other words, He suffers hell on the cross before He is restored to His Father again.
All of this lies less than a day away as Jesus prays this prayer; and listen again to what He prays about you: “That they may all be one, just 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 have sent Me” (John 17:21). Jesus prays that you would be one with God and one another again, like Adam and Eve before the Fall into sin.
In His prayer, we get a glimpse into the gracious heart of Jesus. Not only does He desire unity in the Church and unity with God. He does what it takes to make it happen. You see, there’s only one way for that prayer to be answered, and that is for Jesus to suffer the ultimate separation from God in your place. That’s what the cross is about. For Christ, separation and condemnation. For you, redemption. Restoration. Reconciliation. One with God and one another again.
Look around you here, and you will see a miraculous gathering of people. Not many in numbers, certainly; but more than that first two-member congregation. The Lord Himself has gathered you together, and it is He who keeps you together—who keeps you one with one another, His whole Church, and Himself. And He tells you how He does in our Gospel for today.
In His prayer, Jesus calls you “those who believe in Me through [the apostles’] Word.” He’s given you His Word, and His Word makes and keeps you one. Faith comes by hearing His Word, which He gave to us through His prophets and apostles. His Word is the means to gather us together, and His Word is His means to keep us together, one in Him. That is why we gladly repent of our sins of ignoring His Word in favor of our sinful, divisive desires.
Jesus has given you His glory. He prays to His Father, “The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one.” The glory of Jesus is foremost the cross, for that is the ultimate act of love for us, that is where we best see the gracious heart of Jesus.
Jesus has given His cross to you and it didn’t hurt you any more than three quick splashes of water. In Baptism, Jesus joined you to His cross, His death and resurrection. Without that, you’d have to die your own death for sin, isolated from God forever. But because He’s shared the glory of His cross with you, you are now one in Him. That is why we gladly repent of our sins that would separate us from His life and lead us death, for Christ has opened to us the way of salvation.
Furthermore, Jesus prays, “I made known to them Your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” Jesus has made His name known to you: He has made known to you that He is the Savior of all nations, forgiving you all of your sins. He’s put His name on you—marked you as His own! You are not left as individuals trying to find your way to an unknown God through any variety of religions. And with His name, the Lord has also made known to you His will. He tells you that He has gathered you in, forgiven your sins, made you one with Him by His sacrifice. That’s why we gladly repent and confess our pursuits of other gods that cannot save, including our own desires and wishes, for salvation is found in Christ.
Jesus has given us His Word, His glory, and His name. It is in these gifts that we best see the gracious heart of Jesus for you and me. It is by these gifts that He has made us one. It is by these gifts that He keeps us one.
I give great thanks this day, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, to be united in Him and with you. This is all the Lord’s doing, and so you can be sure: you are one with His body, the Church, and one with Christ: for His Word, His glory, and His name are all summed up in these words: you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.