Göttinger Predigten im Internet
ed. by U. Nembach, J. Neukirch

7 Easter (RCL), 8 May 2005
A Sermon on John 17:1-11 by Samuel Zumwalt

(->current sermons )

John 17:1-11

1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 6 "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Among pastors and theologians, one hears often enough that the unity of Christ’s Church is a given just before they begin to talk about our differences in faith and practice. Because Paul says in Ephesians 4 that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, many pastors and theologians like to say that Christ’s Church is one no matter how much individual Christians may differ and disagree with each other.

Evangelical Christians tend to say that all those that confess Jesus as Lord are united in Him. Liturgical Christians tend to say that all that are baptized in the name of the Triune God are united in Him. Unity in Christ is a given, theologians and pastors like to say, and most agree that the visible disunity of Christians is a scandal. Notably the new leader of 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI, says that working for the visible unity of the Church will be a major goal during his papacy.

The disunity of Christians is bothersome to more than us Christians. There is no doubt that the visible disunity of Christians is a scandal to the world – particularly to unbelievers. Doubtless some unbelievers wonder: “Why can’t those Christians get along?” People that profess no faith often look at feuding Christians and doubt that being a Christian makes any good difference in the life of a believer. When it comes to being nice or even being charitable, one unbeliever can almost always find several unbelievers that far surpass many self-identified Christians. “So, what’s the point of being Christian if it doesn’t make you a better person?” they say.

Typically Christians don’t like to respond to such questions or criticisms. Rather one often hears a more positive take on the scandal of disunity. Among a number of pastors and theologians the rallying cry is: “Unity in diversity” or “United in Christ despite our differences.” Some pastors and theologians like to say: “We are united at the altar and the baptismal font despite our profound differences.”

But such a positive approach doesn’t just stop there. Some Christians like to point to shared faith of any kind as a type of unity between believers in God. These Christians like to find common cause with anyone that focuses on what the prophet Micah called doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. In short, some pastors and theologians declare victory by saying: “All of us believers are already one in God’s eyes.” Or some say, “I am one with those that share my commitments.”

Today I would like to look a bit closer at this final prayer of Jesus in John 17. Perhaps we will be able to hear more clearly what it is that the Lord Jesus prays for in the night before His death.

Because today’s Gospel reading ends at verse 11 omitting the final 15 verses, we miss the full shape of this prayer of Jesus before He willingly goes to His death on the cross. God’s Messiah is at the end of a long line of Jewish leaders who offer final words of exhortation, encouragement, and even prayer (think of Moses, Joshua, and Ezra). Jesus prays for Himself in the first six or eight verses directed towards His heavenly Father (some scholars say that only the first six verses are included in this section). Then, in the next thirteen or eleven verses, accordingly, He prays for His disciples. Finally, in the last seven verses, He prays for all believers of every time and place.

In this closing prayer, the Lord Jesus underscores that He and the Father share more than a moral unity. It is not the case that the most excellent rabbi Jesus teaches what a transcendent God wills for humans. It is not the case that the divine messenger Jesus reveals great secrets or insider information to those that learn from him. Rather Jesus is God in the flesh, the only begotten Son of the Father from all eternity. Through His kenosis (emptying) the Lord Jesus has laid aside His heavenly glory (His wholly otherness or transcendence) in order to become human in order to save humankind from eternal death.

Yet, at the same time, the Lord Jesus has glorified the Father through His signs (mighty acts in chapters 2-11), and now He will glorify the Father through His death on a cross. In the process of His dying, rising, and ascension to the Father, the Lord Jesus will again enter into the glory He once enjoyed with the Father. The Father will glorify the Son, says our Lord with great confidence. Indeed this oneness of Father and Son is an astonishing mystery that the children of God are privileged to witness and even overhear as the Lord Jesus prays this last prayer before going to His death on the cross.

He reminds His Father that He is faithfully completing His mission. Through His mighty acts and through His teaching, the Lord Jesus has invited people to share the divine life and love that the Triune God enjoys within Himself. When the Son is lifted up on the cross, all people will be drawn to look with wonder upon the spectacle of the enthronement of God in the flesh on His cross (John 12). Many will come to believe that Jesus is the Son of the Living God and will have forgiveness of sins and eternal life in His name (John 20). Indeed the Crucified Son of God will supremely show the world the loving heart of the Father who did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world (John 3). And believers will be drawn into the intimate life and love of the Triune God.

