Download or listen to The Seventh Sunday of Easter, “Unity and Glory” (John 17:20-26)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
John 17 is unique in the Gospels and, really, in all the Scriptures. In various places we hear that Jesus goes somewhere to pray, such as up on a mountain or out in the wilderness. In various places we have small pieces of the prayers He prays, such as in the garden of Gethsemane, or at the tomb of Lazarus. But nowhere do we have anything like John 17, which is a whole chapter filled up with the prayer of Jesus. The whole chapter is the prayer that Jesus prays on the night He was betrayed, the night before He was crucified. He prays for His disciples, because they remain in the world and they will have trouble in the world; He prays for Himself, because His hour has come: Father, glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You; and He prays for you and me. He prays for all those who would hear the words of the Apostles, which is really Jesus’ Word, and believe in Him. As the Apostles preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to the whole world, and as people hear that word and believe it, Jesus prays for them.
In this short section from the end of John 17, Jesus prays two things for His Apostles and for all believers: that they would be one, as the Son is one with the Father. And that because of the glory that Jesus shares with the Father from eternity, and which He has given to His Church, the world would believe that the Father had sent the Son. Jesus prays for the unity of His Apostles, and of all Christians in all times and places, and He prays for His glory in their midst.
I don’t know about you, but these verses have always made me a little uncomfortable. And they make me uncomfortable, because it seems as if this prayer of Jesus on the last night before His crucifixion has not been answered. As I look around at what I can see of the Body of Christ on earth, it looks like a bunch of severed limbs scattered around. Where is the unity? And where is the glory that would cause the world to see that the Father has sent the Son into the world? I don’t see unity, and I don’t see glory. I see division, and I see brokenness, and I see sin. So we’d better get to work, right? It looks like it’s up to us to create the unity for which Jesus prays. But if it were up to us, then Jesus would be praying to us. If Jesus prays, and it’s up to us to do what He prays for, then Jesus is praying to us. But of course Jesus is not praying to us, but to the Father. So if there’s going to be unity in the Church, then it’s up to the Father to bring it about. This is not a command, not instruction to us on what we ought to do; it is a prayer. And the fact is, the Father has already answered Jesus’ prayer, even if we don’t see it. The Father always answers the prayer of the Son. The Church is already one, already united, because Jesus has prayed that it would be so. And the Church is one because unity is a gift of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, to the Church; it is not something we make or create, nor could we do it even if we tried. Only God gives unity, because only God creates and builds His Church. So the Church is one.
We don’t see it, but we also don’t see that the Church is holy, or that the Church is catholic, or universal. When we look at ourselves, when we look at congregations, we don’t see holiness in ourselves. We also don’t see the whole, universal Church. This is why we say that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We never say, I see one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Just as our holiness and universality are hidden, and articles of faith, so is our unity. Or do we no longer walk by faith? Do we now walk by sight? Where does Jesus ever promise that we will see the unity of the Church before we see Him in all His glory? But He does promise that where His Word is preached, where His forgiveness is given out, He will be there. So wherever the Word of Christ is preached, wherever His Sacraments are given out according to His institution, the Church is there, because Christ is there. And where those things do not happen, then there can’t be any Church. Where Jesus says, “I baptize you in My Name, which I share with the Father and the Spirit, and you will receive the Holy Spirit, and your sins will be forgiven,” where that Word is spoken and people hear it and believe it, there is unity, even if we can’t see it. Where Jesus says, “I forgive you all your sins,” where people hear that Word and believe it, there is unity, even if we can’t see it. Where Jesus says, “This is My Body and My Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins, do this often in remembrance of Me,” where that Word is spoken and people believe it, there is unity, even if we can’t see it. There is only one Church, because there is only one Jesus; one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-5).
So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us in exactly the same place it left the Apostles after Jesus’ Ascension. St. John writes, “The One who was from the beginning, whom we have heard, and seen with our eyes, and beheld, and touched with our hands concerning the Word of Life—this Life has been revealed, and we have seen it and we are bearing witness and proclaiming it to you, the eternal Life who was with the Father and has been revealed to us—whom we have seen and heard and we are proclaiming to you so that you may have union with us, and our union, our communion, is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things to you so that our joy may be fulfilled” (1 John 1:1-4). Jesus has been revealed, and we have heard Him, and we have held Him, and we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. And wherever this Jesus is, He will build His Church. This is His glory, to be revealed, preached, and believed (Luther). We have only to be patient, to confess this one faith in this one Jesus; for fathers and mothers to teach their children the story of Jesus and His death and resurrection, that He forgives their sins and gives them life in His Word and Sacraments. We have only to be patient and to rejoice in this Jesus and His Gifts. To proclaim this Jesus so that the world might know that the Father sent Jesus into the world. He was one with the Father from eternity, but He entered time to become one with us. He is flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood, and where He is, His Body must be. If He has died, we must have died; if He is risen, we are risen. If He is one, we must be one. The world will see this Church gathered around her Lord and will know that even if it hates her, she has something that the world does not know: the one Lord, eternally God and Man, sent into the world for the salvation of the world. And because Jesus has prayed that the Church be one, and that His glory be revealed in the world, we can be sure that His prayer is answered, and that we will see then what we have now only by faith.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/11/13