According to John, it was the last thing Jesus said in the upper room on Maundy Thursday. After teaching his disciples many things about himself, the world, and the things to come, Jesus concluded his last evening with his disciples in prayer to the Father. And he concluded his prayer with the words in this text. As the old saying goes, you can learn a lot about a man by listening in on his prayers.
What can we learn about Jesus through this prayer? It helps to pay close attention to the details. I’m thinking especially of the pronouns and the ἵνα clauses. Let’s start with the pronouns. The pronouns show that Jesus isn’t praying for the world in these verses. Neither is he praying for the disciples. (He prayed for the disciples in the verses leading up to this text.) In verses 20-26 Jesus prays for those who would believe in him through the apostolic Word. In other words, he was praying for you, me, your congregation, the church. In this way we are more directly part of this text that the previous chapters.
What does Jesus ask the Father? What does he want for (and from) those who follow him? Here is where attention to the ἵνα clauses is helpful.
There are nine ἵνα clauses in these six verses. How we read them makes a difference. Three of them are found in verse 21. The first two describe the content of Jesus’ prayer. Jesus was praying that (ἵνα) all believers in him would be one just as (καθὼς) Jesus and the Father are one. That’s really close. Jesus desires an other-worldly unity among his people. But that’s not all. Jesus also prayed that (ἵνα) these believers would be “in us.” In other words, Jesus doesn’t only desire for his people to be close to each other, but also close to him and the Father. Indeed, the only real unity is unity around and in the triune God. These first two ἵνα clauses help us understand the content of Jesus’ prayer.
But there’s a third ἵνα clause in verse 21, and it does something else. It is a purpose clause, and it points to the ends of this unity. Jesus desires that, through Christian unity, the world might believe that he was sent by the Father. Note that Jesus’ doesn’t pray for the world directly. Instead, he prays for the world through the unity of his people. The unity of the church is a witness to the world. It is fundamental to the church’s mission.
What might a sermon on this text look like?
First things first: please don’t use the phrase “ἵνα clause” in your sermon. Take a cue from Luther here. Robert Kolb explains, “Luther deplored arrogance in the pulpit and counseled simplicity. No Latin, Greek, or Hebrew should divert the hearer from the plain truth in the mother tongue.”
I suggest using this sermon to take your hearers into the heart of Jesus. You could set the stage by reminding them of the context of this prayer, especially what immediately follows as they go to Gethsemane. Then I would invite the hearers to listen in on his prayer and take seriously his deep desire for true Christian unity. Honest reflection will involve facing the fact that Christian unity is sorely lacking these days. It should not be hard to find examples. You could grieve the fragmentation of the church into so many denominations. You could lament the biting and devouring that takes place between members of your own denomination. You could mourn the lack of concern individual members of your congregation have for one another. Each of these cases provide opportunities to call out ways in which your hearers have contributed to this lack of unity. (This might begin with some honest self-reflection on your own part.)
The gracious heart of Jesus, however, should dominate this sermon. Note only does he desire unity in the church and unity with God. He does what it takes to make it happen. Here is where you proclaim the promise of God in Christ directly to your hearers. He endured separation on the cross to reunite us to God and one another. His entire mission is one of bringing back together what sin and death have torn apart--not only for those already in the church, but also for the entire world.
Part of this proclamation includes the call to humble and sacrificial love for brothers and sisters in Christ. Bonhoeffer comes to mind here. In his first major work, The Communion of Saints, he wrote this about the church: “The community is constituted by the complete self-forgetfulness of love. The relationship between I and thou is no longer essentially a demanding, but a giving one.” Jesus practiced true self-forgetfulness of love for us, restoring our relationship with God and each other by giving himself. Now he sends us to give ourselves self-forgetfully to one another so that all the world may know him and believe.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 17:20-26.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 17:20-26.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 16:23-33.