16th June 2016, Lyon, France. Not a date or place that will stand out for many of you. But this was the momentous day Northern Ireland battered Ukraine 2-0 at Euro 2016… I was in the stadium and it was an amazing atmosphere, it even poured it down with hail… it was just like being in Northern Ireland! Now, I appreciate that there will be many of us here who don't like football, and an even larger proportion of us who have no interest in the fortunes of the Northern Irish football team. And that's ok - none of us are perfect! But I'm sure you'll understand that one thing that stands out for me that day was a real sense of togetherness – as thousands of people were united in cheering for the same cause.
Togetherness, or unity, is such an intense feeling that it can be felt keenly in inconsequential situations like football matches and, of course, much more deeply in the context of relationships with friends or family. Our passage this evening is all about being united with God himself – the most powerful and supreme unity in the universe. Jesus' prayer here takes place on Thursday evening the day before he will die on the cross. Last week Ben unpacked the first part of this prayer where Jesus prayed for his apostles and in this passage we have a notable shift. Do please open your Bibles to John 17.20:
"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word…"
Those who will believe in me. Jesus is looking to what is to come. As easily as a sea captain peering through a telescope to the horizon Jesus looks through the pages of the future to his death on the cross, his rising from the dead and beyond that to a church of believers based on the apostle's record of the truth found in the Bible. So Jesus is praying for all Christians who will believe throughout all of time – including us today. And in this incredible prayer we see first of all that:
1. Jesus prays for believers to be united so that the world may believe in him (vv20-23)
"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me."
Midway through verse 21 Jesus prays that we may be in the Father and the Son. The Father and the Son are distinct and different but they are bound together as one in a tight knit relationship of love. And Jesus is looking forward to his death on the cross and saying: 'Father this is what I want the cross to achieve – that your people would be united in relationship with us and united with each other in love'. And we can say today: this is what the cross has achieved! The cross makes it possible for us to live a life in an intimate relationship with God: dependent on him for continual forgiveness from sin and trusting our lives to his care.
If you are here this evening and you're thinking through Christian things then you need to see this is the relationship Jesus wants with you. He wants you to be in him - depending on his care and constant forgiveness. And to have this relationship with God you need to turn from your rejection of him and place your trust in Jesus. But Jesus is also praying that we, as Christians, would be united with each other. Verse 22:
"The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one…"
God's glory – the goodness of his character – is revealed to us today supremely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus so that we would be united as one. Now some measure of unity between the early followers of Jesus is already there. But Jesus' prayer in verse 23 shows us it's going to take the cross to make that perfect. For us, this side of the cross we live in the age of oneness with the Father and each other. So we don't need to create our unity but we do need to work hard to keep it visible. Why? Well look to verse midway through verse 21:
"…so that the world may believe that you have sent me."
And verse 23:
"…so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me."
So the idea here is that those around us look at us and think: 'look how loving they are towards one another… where does that come from?' And in time they'll see that it comes from the unity of shared love in the Lord Jesus.
Now there's much that could be said about wider church unity or denominations but time doesn't allow for it. And, I think, it's more important for us to think about how this applies to our church family because that is where our love and unity will really get worked out. And so the questions for us are: Is our unity visible? And are we displayers of unity to the world?
Being united means we'll be committed in love to each other. We need to belong to one other, not just attend with one another, which in a large church like this can be hard as there are so many people coming and going and so we need to find ways to be committed to some, not all.
And it means that we will act with humility, patience and love for one another even when we disagree. It means that when we disagree we will learn and work hard to disagree well with one another. And it means that we won't seek to be divisive – we'll keep issues we agree are secondary as secondary.
It means we all need to protect what unites us, which means defending what the Bible says about who Jesus is, what he did on the cross and the authoritative nature of the Bible itself.
And we'll fight against disunity which can often be more subtle and discreet than we realise. Things like gossip, insensitivity, backbiting, bitterness and lack of forgiveness divide us and in turn affect our witness. And we're kidding ourselves if we think in a church this size these things are never a problem. Perhaps the easiest way to clean up our church is to start by cleaning up ourselves.
Our country is one characterised by chronic disunity at the moment - what an opportunity for our unity to shine out so that the world may believe. Groups in our society are often bound into pots by things they have in common: ethnicity, interests, political viewpoints, work or religion. But what if you don't fit neatly into a pot? Brother and sisters we're not bound together by likes or dislikes, by what we look like, where we come from or what we do, but by unity in the love of Jesus given to us. And that is something radically different to the world around us that cannot be explained in human terms and ultimately points to something greater.
The truth is there are many who have noticed this among us – and have become part of our family here - so let's continue to play our part in working on our unity so that the world might believe.
