Prayer: John 17:20–26
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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[Russian] Dolls, nothing to do with their primarily red colours though I’m sure that their brightness was quite arresting to me. It was the thrill of discovering that many dolls could fit into one large doll. When I read John chapter 17, I always think of Russian dolls, as it seems Jesus goes to quite extraordinary lengths saying that He is in His father, and His followers are in Him. It’s kind of dum-dedum-dedum in one another. Perhaps this is rather simplifying messages and matters too much, but I know that the image helps me to work my way through this, all the “I”s and “you”s and “they”s written within this amazing prayer of Jesus’.
Now, John 17 unsurprisingly takes place between John chapter 16, where Jesus tells His disciples that He’s about to leave this world and leaves them rather distraught, and John chapter 18, when Jesus is arrested, taken away from His friends, put on trial and crucified. Jesus explains to His disciples that they will soon have to go into the world without Him in person, but with His Holy Spirit living within them, to proclaim and act His way of love. He prays for their protection whilst they do this. As He prays for them, He knows that He has given them everything that they need for life and for godliness.
He knows that the Holy Spirit will be with them, will comfort them, will guide them, and live within them. He knows how this works. But for the disciples, losing Jesus must be a crushing defeat, which is probably why Jesus prays the way that He does here in John 17. After He prays for His disciples, He prays for those of us who will believe in Him. In effect, Jesus in John 17 is praying for us today. Now, He’s praying for us, and this is what we’re going to be looking at a little bit today, but before we do, as I was preparing for this message, I looked at the start of John chapter 17, and just verse one: we’re given a glimpse of how Jesus prayed.
He looked up towards heaven and prayed. Other translations have Jesus lifting His face to the heavens. Or raising His eyes heavenwards. Just in passing it made me wonder about our cultural or physical postures of prayer. Traditionally in the west, we bow our heads. We put our hands together. We close our eyes. Adopt almost a humble position to pray, but here Jesus looks up, His eyes are open, and perhaps a wondering gaze towards His father, God, as He prays. I think He might be praying with His disciples too around Him. I’m not quite sure about that. Not alone on that occasion. And this scene made me think about a physical posture that perhaps I put myself in when I pray, or the locations I find myself best when I communicate with God.
A friend of mine lived by the sea and goes for walks at the start and the end of the working day. I think he works from home most of the time, and he finds it terribly therapeutic to just walk along the beach and enjoy the sun rising and the sun setting. The wind and the waves and the sunsets and the sunrises. As he turns to pray, He knows God is with Him in that routine of what he does. As you turn to pray, I wonder where and how do you prepare yourself? Do you have a regular pattern of prayer that helps you? A particular time of the day? Things that trigger you to pray about something or someone.
I’ve read John many, many times in my life, and only this once that I get stuck on that verse one, Jesus looked towards heaven and prayed. I guess it’s a good place to begin. Look towards heaven and pray. We find Jesus praying in different locations and in different ways throughout the gospels. He goes off to desolate places, often when it’s still dark. He instructs His disciples to go into their room, to close the door and to pray to their father in heaven who is unseen, instead of making a song and dance about, look, who’s praying over here on the street corner, or in the temple. We’re not called to pray alone always.
When Jesus is asked how His disciples should pray, He gives them this wonderful template that we now know as the Lord’s Prayer. It involves addressing God as father, and how outrageous that would have been back in the day, offering praise and thanksgiving and anticipating better things in the world because we want to become better stewards of ourselves, and of why the creation, realising our role as co-workers with God, but that God is all-powerful. Yes, the Lord’s prayer covers an awful lot and it isn’t just a magic formula that we say when we come to prayer. As Jesus prays in John 17, He prays out about the work that He’s been involved in.
He knows that at this hour His time is about to run out and that His work will be completed. He’s passing on the spiritual baton, if you like, to His friends, the disciples. Though they don’t quite get all of this magnanimity. That’s a big word or if that’s a word at all, magnanimity, possibly. Life is going to get pretty bad before it gets any better, and so Jesus prays for them. He knows the heartache of them being parted from Him in His subsequent death. And then when He’s ascended, when they look up to the heavens, and with the task He’s putting to them in sharing Him with the world, no wonder they need prayer.
