April 2, 2015 John 17:1-26
Tonight we continue our journey through Holy Week by reflecting upon Jesus’ prayer for unity in the gospel of John. You may have noticed that in all four gospels, Jesus prays to the Father on the eve of his arrest. Clearly, prayer is important to Jesus. But Jesus’ prayer looks different in John than it does in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John’s gospel there is not account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Neither is there an acknowledgement of the suffering Jesus is about to undergo. Nor does Jesus pray for the Father’s will to be done. Instead, Jesus prays for the Father to glorify the Son, for the sake of the unity of his disciples. But why does Jesus pray for unity on the eve of his arrest? To answer this question, we need to look at the relationship between the Son’s glory and the unity of his disciples. We also need to look at what is the cost, for both Jesus and his disciples, of that unity. We will end by looking at how we, as Christians living in the here and now, live into the unity Jesus prays for.
I’d like to begin this meditation, with a story. My best friend is Catholic. Katie is a very smart, very devout, very conservative Catholic. Her devotion to her faith is one of the things I admire the most about her. We met during orientation week at Pitt and bonded over our shared love of Victorian Literature. We were roommates as undergraduates, and we spent our first two years post-college working for an ecumenical campus ministry. But we reached a pretty difficult disagreement in our friendship about two year ago. I discerned that God was calling me to ordained ministry, and Katie does not believe that women, of any denomination, should be ordained. While we both still love and respect each other, we struggle to maintain our friendship when we disagree over something that is so fundamental to how we understand God to act in the world.
As Katie and I struggle to move forward with our friendship, I find myself returning again and again to Jesus’ prayer for unity. Jesus begins his prayer by asking the Father to glorify the Son so that the Son may glorify the Father. The Greek word for glory,“doxa,” means “weight,” “repute,” and “fame.” In this prayer, when Jesus prays for glory he prays that he would be remembered for something that carries weight. Something of substance. Just like in the other gospels, Jesus knows that he is about to endure great suffering on the cross. But rather than praying for the strength to carry our God’s plan, the way he does in the synoptic gospels, he prays that his death would bring him glory. The glory that comes from his disciples knowing that he and the Father are one. He’s not asking the Father to glorify him to justify his suffering. He prays for glory so that his glory will allow his disciples to continue what he started.
Another way to understand why Jesus prays for glory is to think about Jesus’ glory as an expression of his love for his disciples. Earlier in John’s gospel he proclaims; “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus loves his disciples in the same way that God loves Jesus. This is a love worth suffering for. This is a love worth dying on the cross for. Jesus prays for glory so that his disciples truly believe that through him they may have eternal life. Jesus loves his disciples so much that he is willing to suffer an excruciating death, descend into hell, then be resurrected on the third day- all as an expression of his love for his disciples. Jesus prays for glory because glory allows him to make his name known to those whom he loves.
A final way to understand why Jesus prays for glory is to think about glory as means of attaining unity amongst his disciples. Jesus prays:
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.
Believing in Jesus Christ as Lord is what binds Christians together. Jesus Christ is the source of our unity. Sure, we may disagree on what exactly we mean when we say that Jesus Christ is Lord, but you cannot be a Christian if you are unwilling to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. If we return to the story over the disagreement I’m having with my best friend over whether or not I should pursue ordination, our disagreement is not over whether or not Jesus Christ is Lord, our disagreement is over how we are each called to proclaim that Jesus is Lord. We are unified in our beliefs, but we disagree over how our beliefs should shape our practices.
One question Jesus’ prayer encourages us to wrestle with is what is the cost of the unity Jesus prays for? The obvious cost of unity is suffering, both Jesus’ suffering and our own. Jesus suffered because God’s glory is not always the world’s glory. The world saw Jesus as a threat to the political powers that be. Jesus’ glory came at the cost of crucifixion by the Roman state. We suffer because the unity we are called to emulate as Jesus’ disciples is not doctrinal unity, organizational unity, or political unity. No the unity we are called to is much more difficult. We are called to be unified with other believers the way the Father is unified with the Son. We suffer because Jesus prayer for unity means doing everything we can to stay unified with other believers- even when we strongly disagree with how other believers live out their faith.
For Katie and me, this means getting together every couple of months to chat about each other’s adventures in ministry. Neither of us will probably change the other person’s mind about women’s ordination, but this ecumenical dialogue helps us to relate to each other as Christians trying to follow Jesus faithfully, not as morons seduced by bad theology. We’re finally at the point in our disagreement where we can say this is what your church tradition teaches, and this is what my church tradition teaches, and even though I don’t agree with what your church tradition teaches, I believe you love Jesus and want to see his kingdom come, so we are going to have to agree to disagree on this particular issue for the sake of our friendship, and our Christian witness.
One practical way that we might live out the unity Jesus prays for is by building relationships with other Christians. Another practical way we live out our unity is by partaking in the Lord’s Supper. When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we partake of the bread and wine as a community. A community that doesn’t agree with everyone over everything. A community committed to worshipping together even though we acknowledge that we do not agree with everyone over everything. Yet when we come together to the Lord’s Table we proclaim to the world that the unity we have as a result of our baptism is stronger than our political or theological differences.
When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we also partake as the church universal, with the saints from all the ages. At the Lord’s Table it doesn’t matter if you are Presbyterian or Catholic, black or white, woman or man, we all come to the table to be refreshed in our faith and renewed for ministry. Even though Christians disagree over what happens to the elements during communion], and [who can perform and receive communion, by participating in the Lord’s Supper, all Christians bear witness to the unity they have in Christ.
When we gather at the table, we participate in the sign and seal of eating and drinking in communion with the crucified and risen Lord. The Lord’s Supper reminds Christians that Jesus’ glory came at the cost of his death and resurrection. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection reconciles us with God. This reconciliation with God compels us to be reconciled with one another. One way that we make visible our reconciliation with one another is by welcoming all baptized believers to the table. None are excluded. Regardless of race, sex, age, economic status, social class, physical handicap, or difference in culture or language.
A final reason that we gather at the table for the Lord’s supper is because it gives us a foretaste of the kingdom meal. Part of the eschatological hope that we proclaim is our belief that Jesus will gather all things up into himself and restore creation to its intended glory. Brought by the Holy Spirit into Jesus’ presence, the community gathers at the table expectant and prayerful for the day Jesus will come in glory.
Nourished by that hope, the church rises from the table and is sent into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit to partake in God’s mission to the world, to proclaim the gospel, to exercise compassion, and to work for justice and peace until Jesus’ Kingdom shall come at last.
The Lord’s Supper, therefore, gives us a glimpse of what it will look like when all Christians, of all times, and all places will be one with each other, the way that the Son is one with the Father.