In his 2016 book entitled Be Light, author Samuel Rodriguez tells the following story:
In 1957, a graduate student at Columbia University named Gordon Gould had been working with “pumping” atoms to higher energy states so they would emit light. As Gould elaborated his ideas and speculated about all the things that could be done with a concentrated beam of light, he realized he was onto something. In his notebook, he named the yet-to-be-invented device a LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).
Sixty years later, we are still seeing the impact of this remarkable tool. Very recently, Lockheed Martin boasted about their new laser, a ground-based prototype system that burned through an entire car engine in a matter of seconds from over a mile away. The company called this laser system the most “efficient and lethal” version on the planet.
From a spiritual perspective, the laser represents the ultimate expression of the impact we can have in a world in need of light. If we are able to understand the stunning power of unity expressed in a laser beam and translate it into our own lives, we might have a greater impact on those around us than ever before.
There is indeed a “stunning power to unity.” And that’s our focus for today. Today we will focus on the prayer of Jesus in John 17, a prayer for unity.
Read John 17:1-5
In John’s Gospel, when Jesus talks about glory, it is always a reference to the cross. We’ll talk about this a bit more next week, but it’s important to point out here because Jesus prays for God to glorify Him in the events that are about to unfold. Several times in John’s Gospel, Jesus has made the statement, “My time has not yet come.” But now the time for His glorification has come as the events that lead to the cross begin to rapidly unfold. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “My greatest moment is when these forces think they’re killing me.” This is the glory of the cross.
Read John 17:6-11, 20-23
This is one of those prayers that functions as a sermon. You know the kind. It’s the kind of prayer your mother would pray when you and your siblings were bickering and arguing. She’d pray, “Lord, please help us to respect one another and treat people the way you want us to treat people!” Mom is praying, but she’s also preaching. That’s a sermon-prayer.
In John 17, Jesus delivers a sermon-prayer. And the focal point of this prayer is unity.
We could divide this prayer in John 17 into three sections:
- V1-5, Jesus prays for Himself
- V6-19, Jesus prays for the disciples
- V20-26, Jesus prays for the church
Some scholars have noted that this prayer is a summary of the entire Gospel of John to this point. It contains many of John’s primary themes: Jesus’ obedience to the Father, the glorification of Jesus at the cross, the disciples’ mission to the world. Throughout the prayer, Jesus is praying for unity. He points out the unity that He and the Father share; he prays for the unity of his disciples, that they might be one as the Father and the Son are one; and Jesus echoes this same thought by praying that all believers would be in complete unity with one another.
The key to this kind of unity is Jesus himself.
At the time John’s Gospel was written, things were beginning to get rough for followers of Jesus. Persecution was mounting. Christians were divided over a variety of different things. With this in mind, it is easy to see why God would want John to record this particular prayer in his Gospel. When external stress mounts, it’s easy for us to begin bickering internally. Have you ever noticed a correlation between your stressful seasons at work and your snippiness toward your family? (If you’ve never noticed this, try asking your family members!) As the church faced persecution, this prayer is an important reminder that Jesus doesn’t want his followers turning on one another.
I have a friend who recently preached through this same passage and he had a memorable way of summarizing this: “God is glorified when His people are unified.” It’s a good line, not only because it’s memorable but because it gets to the heart of Jesus’ prayer. God is glorified when His people keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).
In his sermon-prayer, Jesus tells us precisely why Christian unity is so important:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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…May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
(John 17:20-21, 23)
Our unity declares God’s mission of love to the world.
According to Jesus, our unity declares that the Father sent Jesus into the world. Our unity lets the world know about God’s love. How? If the love of God is great enough to unite all of us together, then others will know that God’s love is great enough for them, too. The idea is that our unity would declare God’s mission of love to the world, giving them something to believe in.
Unity among believers is modeled after the unity God shares within Himself, the unity of the Father and the Son. Jesus prays that all believers would be brought into complete unity – the word John uses here is a form of the Greek word telos, which refers to an end, a goal. Think of the way a telescope functions to bring close that which is far away. So, Jesus is praying that our unity would be “telescopic” – that our unity would bring God’s love near. He’s praying that we will embody in the present the kind of unity we will experience in the end, that heaven’s unity would be experienced now. In so doing, our unity becomes a Gospel declaration.
