1After Jesus had spoken these words [to his disciples], he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
I don’t typically comment on the choice of the lectionary readings. But I found this one to be a little funny. They cut Jesus prayer off in the middle. And not even in the middle of the prayer, but in the middle of a paragraph, right in the middle of a thought. It reminds of me a picture I saw last week on Facebook that said, “I’m sorry if the middle of my sentence interrupted the beginning of yours.” This prayer goes on for a longer, and the thoughts he starts with this prayer aren’t finished for another few verses, but I think we’ve got enough to look at already, so let’s just work on that.
It may be helpful to know where in the gospel of John this prayer is. Jesus is praying for the disciples gathered with him for his last meal. We’ve been reading bits and pieces of his farewell address for the last few weeks and it all culminates with this prayer (which continues on for a while in John 17). And, with his last words, he calls on God for a few different things.
First, he calls on God to glorify him and what he’s done. The word we read as glorify over and over in our gospel for today can also be translated as praise and honor. He’s basically saying, “Okay God, I’ve done what I’ve needed to do. My end is coming. I’ve kept up my end of the deal; I’ve come and I’ve loved these people. Now, continue the work that you’ve begun.”
Secondly, he prays for protection for his disciples. He knows what they’re about to go through. He knows the grief and the pain and the isolation they’re about to feel. He knows how some will betray him, leave him, deny him, and will stand by idly while he’s killed. But he also knows that they are not loved and worthy based on what they’ve done, but on God’s love for them.
And our reading concludes with him praying that this protection from God would lead his disciples to unity. While this prayer was intended for the disciples in the room, we can see that this is a need we still face. If we’re honest with ourselves, this is maybe the most challenging part about this prayer. This is the part of his prayer that seems the most pointed and, realistically, the least likely to succeed. We, as people, like to separate and sort people and things into their proper place. We get pleasure in finding identity based on who we are not. So many stories of the Bible are based on one group defeating another group (and if they’re not, we certainly like to make it that way). So many stories of our culture involve vilifying another group. So many stories across the world involve wars and invasions and oppression based on what divides us. We’ve become so good at sorting and dividing that we can do it, at any given time, based on race, language, gender, faith, class, education, geography, political affiliation (a big one these days) and background without bothering to wonder how is affects those whom we divide ourselves from, how it affects us, or how it’s a problem at all.
While I can guarantee you that what unites us is greater than what divides us we often focus solely on what divides us. And what we see and look for changes our behaviors. The Church, despite reading this call for unity, has had a habit of doing the same thing. Throughout history, we see times where people of the Church have cared more about what divides than unites humanity. For example, it wasn’t until 1967 that the Catholics and Lutherans started officially talking together after Martin Luther was excommunicated in 1521. That means that, for 446 years, Lutherans and Catholics were content to focus on their divisions. Now, we’ve made some good progress since then, but the battle for unity is far from over. The fight for unity is far from over.
I call it a fight because it takes a lot of work to accomplish this. It takes listening to each other. It takes patience and love and a willingness to let ourselves be vulnerable and known. It means that perhaps the most countercultural thing a congregation can do is to serve others, regardless of who they are, what they do, or whether or not we agree with them. In a world that is so often divided, so often focused on how “the other” (whoever they are) are better or worse than us, this is the most radical and disturbing thing that we, as followers of Christ, can do. We know God by knowing Jesus. We know Jesus by following Jesus. And we see here, in this prayer, Jesus calling us to unity.
And this unity doesn’t mean that we’ll always agree. It doesn’t mean that we’ll have easy answers. And, this is a big one, it doesn’t mean that we’ll never rock the boat. Unity means that we invite all people to the table, especially those who have not had a voice at the table – those who have been divided, separated, segregated, and marginalized. Any form of unity that is not radically inclusive is not unity, but is a form of exclusion and silencing. We cannot be united as people or as a Church unless we are willing to be changed by people who have not always had a voice and let ourselves hear that we haven’t always been the best neighbor, brother, sister, or friend. Unity is messy. It’s the hardest work we can do.
Working to find this unity that Christ prayed for, this unity that we trust God to make manifest and present among us, comes from approaching all people as God approaches you. God’s love for you does not waver and does not stop. God’s presence with you, in times of joy or in times of pain, has never left. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection puts on full display just how much God loves you. Despite all that may divide you from God, we continually see in Christ the God who comes and unites with us, loves us, encourages us, equips us, and then sends us out. This is as true for you today as it was when you were first born and it will be true long after you’re gone. You cannot earn this love and you cannot undo it. And recognizing God’s love for you also means recognizing God’s love for others and then practicing it.
I say practicing love the same way that a doctor practices medicine or a lawyer practices law, because despite our years of experience, we’ll make mistakes sometimes. We’ll look out for ourselves without looking to the wellbeing of all. We’ll not recognize the face of Christ in neighbors and strangers. But, just like our salvation, this process of redemption and sanctification will come from God’s work, not ours. That is why we pray for it. This is the Kingdom’s work, not just ours. And we trust that this work, the work of unity and the work of grace, will continue even when we don’t have the foresight or the love to carry it on. Someday, in ways that I cannot begin to fathom, God is making this a reality as, one-by-one, the divisions of this world are mended through love. Remember that; because you’ll find plenty of reasons to see people’s differences, but God will not be one of them. Amen.