As our Gospel reading comes to a close, we overhear the Lord Jesus praying for His disciples that they may be protected from the world of unbelief. The disciples have been set apart for witness to the one true God in a world of darkness. As the Lord Jesus returns to His heavenly glory, His disciples will need to be held together in that divine life and love that they have begun to enjoy through their fellowship with Him. Our Lord reminds His Father that His disciples belong to His Father, and they need divine protection from the world of unbelief and from Satan, the father of lies. He prays that His disciples may be one just as He and the Father are one.

It goes almost without saying that even this truncated version of our Lord’s closing prayer is more mystical than linear western minds prefer in these dark days of the 21 st century. Inquiring minds want to have a clear exposition of this seemingly opaque prayer with a resulting action plan that can be carried out in the real world of busy religious folks. Once one knows what this prayer means presumably one will know what it is that one is supposed to do to be one as Jesus and the Father are one.

Pietists of both conservative and liberal stripes tend to want to join hands and sing “Kumbaya” because “my sweet Lord” wants me to make nice with those whom He loves even though they and I might disagree deeply about what it means to be Christian. Hence the hubris of the leaders and theologians of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who would revise the entire Jewish and Christian scriptural witness regarding homosexuality. “God (don’t say Father) loves everyone, and Jesus died for everyone. Therefore it’s wrong to expect 21 st century people to conform their lives to Scripture’s clear teaching that God’s will for human relationships is one man and one woman in a lifelong covenant of faithfulness. We can all be one in Christ without sharing the same understanding of Scripture.” Having given up on doctrinal unity, many Christians opt for a kind of oneness in good feeling.

Activists of both conservative and liberal stripes tend to want to make common cause with people of like mind around a thinly veiled “What Would Jesus Do” praxis. In the United States, one often finds gatherings of Christians that look like either the Republican Party at prayer or the Democratic Party at prayer. Hence one can see Christians one in opposition to abortion or Christians one in opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy. One can see Christians one in opposition to homosexual marriage or Christians one in opposition to the reform of Social Security. Having given up on doctrinal unity, many Christians opt for a kind of unity in social action with anathemas for those that will not share “my” commitments.

When Pope Benedict offers prayers for Christian unity and expresses hope for healing the schism of East and West, the suspicious response is “On whose terms?”

In response to Benedict’s prayers, among Lutheran Christians one can hear a long list of insurmountable preconditions for reunion with Rome that include everything from abandoning the papacy and the Roman hierarchy (at the least) to embracing indiscriminately all married pastors, all female pastors, and even all actively gay pastors (at the most). In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one can see increasingly a planned movement towards a union of liberal Protestants while eschewing any movement towards Rome or even towards other American Lutherans. Unity must be on our terms.

Lost in all of this Christian disunity is any sense of what it is that the Lord Jesus prays for. His prayer is not a call to pietistic “loosey-gooseyness,” and it is not a call to find common cause with whomever one can wherever one can. In short, the Lord Jesus’ prayer is not a program or an action plan. It is a confident prayer to His Father in heaven.

As we listen in on His prayer, we are made aware that the divine life and love that the Triune God shares is offered to everyone through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus. When He is lifted up on His kingly cross, He beckons us to fall in awe and wonder before such amazing love as this. Indeed He beckons us to lose our lives with and in Him that we may enjoy the Triune God’s eternal life and love.

What a far cry that is from the strange notion of ordination to ministry as empowerment – as if the laying on of hands were a new and higher legitimization than the Visible Promise of Holy Baptism that we have been born anew as children of God! What a far cry that is from declaring (as did the ELCA Church Council) that a denomination’s continuing existence is the greatest value of all! What a far cry the cross of Christ our King is from our loose coalitions of kindred spirits united in feeling or deed!

As commentators like Marva Dawn have already noted, it is as if Christians have forgotten that we have been set apart from the world of unbelief in Holy Baptism. This is what the Lord Jesus is praying for not only then but now! Oneness with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit means abandoning oneself to the eternal life and love of God. One cannot be both of the world and of God. No matter how one might like to straddle the fence, there is a chasm between heaven and hell (what C.S. Lewis called the Great Divorce) that cannot be bridged. The Lord Jesus prays that we may be found with Him.

Post-modern people can operate with all the hermeneutics of suspicion that we want about God’s absolute claims. But there is in Jesus Christ a marked difference between life and death, between good and evil, between darkness and light, and between Truth and falsehood. From His kingly cross He still beckons us to receive God’s life and God’s love. The Holy Spirit is calling us to trust this Visible Promise. You can enjoy God’s life and love today, but you have to leave all your preconditions behind! All!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Samuel D. Zumwalt
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington , North Carolina USA