Unanswered Prayer – Sermon on John 17:20-26 for Easter 7C

June 2, 2019

We are caught in a time warp. This is the Sunday when we celebrate Christ’s ascension into heaven, as we heard in the reading from Acts a few moments ago. But it is also the final Sunday in the season of Eastertide, and throughout this season we have been listening to Jesus’ talk with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion.

On the one hand, we should be looking up into the heavens as the resurrected Christ returns to his Father. On the other hand, we are still in the upper room, and the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday haven’t happened yet. We are caught in a time warp between pre-crucifixion and post-resurrection.

When you think about it, this sums up our lives as Christians. We still need a Savior every moment of every day, even as we rejoice in Christ’s completed work on the cross for us, and his ultimate triumph over sin and death. We are caught in the already/not yet of the Kingdom of God.

The gospel readings for Eastertide come from John, and only John gives us the full account of that last conversation around the table. Jesus has been distilling the last three years worth of teaching into these final words. We could jump to the story of Christ’s ascension today, but it would feel rude to get up and leave in the middle of this intimate conversation we’ve been following. So let’s stay here one more week, and listen as Jesus shifts from teaching to praying, from giving his disciples information to offering intercession for them. And us.

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. 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, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Have you ever listened while someone prayed for you? How did that make you feel? Was it awkward, or were you overwhelmed with the sense of being deeply loved? Were you surprised at the words said on your behalf?

As you think about that experience, let me ask you something else. Would you rather have Jesus talking to you or praying for you? There’s no “right” answer to that question, and your answer might be different today than it will be tomorrow.

In chapters 13 through 16 of John’s gospel, Jesus has been talking to his disciples. But when we get to chapter 17 he’s said all he can say, so Jesus closes the meeting in prayer. We call this the Priestly Prayer because Jesus is interceding for others to God, just as a priest would do. And this prayer follows a progression from the very specific to the broadest possible generalization.

First, Jesus prays for himself, and on the surface, it sounds like a pretty bold prayer. He is certainly not in the kind of agony the other gospels describe as Jesus prays in Gethsemane. He asks the Father to glorify him, the Son, with the glory the Father has given to him, so that the Son can glorify the Father (vv1-5). But the glory Jesus is talking about is the glory of the Cross. It’s the glory of giving himself up for the sake of the world he came to save.

If we want to identify with Jesus, are we really ready to claim that glory?
Are we willing to suffer for someone else’s sake?

Then Jesus prays for those seated at the table with him. We might expect him to pray for God to give them comfort in the loss they are about to experience, or to keep them true to their purpose of spreading the good news.

But Jesus prays the same prayer a mother prays when her children are out late at night, or they drive on their own for the very first time, or they start hanging around with friends she doesn’t quite trust. It’s a prayer for protection. (vv 6-19)

Jesus says, “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. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (vv 11-12). And then he goes on to say, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” (v.15).

Finally, he prays for everyone who will be touched by their witness – and that includes you and me. This prayer is for one-ness.

Lucy Lind Hogan writes, “It is a prayer for community. Jesus prays that, ‘all may be one.’ To be a follower of Jesus is to be a part of a greater whole. According to Jesus there are to be no solitary Christians or spiritual ‘Lone Rangers.’ … We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not. We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not. To become a part of Christ is to become a part of the community; a part of the one.”[1]

Throughout this prayer, John engages in some Greek wordplay. The only difference between the word “one” and the word “in” is a tiny diacritical mark, a little tick above the vowel to indicate that the word meaning “one” has an “h” sound at the beginning. Four times Jesus calls for one-ness, but that unity is more than solidarity. It comes from the seven times he says “in” – I in you, you in me, they in me, you in them… One-ness comes from being ‘in’ Christ.

This prayer harkens back to chapter 15, where Jesus was talking about the vine and branches. Abide IN me. Remain IN me. Now he is asking the Father to make us all one with God and one with each other.

Theologian Miroslav Volf calls this “mutual interiority,” where two people each maintain their own personal identity, while opening themselves to each other and allowing the other to be included within their personal space.[2]

But we don’t really need to use a fancy name. Jesus invites all who believe in him into the one-ness of the Triune God. And this one-ness is grounded and rooted in love that gives its all.