That’s one of the most wonderful things about Jesus’ prayer here. He prays so that His friends might have something to hold onto. If He’s praying with them, what a wonderful thing it is for them to remember that these are the last things that He prays and says to His friends as they’re gathered together. He prays that the disciples will be protected, that His life would live in them just as His father, God, lives in Him. Then here is a real curveball. Jesus goes then to pray for all of those people who would believe in Him because of the hard work that disciples put in, in telling others about Jesus.
This includes families, their loved ones, our families, Kings and Queens as well, carpenters and cooks and doctors and shop assistants and accountants and teachers. Those who are employed, those who are unemployable, and hundreds of other people as well, millions, billions. In fact, this prayer that Jesus prays is talking about you, and it’s talking about me. Hundreds of years after the event, Jesus prays for us, and He prays specifically for one thing in various facets. He prays for unity just as in John 13:55, a little bit earlier, He says to His disciples, “This is how all people will know that you’re disciples, if you love one another.” If you love one another.
This is precisely what I think Jesus is praying for the church through the ages as He comes to pray now. Loving one another is Jesus’ way of saying do it my way, or another way of praying let’s do this together, let’s show unity. Throughout this whole prayer, the image of the Russian dolls still strikes me. Jesus prays for all “those who will believe in me that all of they may be one just as you, father, are in me and I am in you. May they all be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me, I in them and you in me.” It gets a bit confusing, doesn’t it? “So that we may be brought to complete unity.”
The best example for unity for us to follow is that of the relationship between the Father and the Son, and the Son and His disciples. As part of this handing on of the baton, Jesus now includes you and I into this so that we may believe that the father God sent Jesus, and so that we hand on that baton to the next generations, playing with the train sets over there. The way of unity, the way of love has not failed. The famous theologian, Lesslie Newbigin, Lesslie with two ’S’s’ and Newbigin with one ‘G’ says of Jesus’ prayer here, “a unity which not merely reflects but actually participates in the unity of God—the unity of love and obedience which binds the Son to the Father.” [Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI; Edinburgh: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Handsel Press Ltd, 1982), 234.]
It’s a unity, which needs to be tangible, that others can see and want to be part of. The world needs to see what it needs to be part of, for it to want to be part of it, if that makes sense. That’s what unity is all about. Bruce Milne, in his commentary on John, states that the best place for the world to notice such unity is in the local church community. So much so that he says this. He says our “churches are to be ‘love centres’ where relationships between members are a persuasive reflection of the mutually supportive, utterly loyal and eternally accepting love of the Father and the Son.” [Bruce Milne, The Message of John: Here Is Your King!, ed. John Stott, Revised Edition., The Bible Speaks Today (London: IVP, 2020), 251.]
"Our challenge” he says, “is to give authentic expression to that which God has already worked in our midst. The churches are already one in God. We need to allow that supernatural unity to find expression both in the local church and between the [local] churches.” Bruce Milne, op cit, 252.]
How blessed we are in Frodsham to have such a unity, a sense of unity in churches together. As we draw to a close the week of prayer for Christian unity, I give thanks for my friends and colleagues at King’s, at St. Luke’s, at St. Lawrence’s, and at the Methodist Church. How delighted I am to report that we will be re-opening the Churches Together Coffee Morning this coming Thursday. How blessed we are to live in unity where Psalm 133 says God commands the blessing when we live together in unity.
Jesus continues to pray for you and see when in that when the world as he puts it, sees Jesus followers loving one another, they will want to get on board too. This vision of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven is so much down to how we respond to the mission of God. The local Christian community is the obvious place to proclaim our relationships with one another, and with those in the wider community, together with our convictions, what we believe, why we believe. Church isn’t all about divine service and liturgy, but it’s so much more about showing the world our love is the united front.
