Text: John 17:20-26
Date: Easter VII + 5/16/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
At the end of His speaking in the Upper Room on that Thursday night of Holy Week, the night in which He was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ prayed. St. John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, accurately recorded that prayer, for Jesus certainly meant it to be overheard by His disciples. He prayed for His own successful finish of His redeeming work, namely His vicarious, atoning suffering and death on the cross for the sin of all mankind. Then He prayed for His disciples that were with Him that they would be kept in faith and unity. Finally, we heard today the last part of the prayer where He prays also for us, for “those who will believe in me through their word,” that is, the Apostles’ witness and teaching. The overall theme of His prayer is the unity of His disciples as defined by nothing less than the very unity and oneness of God. Far from being just a nice extra to be added after the really important stuff of the faith, this unity itself is the evidence that the Gospel is secured in the hearts of the faithful.
The first thing we must notice is that unity, oneness, “fellowship” we sometimes call it, is something that needs to be prayed for precisely because it does not happen naturally as long as we live in and contend with sin. So we begin every Divine Service with the “deacon’s Kyrie” summoning us to pray for the peace from above and for our salvation, to pray for the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the Church of God, and then to pray “for the unity of all.” Lord, have mercy.
Why pray for unity? Unity does not seem to be a quality or issue very high on anyone’s agenda or list of priorities these days in this world, or, sadly, even in the church. “Do your own thing,” says the world as people seek to break from the crowd and discover their own, unique identity. Patriotism is a measure of unity behind either ethnic identity (Norwegian or German for example) or a set of principles like a political philosophy or a Constitution symbolized by a national flag. But when groups of people in the same country unite behind different identities for different reasons—for instance the demonstrations in California and Arizona between those carrying the U.S. red, white and blue and those carrying a Mexican flag; or think of the Southern Cross Confederate flag and the American Civil War—disunity or separation results complete with the antagonism, conflict and even hatred that such divisions inspire. The same is true for the Christian Church. That there are so-called “denominations” of the church at all, like denominations of money, the question can be asked, who and which one is right? with the result that many make the conclusion either that they’re all right (however that can be) or, more likely, they’re all wrong, and the claims of the Gospel go unheard. This is a central issue of our Lord’s Prayer that His disciples’ unity might be the evidence of the truth of the confession of the Gospel to the world. The less unity of confession the less seriously the world will take the church’s confession of the Gospel.
Unity is hard to accomplish. Some don’t even think it is possible. That is because we live in a world divided by sin. Sin is separation. Sin divides. Sin sets at enmity. Sin causes conflict. Sin kills. Unity, then it follows, can result only from the taking away or forgiveness of sin. Forgiveness reconciles, unites in love, issues in peace and values life. In order to open ourselves for even the possibility of unity we need to be, more and more, experts at and primarily concerned with forgiveness. True unity is a spiritual quality.
The kind of unity Jesus prays for, He says, is “just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.” In other words, the unity of Christians is to reflect the inner unity and oneness, the identity of God Himself. This unity is, of course, a mystery. It sounds odd to the world when we confess that there is only one God, but that He has revealed Himself in three Persons. Not three gods, yet three Persons in one God, the Trinity.
Such intimate unity, oneness, or fellowship can only happen by the possession and confession of one, unified, common faith, as the Apostle Paul says, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-6). The very best expression or explanation of that one faith is in the Lutheran Confessions. Thank God there is, these days, a revival among both pastors and laity of studying these important documents. Where there is disagreement or division about what the Christian faith is, therefore, unity or fellowship is fractured. This is why agreement in the doctrine or teaching of the Bible is so important. It is fundamental to the unity, oneness and fellowship of the Church.
In verse 23 of our text there is an interesting word used by Jesus. It is a form of the same word He will use from the cross when He says, “It is finished,” “tetelestai.” Our versions attempt to capture the word by translating, “that they may become perfectly one.” Another way of saying this could be, “that they may be brought to completion as one,” “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” It is to say that until and unless there is complete unity in the faith our faith is never complete, never reaches its goal. Therefore, for one thing, it is impossible Biblically to think of yourself alone, apart from the rest of the body, the Church.
The perfect unity of faith, of the fellowship of believers, of the Body of Christ will not be accomplished or completed until Jesus returns and delivers the whole number of believers with their bodies to dwell in the new heavens and earth, the new Jerusalem, the eternal kingdom where we shall see God face to face. Yet such is our certain hope. Therefore, besides praying for unity now, and working for outward unity now, we cap off every prayer in hope, saying, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). For now, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
On the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus prayed “for those who will believe” in Him through the witness and word of His Apostles, for that is the only means given through which a person can come to faith and believe. So important is their word that we are called to be constantly vigilant to keep their word and the proclamation of it pure. We are constantly to seek for unity in nothing less than the Apostle’s doctrine that there might be complete unity of faith. So we give ourselves to that task. “For the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the Church of God, and for the unity of all let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.”