This is the kind of self-giving love that is more than a feeling. It’s a choice to reciprocate the love God offers us. It’s a choice to love God back by loving each other. This kind of love challenges us “to be enough of a self to engage in self-giving love.[3] Any failure to live in unity is usually a failure to reciprocate – a failure to love God back.

I mentioned this love Christ wants us to have for each other a couple of weeks ago, when we heard Jesus give the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us. This love binds us together, even when we disagree on important questions of how to be the church, how to be followers of Jesus Christ. I pointed out that right now, the United Methodist Church is struggling with Christ’s call to unity, because we can’t agree on the topic of human sexuality.

Sometimes an illustration is more powerful than the concept it is being used to describe. Instructional researcher Madeline Hunter used to say, “don’t bring an elephant into the room to demonstrate the concept ‘gray.’” And for some of you, questions surrounding how we minister to the LGBTQ community make a pretty big elephant.

But the point isn’t just that we need to talk about homosexuality. The point is that we need to hold all our conversations in the framework of Christian unity. Christ prayed for that nearly 2000 years ago, and he is still waiting for an answer to that prayer. Think about that. On his last night with his disciples, when he pours out his heart to them and for them, he prays this prayer – and it hasn’t been answered yet.

We keep becoming more and more disunited instead of more and more … one. The unity Christ hoped for isn’t necessarily a call to agreement on every issue. It’s simply a call to commit ourselves to sticking together, and to keep loving one another in the midst of disagreement.

It’s a way to show the world how to disagree and love each other at the same time. This is the reason why our unity is so important to Jesus that he asks for it four times in two and a half verses. It isn’t just for our benefit. It isn’t just for Christ’s benefit. Christ’s prayer for unity has only one goal: that the world would know God has sent Jesus into the world.

And so it’s important for you to know that when you start talking about someone’s sexual identity as being an abomination to the Lord, there are people in this room you are hurting. There are people in this community you are excluding from God’s grace, people who are hungry for the church to accept them as beloved children of God, made in God’s image. And the world is watching.

And by the same token, whenever you say things like, “that’s not what the Bible really says,” or “we ignore other parts of scripture we don’t like, so why can’t you ignore these six verses?” you are hurting people for whom the Bible is of primary importance, to whom Scripture is the only rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct. You are attacking everything they hold dear about the centrality of Scripture. And the world is watching.

So, it’s not an either/or and it’s not even a both/and – the question is: how can we talk together about these things in a way that shows love? That’s the bottom line. That’s what Jesus was asking for when he asked the Father to make us one. This has little to do with denominational polity, sexuality, or crafting some kind of compromise to keep us all together. It is about sharing this one message: Jesus is the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. My sins. Your sins. All sin.

I am convinced that Satan would like nothing better than for us to be distracted by debates over what the Book of Discipline says about homosexuality. Satan would like nothing better than for all our energy to be spent arguing with one another, so that we have no energy left to share the good news that Jesus is Lord, that he died for all, and that grace abounds for those who will claim it.

But we don’t have to let Satan get his way on this one. I think there is much to be gained by discussing how we, as a church, want to live out our calling to offer hope and healing to a broken world. Our main concern should be deciding how we can minister to people whose primary identity has not yet become “faithful follower of Jesus Christ” – whatever their primary identity currently happens to be.

Let us do that with grace and love for one another, so that the witness we bear points others to Jesus, and Jesus alone. Only then can Jesus finally expect an answer to his prayer that we might be one, even as he and the Father are one. Only then can the Kingdom of God become fully real. Only then can we gather around this Table, offer one another Bread and Cup, and rejoice as we hear once again the reminder that, because we who are many partake of the One Loaf, we have been made one in Christ Jesus.

[1] Lucy Lind Hogan, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1637

[2] Miroslav Volf explores the idea of ‘mutual interiority’ in his book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon, 1996).

[3] Geoffrey M. St. J. Hoare, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, 542.

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