Because of the sinful nature of the world that we live in, our unity won't be experienced perfectly, or fully, until we get to heaven… which brings us to our next point:
2. Jesus prays that believers will make it to heaven to be with him (v24)
"Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world."
Here we see that the ultimate purpose that Jesus has for us as Christians is not the here-and-now job of how his name will be known, rather the pinnacle is that Jesus wants us to be with him where he is in glory (i.e. heaven) – here we will experience perfect unity with him and each other.
And Jesus wants us to be with him in heaven so that we see his glory. The word 'see' here literally means 'to observe with sustained attention' and includes the idea of experiencing something in a deeper way. In one sense, of course, we do 'see' God right now in the gospel and with the eyes of faith that he has given us. But it's a bit like looking through frosted glass; we see something but there's so much more to see. Or, like in a marriage – when you get married you, hopefully, know the other person but there's much more to learn about them as the marriage goes on (so I'm told!), so you can be in permanent relationship with the other person but that doesn't mean you automatically see everything about them straightaway.
And the reasons we don't see God's full glory are because in this world we are affected by ongoing sin and as finite beings we can't literally see Jesus. So, because of this we are perpetually prone to:
- Underestimate God: perhaps by failing to fully comprehend just what he has achieved on the cross and what he is capable of doing among us.
- Or doubt God: at times we doubt his promise of forgiveness, we doubt he knows what is best for us, we doubt he is really good and we doubt he is in control.
- Or we're prone to brush God aside at times thinking little of him or thinking of him little.
Now we need to recognise when we're doing these things and fight against them. But we can take heart that Jesus knows what we are prone to. And, ultimately it's not what he wants for us. He wants us to be with him in heaven where, as 1 John 3:2 puts it, we will in some measure 'be like him' because we will finally 'see him as he is'. The frosted glass of this world will be removed and we will see God in all his splendour!
Life in this world will be hard. Maybe for some of us right now it is difficult as we experience trouble at work, difficulties in relationships, the constant frustration of sin or the sometimes weary nature of life. These things can cause us to underestimate God, to doubt him or to push him to the periphery. And perhaps we look onwards and wonder how it's ever going to get easier. When one situation improves we're relieved, but we're all too aware that something else nasty might be waiting for us around the corner – but we can be assured that heaven is at the end of the road! And the very love of the God at work in us now will get us there where will see and enjoy the fullness of his character. We know, ultimately, where we are going - we need to press on trusting that if Jesus wants and prays for this, we can be assured it will happen despite our weakness. But until we reach heaven, Jesus' purpose in our world is summed up in verses 25-26; let me read those for us again:
"O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."
So thirdly we see that:
3. Jesus prays that the cross will make his Father fully known (vv25-26)
We see in verse 26 that Jesus begins by saying "I made known to them your name" – which is a description of his ministry on earth so far. But he prays promising that he "will continue to make it known". That is a wonderful promise. If Jesus had just said 'I have made you known' we'd look back on his three years of public ministry and think 'that was an amazing time because God the Father was made known… but no longer'. But that's not what Jesus says; he promises that he will continue to make the Father's name known. In other words, he prays promising that he will make God's name known supremely by what he is about do on the cross. And the implications for us are spectacular as verse 26 says:
"the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them"
That means that when we come to understand and trust in Jesus' work on the cross we experience being loved by God in the way that Jesus was loved by his Father and we share in that.
Jesus is hours away from a terrible death and as the sand at the top of the hour glass of his life becomes a tiny trickle… look, this is the depth with which he prays for us. And now we can look and say 'this is what Jesus has achieved, this is what we experience and share in'. How we can praise God for that! How we can share the gospel with boldness and confidence knowing that the man whose prayers are always answered is committed to continuing to make his Father's name known through the cross, by his Spirit. So as we look at the opportunities we have around us individually and together as we look forward to our Big Question mission in October we should take heart. The Holy Spirit is at work among us and through our witness is continuing to make the name of God known.
So friends, what a remarkable prayer we have before us – words so rich in meaning we will struggle to understand the entire depth of what they mean. Yet words so clearly challenging - urging us to work on our unity and love as we witness to the world. And words so heart-warming and encouraging showing us what the Lord Jesus intended and still desires for us – ultimately to get us to a glorious heaven and until then to make the name of his Father known… so that the world may believe. Let's pray:
Father, we thank and praise you that through faith in your Son's work on the cross we are united with you and each other and that, ultimately, no matter what, you will get us to heaven where we will enjoy your presence and glory forever. We ask that you would continue to help us as a church to be united in our love for one another. We're sorry for the times we fail but ask that you would use our imperfect unity to attract many to you. For Jesus' sake. Amen.