The gospels only give us a few of the prayers of Jesus. During Holy Week, we may immediately remember how he prayed to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane or from the cross. Added to that list should be the prayer of John 17, in which Jesus asks the Father to consecrate his disciples, setting them apart for mission through the word they have already heard and believed.
But he doesn’t just pray for them. Here are his words:
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. (John 17:20-21, NRSV)
As we’ve seen, Jesus knew the trials his disciples would face after he was gone, and asked the Father to protect them. But then he prayed for everyone who would come to believe through their ministry. One might think, for example, of the 3,000 converts who believed on the day of Pentecost, and the many, many others we read about in the book of Acts. They would all face many of the same pressures about which Jesus had already warned his disciples.
I think it fair to say that centuries down the line, we are the beneficiaries of that ministry and that prayer. Not that Jesus actually had an image of each of us in mind as he prayed. But everything he told the disciples that evening was forward-looking, from the immediate future all the way to the day of his return. We are part of that future; Jesus was praying for us.
And for what does he pray? Unity. He describes his relationship with the Father in the most intimate of terms: the Father is in the Son; the Son is in the Father. Then he prays that we would be in them.
I doubt that anyone will ever be able to explain what all of that means in a way that is transparent and obvious to the human mind. I certainly can’t. Given what Jesus has already said, I suspect that this is another way to speak of our having the Holy Spirit in us (and don’t ask me to draw a diagram of that either). But even if we can’t fully comprehend the enormity of what Jesus is saying, we can appreciate that he is asking for us to be drawn into the unity of the relationship between the Father and Son, a unity of mind and purpose that Jesus has been talking about all through the gospel of John.
And why? “That the world may believe.”
Jesus has repeatedly mentioned how the world, in fact, doesn’t believe. But that doesn’t mean the mission is over and done once Easter has come and gone. Quite the contrary — it’s only beginning.
It’s sobering, however, to consider how little the idea of unity among Christians may figure into our ideas of evangelism. Division and conflict among Christians is one of the major reasons for those outside the church to label us hypocrites and dismiss both us and our message. What people need to see is the kind of unity that points them to God.
And the core of that unity is love. More on that in the next post.