You might remember the passenger aircraft that survived an emergency landing on the River in the US? I saw a documentary on this crash in which various passengers were interviewed about the experience –what they thought or did in the last moments before the aircraft crashed. Most thought that they were about to die. And generally, they reported that their last act before the crash was to pray.
Jesus knew without any doubt that he was about to die when we find him preparing himself for the ordeal of crucifixion on the cross. In the readings over the last few weeks we have been examining his last teachings, before his crucifixion. He has encouraged his disciples, and we in turn have learnt something about how to live as followers of the resurrected Christ. Now the teaching is done! Now, we witness his last act before he goes out to prepare for his arrest. And, what else would his last act be, but, like those people on the aircraft, to pray!
Just a few hours before his arrest, Jesus prayed for his disciples. First, he prayed for the disciples that were with him at the time (This prayer is recorded in vv. 6-19.) Then, in the verses that we read this morning, Jesus prayed for all his followers in all generations to come. That includes you and me.
Now what was it that he prayed? It is apparent that beyond his death, Jesus expected a great victory and a growing church. With the knowledge of God, he knew that the church would grow and spread around the world. Today, depending upon who you are prepared to include in the count, there are somewhere around 2.33 billion Christians in the world. This makes Christians the largest religious group in the world – representing around 33% of world population. (Muslims come next with around 23%, followed by Hindus.) And do you know that Christianity is still the fastest growing religion? It may not be our experience in this country, but in countries such as Africa, Christianity is flourishing. Jesus prayed for all of these Christians – all of his followers through all ages. So, what was it that Jesus prayed, as he looked into the future, during these last moments of freedom before going to meet his destiny on the cross?
In verses 20-26 of John 17 we see that he prayed for three things:
I. Jesus prayed that the church may be united (v.21)
The unity of his church is clearly something that is a heartfelt desire of Jesus, because not only is it the focus of his last prayer for the church as he looks into the future, but he repeats this request twice in this prayer. It should therefore also be a heartfelt desire of all Christians. And yet, what do we see as we look around us at the church at both an international level and a local congregation level?
Internationally, depending upon how you count them, there are thousands of different Christian denominations around the world. One of what I would consider a more authorative source suggests that, taking into consideration cultural distinctions of denominations in different countries, there are approximately 38,000 Christian denominations in the world. Of course, many Christians would not consider all of these branches valid. Nevertheless, we might well ask, “How can we have unity when there are so many denominations - does this passage from John mean that we should all join together?” Well, ideally, yes!
However, I suggest that when Jesus prayed to God the Father that the church might be ‘one, as we are one’ (v.22) he was not necessarily praying for denominational unity. The unity for which Jesus prayed is a supernatural unity that reflects and participates in the supernatural unity within the very nature of God – the Trinity. It is a spiritual and relational unity expressed in the universal ‘body of Christ’ that we affirm when in the Creed we say, ‘we believe in the holy catholic church’. (In case you have ever wondered this is not referring to the Roman Catholic denomination, but is catholic with a little ‘c’.) This Jesus expressed in those words in verse 21, ‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us ...’ and again in verse 22, ‘... they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me ...’
This unity is brought about not by human effort, but by Jesus giving us the glory that the Father had given to him. Our part in this is not then to create this unity – it already exists. Rather, the responsibility of those who are called into God’s church, you and me, is to maintain and express this unity.
So, the unity for which Jesus prayed is a supernatural unity that arises out of the very nature of our Triune God. And being so it is a unity that may produce supernatural outcomes as indicated by the second thing for which Jesus prayed.
II. Jesus prayed that the world may be persuaded (22-23)
Jesus twice indicates the reason why he prayed that the church may be united: ‘... so that the world may believe ...’ and ‘...so that the world may know ...’ In this we see his great desire and longing for all people to be persuaded to come into the Kingdom of God. This longing for the salvation of all people is evident throughout his public ministry. So, it is not surprising that he prayed that the world may believe.
