John 17:20-26

John 17:20-26     Jesus’ Prayer - For Future Believers

Following the literary convention of Farewell Discourses, the author presented Jesus as looking beyond the immediate prospects to a more distant future. The change of perspective gave the Disciple the opportunity to review and summarise his hopes for his own community and for the disciples who would join them in the future.

20 “II am not praying only for them
but for all those who will believe in me because of their word.
21 I pray that they all be one,. 

The Disciple took it for granted that his community would accept their mission to the world, and that others would come to be numbered among them. People would be attracted to their word to the extent that their integrity and mutual love were tangible. As had been the case with Jesus and his disciples, so, too, would it be with them.

Their love for each other would be their distinguishing, and appealing, feature. The Disciple’s deepest desire for his community was that they all be one in love. (Though the text here had not expressly mentioned love as the source of unity, Jesus had earlier stated that it would be the disciples’ unity in love that would identify them as his disciples [13:34-35]. There is no other real unity than loving unity.)

… just as you Father in me and I in you.
May they be one in us,
so that the world might believe that you sent me.

Jesus’ prayer summed up succinctly his vision of a redeemed and redeeming humanity: people empowered by their sharing in the love-energy of God, interacting with God, themselves and others, always motivated and guided by love. Only such an empowered love could redeem a world motivated by self-interest and guided by envy and rivalry, expressed in the compulsive, and sometimes violent, search for power, possessions and prestige.

For the Disciple, Jesus’ vision was almost beyond belief, offering nothing less than their sharing in the mysteriously intense and intimate unity at the heart of God. 

The vision would remain no more than words until disciples were prepared to reflect at length, and to savour its reality, against the clear background of their honest awareness of themselves. To love would always be struggle. Yet, in that struggle, the disciples would be empowered by the love of God in which they were submerged. Their success would itself reveal the transforming power of that divine love.

22 I have given them the glory that you have given to me
so that they might be one as we are one.

Jesus saw his deepest reality, out of which he lived, as gift of God, as well as revelation of God. Jesus had shared his authentic self with his disciples: his truth, his integrity, his love, his wisdom. I call you friends because I have made known to everything that I have heard from my Father [15:15]. He trusted that, as they learnt to live in him, they would be transformed to live like him. He yearned that they be united through their love – not superficially, but radically so.

Empowered for Love

23 I in them and you in me,
may they be so perfectly one
that the world might realise that you sent me
and that you have loved them just as you have loved me.

This was the third time in as many sentences that Jesus voiced his intense desire that they may be one. The reader cannot ignore the depth and strength of the insistent refrain.

Jesus’ prayer reflected his determined love for the wider, as yet unresponsive, world. At the same time, it saw the divine indwelling enjoyed by disciples as something extending beyond them, to the world. Discipleship is also for the sake of mission.

The Beloved Disciple had learnt the heart of Jesus. He had known Jesus’ love for him, and had returned that love. He intuited something of the mutual love of Jesus and the Father. He appreciated Jesus’ unrelenting prioritisation of love, and insisted on emphasising it. The only way that the world could know experientially the love of Jesus would be as that love took practical shape within the loving unity of the community of disciples. Without that, talk of love would be no more than empty words. And without love, salvation would be illusory: no more than an ideological concept without reality.

The Importance of Loving

Jesus’ insistence on mutual love within the community of disciples, the Church, can easily be forgotten. Perhaps it is inevitable that institutions tend to focus more on what can be clearly defined, commanded or forbidden. It is certainly a temptation; and needs to be clearly resisted.

When disciples are genuinely committed to mutual love, dialogue can resolve most disagreements. However, in bigger institutions, there is need for accessible structures for such dialogue in all areas of the operation, from those closer to the centre to those on the periphery.

Without genuine respect and a readiness to listen, not just to ideas, but to the concerns of the heart, polarisation occurs. Such polarisation is clearly a scandal, and a hindrance to faith and conversion. Jesus was adamant that the priority be always love. He appreciated its difficulties, given that every disciple is a work in progress, and that conversion does not happen in a moment. Yet, the basis has already been laid: disciples have access to the mutual love that flows between Jesus and the Father.

Jesus’ clearly insisted that disciples love one another. Without that love, the community’s witness to the wider world and its works for justice are empty. The distinguishing feature of every Christian community needs to be love. Jesus not only prayed for unity in action, but enabled a real participation in the life of Father and Son. As disciples surrender to the process of being ever more deeply christened, they find themselves wanting and able to reach out to others who are close, and to the wider world, in love and justice.

24 Father, it is my wish
that those you have given me may be with me where I am
and that they may see my glory,
that glory you gave me before the world began.

The Farewell Discourse had begun with Jesus’ assurance that Where my Father lives, there are numerous places to stay [14:2]. Jesus saw his death as the means that would provide access to those places to stay. His death was proof of his love [15:13]. His deep desire was that the disciples would join him in his glory – such was his intimately personal love for each of them.

The Gospel Prologue had already made the point that the Word, through whom the world was made, was with the Father [1:1] and near to the Father’s heart [1:18]. It went on to claim that we beheld his glory, his glory as only son of his Father, full of love and truth [1:14]. 

Jesus’ prayer had been answered for the Beloved Disciple’s community, from where the Prologue had arisen. The Disciple shared Jesus’ desire that the disciples of future ages see Jesus’ glory, his grace and truth, and recognise their origin in the Father. In recognising Jesus, they would know, also, the Father’s heart.

25 Just Father, the world has not known you,
but I have known you,
and they have known that you sent me.
26 I have made your name known to them,
and shall make it known,
so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them
and that I may be in them.

No one can be known deeply for who they are, other than by the gaze of love. Wonderfully, disciples’ gaze of love reaches even to the Father, even though their minds cannot.

Jesus prayed that, as those who believed in him allowed themselves to undergo God’s love, they would be drawn into the intimate life of Father, Son and Spirit. He prayed that God’s love be in them, engaging with them, renewing and transforming them.

Knowing God

It is not only the world at large that has difficulty with believing in and trusting God. Christians can have trouble letting God really love them. Caught up in an ideology that prioritises morality, they draw back from a God who loves them unconditionally, afraid to believe lest they lower their guard and become morally lax. Yet, it is only by firstly accepting God’s love that disciples have any chance of living a truly free and authentic moral life. Christian behaviour is a consequence of love, not a pre-condition for it.

Tragically, the Church can become preoccupied in narrow orthodoxy and moralism, and neglect the priority of unity through love.

The Beloved Disciple’s vision was extraordinarily hope-filled. For him, this was eternal life: an adventure in two movements. It would begin with people being totally caught up in the experience of being loved by the Father, by Jesus, and by each other. It would mature as, swept along by that river of love and energised and empowered by it, they would reach back in love to the Father, to Jesus, to each other and to the world.

The narrative would move to its climax. Jesus had revealed his heart and its deepest desires. He had explained the meaning and purpose of his death and resurrection – his hour[13:1]. He would now face into it.

Next >> John 18:1-12