Seventh Sunday of Easter
Anyone who has ever had even a little ambivalence about the ecumenical movement or about the capacity for truth telling in ecumenical dialogues and agreements between church bodies can probably remember hearing John 17:20-26 used in response to their questions. "We have to seek unity with every Christian on earth. It's what Jesus wants. In fact, he wanted it so much he asked God to make it happen. He prayed for his followers, "that they may be one, even as we are one" (John 17:22).
The effect of this speech is that people who have misgivings about an ecumenical initiative are put on the side of those who are against what Jesus wanted and prayed for. The text stretches like duct tape over the mouths of anyone who would say, "But... but...." until the one quoting the text can say, "There, that's better. Unity. We speak with one voice." If this is the only way we can use the text, it is surely better for the cause of unity in the church—and the honoring of all members of the body of Christ—if we focus our attention this week on one of the other readings.
I am, however, not ready to give up on the gospel reading. Looking at it closely, I see that Jesus does not say, "Silence questions among them." Or, "Grant that they agree on everything." It helps to notice that Jesus is praying here for followers who will believe because of the witness of the apostles. At another place, Jesus refers to such people as, "Those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (John 20:29).
This part of Jesus' prayer in John 17 is a request for the apostolic witness to be as faithful to God's true character as Jesus' own witness to the Father has been. In the prologue to the gospel, John writes, "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (1:18). In chapter 17, Jesus prays that his apostles will continue the work he began to make God known. As the prayer is answered, those who hear Christians bear witness to their faith will come to know the very things Jesus made known to his followers: things like (a) how and how much God loved the world, (b) that the cross reveals Christ's glory, and (c) how eager Jesus is that all "may be with me where I am" (John 17:24).
Denominational and confessional divisions among those who name Jesus as Lord are sometimes a stumbling block to faith for unbelievers: "Christians cannot agree on anything even among themselves. How much of a handle on truth can they actually have?" When our divisions stop unbelievers from inquiring further, or when our idolatrous fascinations with internecine conflict turn people off from wanting even to keep company with us, repentance is called for. Yet at least as big a problem—and arguably the problem addressed by these verses of Christ's prayer—is our failure to tell the story of how and how much God loved the world. God wants to know and to be known by God's people. Jesus wants all of God's people with him where he is. The book of Revelation pictures us all exactly there, gathered around Christ and joining in song. For this dream to come true, Jesus prays, "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 17:21).