John 17:1-11: Pre-Sermon Thoughts

You know those “pastoral prayers” that feel mostly like sermons you have to listen to with your eyes closed? “Dear Lord, I just pray that everyone here knows . . . And I pray we can all understand that . . . As it says in your Word . . .”

I get quite irritated with those prayers. And I try not to pray them myself. But here is Jesus, sermon-praying with the best (/worst) of them. It is really only the opening and closing of this “prayer” that are addressed to God: “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you. . . . protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Everything in the ellipses feels like it could just as easily be addressed to the disciples as to God. I guess there is a precedent for this. Jesus is quite explicit about his sermon-praying when he raises Lazarus: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42) In fact, this seems to be a quality of Jesus’ prayers in John’s Gospel, which does make one wonder if Jesus really prayed sermon-prayers or if the writer of John just got a little creative in how he had Jesus deliver his teachings.

Nevertheless, this passage gives me pause in my irritation with sermon-prayers. Maybe there is a time and place for using the occasion of prayer to communicate truths to the people with whom you are praying. And it seems there are a lot of intensely theological truths that Jesus (and/or the author of John) wants to get across here.

For me, these words of Jesus bring up more questions than answers; and an exploration of any of these questions is worthy of a full sermon (or two or three):

  • What is eternal life?
  • What does it mean for Jesus to be glorified?
  • What does it mean to belong to God?
  • What is the work God gave Jesus to do? (Jesus says he has finished it, and the crucifixion hasn’t happened yet.)

It is, of course, the end of this passage that seems to get the most attention in Christian circles: “so that they may be one, as we are one.” This is often used to proclaim the virtues of “Christian unity,” which, in my experience, too often means telling people who are making a fuss about issues of justice to calm down and support the status quo. So any sermon on the whole “that they may be one” thing should tread carefully.

If you want to preach on the end of this passage, maybe the best course is to attend to the very last phrase: “as we are one.” Jesus has spent much of this sermon-prayer talking about the relationship that he has with God—how they are one. It involves each of them bringing glory to the other; it involves sharing authority; it involves sharing knowledge and words; it involves doing work on behalf of the other. Whatever “being one” means for Jesus, it does not mean tacit agreement and going along to get along.

I pray that as you find your way to a sermon this week, your relationship with God will be strengthened through your study, prayer, and writing.