Sermon: “That They May All Be One” (John 17:20–26)
In the first section of the High Priestly Prayer (John 17:1–6), Jesus prayed that his Father would not abandon him to the grave, but would rather glorify him on the basis of his completed work during his earthly ministry. In the second section (John 17:7–19), Jesus asked that his Father would sanctify the people whom Jesus had set apart from the world through their calling as his disciples. In this last section, Jesus turns his attention toward praying for the final need of his people: their unity in the gospel. Jesus does not pray for a feigned or forced unity, where his people paper over real theological, ethical, or spiritual divisions to present a united front to the world. Instead, Jesus prays that his people will ever grow together in their unity according to the true doctrine of his word.
In the course of this prayer, Jesus acknowledges the primary challenge to this prayer for unity: his bodily absence from the world after his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. How will his people find unity in the truth if Jesus, their unifying force, has departed from this world? During his ministry in their midst, Jesus lived to pour out the word of his Father to his disciples (John 17:6–8, 14, 17). After Jesus departs, the disciples will no longer have Jesus in their midst as a stabilizing force to reorient them to the truth. Furthermore, any new disciples who were not present during Jesus’ earthly ministry will have no opportunity to listen to teach directly. How, then, will those disciples grow in unity with the disciples who sat literally at Jesus’ feet? In the face of these challenges, here Jesus intercedes for the unity of his church in the gospel.