Yes, points of theology may be expressed differently, but the importance of unity and oneness in loving one another is precisely what Jesus has been teaching indiscriminately towards those who didn’t know and speaking truth to power for those who should have known better. He now prays that all his followers may be united and that those who are in perhaps a wider circle within the community might be persuaded that Jesus is worth joining. Last week, I mentioned that Main Street celebrates its 150th birthday this year.
In May, I believe, 150 continuous years, I think so, of a faithful presence in the centre of our little town where this is a source of safety and love and welcome and challenge and faith, of faithfully following Jesus. 150 years. It’s always been a place like every church community, I hope, of inviting people to follow the most excellent way, as Paul would say in 1 Corinthians 12, the way of love. When Jesus prays in his prayer here in John 17:24, that we may be with Jesus where He is and see His glory. It sounds at first like a bit of a mishmash of words strung together, but the words “with me” are the key to understanding here; with me, with Jesus is the most excellent way.
If we are with Jesus, and He is with us, and He is in us. Just as He prays this to be, we see what He does, and we feel compelled to following him and doing the stuff that he does. If we are with Him, if we share company with Him as the good friend who is with us, we become like Him, we share in his character, and it’s this character of unity that defines love. When we are all persuaded that the way of Jesus is the way of love, we’re unified by that persuasion. Indeed, we unify ourselves around that character whose very essence is love, Jesus Christ. When people are with me, that’s to say when people are with Jesus, that’s it. That’s the mission accomplished. The mission of God is done.
When the whole world finds Jesus, His prayer that we read in John 17 today, the prayer that we become one is effective: love unites, love persuades, love completes its own mission to love. Wanting what is best for another politely sets aside our own issues, our own personal desires in preference to one another. It doesn’t mean that we’re doormats; it doesn’t mean that we are walkovers. Love sets another, better, most excellent way. At the outset of another year, let’s remind ourselves of the purpose of the church, of our church, our building here at Main Street, our community here: we are here to love.
We do this in a huge variety of different ways, environmental action, hospitality, regular prayer and Bible study, time together with one another, creativity, arts, fundraising and giving, allowing our facilities to be used by the wider community. In the words of Isaiah 58, as you know is perhaps my favourite bit of scripture, to make the community liveable again. Our love must be multifaceted. It must in the words attributed to Francis of Assisi, preach the gospel at all times, and, if necessary, use words. We preach using words and we preach using our lives and our love. They are all inextricably linked.
Things become confused when we don’t think that our character of love speaks the words of Jesus to our community. Each congregation in Frodsham and perhaps probably across the world has its own flavour of what preaching the gospel is for them, perhaps even individuals within those fellowships, and that’s no different here. I’ve no doubt that in my five years here, we have a fine repertoire of people who know Jesus, who teach about his wonderful work, and his miracles, and who want others to know about this too. We have folk who want to show the world how Jesus changes lives.
At Main Street, we have a very special spirit of taking God seriously, which for many means taking action in our world whilst having an understanding of the Bible as a way of undergirding such practical actions. God has blessed us with the ongoing gift of love and hospitality of welcoming in strangers and befriending folk who might not necessarily perhaps fit in with other Christian fellowships. That’s a nice way of saying I’m odd, we’re all odd, but we get along together, don’t we? If you want to love and to be loved, if you want to take Jesus seriously and learn what it is to become more like Him, and therefore more like God, then welcome home.
If you find it hard to love or to be loved because of what a disconnected world has done, then welcome home. You are welcome here. If you’ve no idea what drove you here, but you just like it and you’ve stayed, welcome home. You’re welcome here. You are just welcome here. The prayer of Jesus is not just a prayer, it is to show or to recognize that we have a call to unite around this key command to love, to share, and to show love so that the world might know and share that love too. Our job as the church right here in the centre of Frodsham, in the heart of Frodsham, is to be a flavour of the church Frodsham wide, even worldwide, to reflect the love of God within our community, in our own individual and community ways.
In the words of Jesus, to receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. May God bless us as we respond to his words and his prayer in love.
References and sources
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.