So, my friend is right: God is truly glorified when His people are unified to this degree.
As we can see, the stakes are quite high here. We’re responsible to declare the mission and love of God by the way we unite together as one. And we can also demonstrate these high stakes by taking up this postulate in the negative.
Our lack of unity contributes to the world’s unbelief.
If our unity declares God’s mission of love to the world, what do we declare when we aren’t unified? What does our discord declare? If our unity is intended to bring God’s mission of love near, our lack of unity can have a catastrophic effect in our world.
Every church split sets back the preaching of the Gospel in that community more than we’ll ever know. Every time the followers of Jesus rip each other to shreds, someone who doesn’t believe walks away, never to return. I can imagine someone saying, “I can get that kind of ugliness and nastiness anywhere. I’m done with this.” If our unity gives the world something to believe in, Christian discord contributes to disbelief.
God is glorified when His people are unified. The statement also prompts us to ask, “Who is glorified when God’s people are NOT unified?” I think we know the answer.
What is the greatest threat to Christian unity?
If our unity matters this much to Jesus – so much so that He was praying about it hours before His crucifixion – then we would do well to guard ourselves against threats to our unity. What would you consider to be the greatest threat to Christian unity?
I put this question before my friends this week. As you might imagine, there were a variety of answers. Here are just a few:
- “Fear. When we can’t be real for fear of judgment, or we fear others aren’t real with us, resentment sets in and divides us.”
- “Feeling like you are the only one with that problem.”
- “For me – it’s not what – it’s who? Satan is the father of all lies – the great deceiver. Disunity is one of his preferred weapons because it gives us a perceived enemy while taking our eyes off the most legitimate threat of all.”
- “The coalescing of Biblical truth with social norms.”
- “Political differences.”
- “Silence. The enemy doesn’t want us to communicate on any level. He likes it when we are safe in our Holy huddles.”
- “Lack of love.”
Clearly there are some serious threats to our unity in Christ. But among my friends, one answer was repeated more than any other. Some called it “selfishness” while others called it “pride”, but in the end most of my friends said the same thing. My own selfish pride is the greatest threat to Christian unity.
An author named Alan Redpath once wrote, “The secret of every discord in Christian homes and communities and churches is that we seek our own way and our own glory.” This is true. When we collectively seek the glory that Jesus speaks of here in John 17 – the glory of the cross – rather than our own glory, unity is the natural result. But when we seek our own way and our own glory, we live out the tragic refrain from the book of Judges: Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. When this happens, unity in Christ erodes.
There’s a story attributed to G.K. Chesterton, probably because he wrote a book titled, What’s Wrong with the World? Someone wrote to the Times of London and simply asked, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton, it was said, famously wrote back the following reply:
In like fashion, in response to the question “What is the greatest threat to Christian unity?”, my answer is the same as Chesterton’s: “I am.” My own selfishness is the greatest threat to experiencing the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.
Let’s put it this way: Who determines how the prayer of Jesus is answered?
Well, the Father must have something to say about all of this, otherwise Jesus wouldn’t pray to Him about it. So, we can’t leave Him out of our answer. But we are also forced to recognize our own culpability here. Again this is a sermon-prayer, so the “sermon part” is on us. Let’s face it: if you and I get crossways with one another, then we bear the responsibility to work that out and reconcile in the name of Christ. Whether you and I get along is up to the two of us.
That means that we help determine the degree to which the prayer of Jesus is answered. We help determine the outcome.
Picture Jesus praying these words. In the final moments before the guard come to take him away, Jesus is concerned with the way you and I treat one another. He’s concerned with the way this church treats that church. Picture Jesus asking that “the stunning power of unity” would be demonstrated in the church that bears His name.
This week’s dare: think long and hard about your relationships. Are you in conflict with a brother or sister in Christ? As much as it depends on you, are you living at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18)? Or are you sowing seeds of discord in the body of Christ? If you’re sowing those seeds of discord, the Biblical word for that action is strong: anti-Christ. You are actively working to subvert the very thing that Jesus is praying for in John 17. And when you set yourself up against the work of Christ, the biblical word for that is anti-Christ. I hope that language makes you uncomfortable, because it should.
May we dare to live out the prayer of Jesus, that the world might know of God’s mission of love. God is glorified when His people are unified.