But there is an important implication for you and me here that we must not miss. We need to understand that the means of answering Jesus’ prayer is the mission of his people. Jesus has passed this mission to us - we are the ones through whom the Holy Spirit works to bring others into the kingdom of God.
Now this mission has two dependent means for achieving it:
The first means is that of proclamation – the communication to the world of the Gospel: the revelation of God the Father through the incarnate Jesus Christ, climaxing in his self-sacrifice for the world’s sin. This is usually expressed in words, as in preaching, teaching and verbal testimony.
But as well as being verbally expressed, the mission must also be visible. Or to put it another way, it must be relational as well as audible. The Father’s love for his Son in all its richness should be persuasively reproduced in the mutual relationships of the Christian congregation! Remember the message two weeks ago and the comment of the second century pagans: “Look how they love each other”
Evangelism is a community act. The gospel preached from the pulpit is either confirmed, and hence immeasurably enhanced, or it is contradicted, and hence immeasurably weakened, by the quality of the relationships in the pews. In this sense, every Christian is a witness for Jesus and the Good News that he brings.
But the proclaimed gospel will become ineffective if it is openly contradicted by unloving and poor relationships within the church community – the community that has been commissioned by Jesus to communicate it. The preacher in the pulpit can preach the gospel until he or she is blue in the face, and it will have no effect if the people in the pews are not living it.
My experience of young people today, such as at the Australian Defence Force Academy is that they are particularly intolerant of hypocrisy. If we preach one thing, but demonstrate another in our relationships, they will quickly ‘right us off’. We need then, to question whether this may explain why young people are not being impacted by the gospel today, and why throughout our land we see a church in decline.
The commentator Bruce Milne particularly emphasised this point. This is what he wrote:
‘The biggest barriers to effective evangelism according to the prayer of Jesus are not so much outdated methods, or inadequate presentations of the gospel, as realities like gossip, insensitivity, negative criticism, jealousy, backbiting, an unforgiving spirit, a ‘root of bitterness’, failure to appreciate others, self-preoccupation, greed, selfishness and every other form of lovelessness. These are the squalid enemies of effective evangelism which render the gospel fruitless and send countless thousands into eternity without a Saviour.’ (p.251)
There is a true story related by a minister Roger Frederikson. The church in which he ministered had been split more than twenty years by a disagreement. Finally, he was able to bring the two congregations back together for a public reconciliation. It was a deeply moving moment. He said that, “As we sang ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’ many people embraced in the crowded sanctuary and their tears of gratitude and joy were mingled. The next day he and others were stopped by people on the street saying that they had heard the ‘good news’. The message (of the gospel) we proclaimed had become ... credible.”
So our role as the body of Christ, ie the church community, is to maintain and express in our relationships with one another the unity that we have as Christians, such that the world may be persuaded. This leads to the third thing for which Jesus prayed and that is ...
III. Jesus prayed that his mission may be completed (24-26)
In verse 24 he prayed that those the Father has given him ‘may be with me where I am, (and) to see my glory.’ I suggest that this refers to the revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ at his second coming, ie the return of Jesus at the end of the age. At this time Jesus will be glorified through the presentation to him of all those whom God had given him. This is when his mission will finally be completed and when the fruit of the maintained and expressed unity within the church will be fully realised.
Is it any wonder then that the focus of Jesus prayer, twice repeated, is on the unity of his church – that we might be one as he and the Father are one. Why? ‘So that the world may believe’ (v.21); ‘... so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’ (v.23)
There is encouragement as well as challenge in Jesus’ prayer for all of his followers. The unity Jesus prayed for is a reality which God himself gives. As such it is a tangible unity which will cause the world to believe that Jesus was sent by God and that God loves the church. And the church is intended to be a visible revelation of the unseen God and his love.
The challenge is for us to be that for which Jesus prayed – to display a unity which, grounded in a relationship with the Father through the Son and Holy Spirit, is sufficiently visible to those outside the church as to promote a positive response to the church in its mission.