Our Lord’s Prayer for Unity in Triune Love

UnknownJesus begins his prayer in John 17 by asking the Father to glorify him so that he could glorify the Father. These words (“glorify”) are too easily passed over. When the Bible speaks of glory it uses the word doxa, a Greek word which comes from the Old Testament Hebrew word kabod. The widely accepted meaning of doxa is “fame and honor,” usually what is given for an extraordinary achievement. It also refers to the “visible splendor of the divine, the shining forth of a transcendent presence.” John’s Gospel suggests that the Father will be glorified in and through Jesus’ accomplishment of the task given to him by his Father (cf. 4:34; 11:4; 17:4). But in both John 11:4 and 12:23 it is evident that Jesus will be glorified by means of his death on the cross. According the the apostle Jesus was glorified in his messianic activities, especially in his signs. John 12:28 makes this clear: “‘Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again’” (NRSV). But note the Father says, “I will glorify it again.”

I believe the Father’s voice refers to the external manifestation of Jesus’ deeper, hidden nature. This will be revealed through his passion and resurrection. As John 3:16-17 makes plain Jesus’ task is to make God known by revealing his love for the world. “It can only be by means of a consummate act of love that God will be made known. . . . The glory of God shines forth from the cross, as Jesus must go through the whole paschal event–death, resurrection, and return to the father–before he achieves the glory that was his before the world was made.”

What Jesus is praying for may not be immediately self-evident to a modern reader. Jesus’ ultimate purpose in the world was to reveal the true, hidden nature of his Father. As I’ve already noted the glory of the Father had been revealed in his miracles, his parables and his life-giving words. But the full and final revelation of the Father’s love and goodness can only occur when Jesus gives up his life for the world. Thus what Jesus is praying for here is quite clear – he desires that his Father will lead him through his passion and death so that he will glorify (reveal) the Father’s before the world. The Father’s nature is clearly stated by John in his first epistle: “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Simply put, the glorification of Jesus means that God’s love is now manifested to the world in his passion and death.

The Father is in fact the wonderfully transcendent, but largely unknown, Person who created the world but whose actions are often misunderstood as he is blamed for everything from natural disasters to personal tragedies. Jesus came to make known the true nature of this hidden God, not just by talking about him, but especially by identifying with him. This identification of Jesus with the Father in his ultimate act of love is reflected in the words of Jesus to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9).

So That They May Be One

The intended result of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, and for all who believe, is stated several times. The first time that Jesus says this clearly is in verse 11: “And 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” (NRSV).

Jesus has prayed that the love the Father had for him, and the glory that he had in the Father, would now extend beyond the Father and Son to his disciples (verse 10). Why? “So that they may be one, as we are one.” This is a prayer for a deeply relational unity between persons. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in an eternal relationship of love. It is this unity which is now being extended to those who are in the Son so that they may be one with God and each other.

The greatest danger here is that we should read the word unity and confuse this with uniformity. Uniformity is a superficial substitute for unity. When a group adopts this understanding, the various people in the group all begin to look alike, dress like and sound alike. But uniformity is nothing like internal, God-given, unity. The danger is that Christians too easily settle for religious and cultural  unity by conforming to rules, rituals and religious ceremonies. This makes our love too small.

The true unity that Jesus asked his Father to give to his disciples is the result of the life of God in them (his eternal life is now in us). One of the most important words in this prayer is the little word “as” in verse 11. The same word occurs in verses 21, 22 and 23. This word “as” reveals that the unity Jesus prays we will experience is based upon the unity he already enjoys with his Father!

True Christian unity is the result of his giving us love for one another, thus this love desires for us to become our unique (true) selves. How do I know this? Because the unity Jesus asks for us is “like” the unity that he has with his Father. Jesus asked his Father to give to all Christians the same kind of unity that he enjoyed with his Father.

This truth is made profoundly clear in 1 Corinthians 12. There the apostle Paul teaches us about the dynamic way in which a community of believers is meant to function in the Spirit. He adopts the very familiar analogy of the human body and then shows us how the various members (parts) of the body are both affirmed and thanked for their respective roles in the whole body. In the body of Christ, which is Christ’s church, this can only be done when “destructive competition is abandoned and is replaced by loving concern for others.” Following this analogy of how the body works is the best-known portion of all of St. Paul’s letters; 1 Corinthians 13. The whole point of the “Love Chapter” is that the unity of the body comes about where there is mutual love in action. Thus mutual love always comes about in the context of true diversity. When we encourage both unity and diversity we get this right.

 

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