Jesus’s Final Prayer for Us
I sat at a church council meeting listening to reports of two families who were leaving our church: the first because we were too liberal, the second because we were too conservative. At the time I thought that was striking. Just over three years later—on the other side of a presidential election, a pandemic, and a racial reckoning—that conversation feels like a regular Tuesday.
These days the American church is perhaps more divided than it’s ever been. I’m sure with a piece of notebook paper and a few minutes most of us could come up with a list of opinions and positions we imagine each “side” holds. There are literally hundreds of fracture points—theological, political, structural, “pandemical.” Here in my small town of Decorah, Iowa, we place different churches around town on one side of that fissure line or the other as a matter of habit: pick an issue and we’re pretty confident we know where most folks will fall based on their church affiliation. But if we consider our own little Covenant congregation, whatever fissure line we’re picturing, well, it probably cuts right down the middle of us. I’m guessing that’s true for many Covenant congregations—and certainly for our denomination as a whole.
Last summer, at the Annual Meeting in Kansas City, I watched names fill up a screen as we remembered the Covenant pastors who had died in the past year. I knew two of them personally, and their names happened to be right next to each other on the list. As I considered those two men and the kingdom impact each one had, I realized one would have been considered among the most conservative among us and the other would have been among the most progressive. I also realized I didn’t want a Covenant without either one of these guys.
Is that even possible anymore?
These days we can arrange our lives so that we rarely have to talk to or hear from people who disagree with us. We consume news media that fuels our biases. Social media algorithms ensure that our feed becomes a self-affirming echo chamber with occasional leaks from the “other side” timed perfectly to rile us up and send us back into our own camps for reassurance and righteous indignation. We tend to value being right above getting it right, we are rewarded for knowing rather than learning, and we believe convictions are courageous, curiosity is compromise, and compromise is cowardly.
It’s no wonder, then, that when it comes to church, we are tempted to retreat back to people and places that line up wholly with our personal convictions. It’s certainly easier that way and in many ways it feels like the right thing to do. Because these are not un-important issues we are disagreeing about. They feel central to who we are as believers, how we understand the gospel, what we believe about Jesus and what he came to do, and how we honor him with our lives.
Is this the vision Jesus had for his Church?
Scripture gives us a clear answer to that question.
In John 17, just before he is arrested, Jesus prays for himself, for his disciples, and finally, “for those who will believe in me through [the disciples’] message” (v. 20, NIV). That’s us!
What did he pray for? What did Jesus ask for on our behalf?
Jesus prayed that we would be one. What mattered most to him was our oneness.
Does that surprise you? Why is that the thing that matters most to him?
He tells us: Our oneness matters because our oneness is our witness.
Let’s take a closer look at that prayer. Jesus prays these words: “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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20b-23).
This oneness Christ desires for us is not something we create or try to make happen. This oneness is a gift.
Jesus’s prayer is not just that we would be one but that we would be one in the same way the Father and the Son are one. This is how the world will know that Jesus is who he says he is.
As I read this prayer, I don’t think the kind of division we’ve been witnessing in our churches and denomination reflects Christ’s desire for us. And here’s the thing: Jesus wasn’t praying for my congregation or yours. He wasn’t praying for the Covenant. He was praying for the Big C Church. So even if we give up the battle and find somewhere else that feels more solidly in our camp, we’re not off the hook. We are all in this together, and Jesus’s prayer for his Church is that we be one.
I’ll be frank—it feels almost ridiculously hopeless to me that somehow the whole Church would get its act together and get on the same page, let alone our denomination or my local church. But this is the work we have committed to do as Mission Friends: We give Scripture authority in our lives and allow it to work on us as we wrestle with it. And as I have wrestled with Jesus’s prayer, I have become increasingly convinced that I’ve been thinking about this all wrong.
This oneness Christ desires for us is not something we create or try to make happen. This oneness is a gift, a reality we receive from God. It’s a fact. We are one. Paul reminds us of this: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27, NIV).
A wise friend taught me years ago to notice that this is not an aspirational statement. It doesn’t say, “You should try really hard to be one body.” It doesn’t say, “If you all get your acts together and do what I’ve told you, you will be a body.” It doesn’t say, “If you love me, this is what you should be working toward.” It says, “You are the body of Christ.” One body. Christ’s body.
So Jesus prays that we would be one as the Father and Son are one. Father, Son, and Spirit have been one since before Creation. In the very first chapter of John, Jesus was with the Father at creation; without him nothing was made that has been made. When we think about the Trinity, it is easy to see that unity is not something Father, Son, and Spirit are working toward, but rather a reality they are working from. They are one, and everything they do comes out of that oneness, that unity, that mutuality.
This is what Jesus is praying for us, that as Christ lives in us, our oneness will be not something we strive for but the reality in which we live and serve.
What does that look like? I don’t know for sure, but here’s my stab at it.
If we are one body—if we have been baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body, as 1 Corinthians 12 claims—then I belong to all Christ followers and all Christ followers belong to me. I don’t get to draw a line down the middle of us and say, “Me and my people are over here, and those folks are over there.”
If we believe that our participation in Christ’s resurrection life is based on his grace and forgiveness and not our own merit, then we acknowledge that the kingdom of God includes sinners saved by grace, from murderers to Mother Teresa. So can we also agree it will include people along a broad spectrum of political stances? And even a broad range of theological positions?
How do we live this out? Am I saying that just anything goes? You do your version of this Jesus thing and I’ll do mine? Act like right and wrong don’t matter?
I don’t think that reflects Scripture at all. But I do think that if we take Christ’s words seriously, we don’t get to what’s right by dismissing and disowning half the body of Christ. As one body, wherever we’re headed, we’re going to get there together. That’s really our only option. Our oneness is our witness.
Curiosity says I care enough about you to want to understand where you are coming from.
In light of this reality, I think we need to embrace three key things—the first is crucial, the other two helpful.
First, we believe and remember that our oneness is a gift, the result of Christ in us. “I have given them the glory you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:22). If we try to align ourselves with each other, we will lose our way. But if we seek to align ourselves with Christ, to allow his Spirit to reign in us, we will take on his character. We will look more and more like him, and then—even in our differences—there will be a oneness, a family resemblance in the way we conduct ourselves, love others, and exemplify the fruit of the Spirit.
This isn’t something we can cook up on our own. It is a natural consequence of our relationship in Christ. This is, in fact, the very last thing Jesus talks about with the Father, “that I myself may be in them” (John 17:26). Christ in us is our only hope. This is the only thing that really matters. Everything else—our political persuasions, our theological perspectives, our approach to navigating a pandemic, our musical preferences, anything else that threatens to divide us—must be submitted to Christ in us. If we put our hope in anything but Jesus—and how easy that is for us to do!—that is what will threaten our unity. If our hope is in our own ability to figure out the right answers, we will struggle. But if our hope is in Jesus, we can cling tightly to him and hold loosely to our answers.
This makes room for two helpful things: curiosity and accountability. If it’s no longer an option for me to dismiss you when we disagree, then I need to embrace some curiosity. This most often looks like asking real questions and listening to the answers. Can you tell me about how your faith informs the way you think about that? Can you help me understand how you came to that conclusion? What do you see that I might be missing? Can you tell me a story that helps me understand why this is so important to you? Curiosity assumes the best of the other person; it invites rather than pushes away; it opens the door to learning and connection. It doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement, but it almost always leads to deeper understanding. Curiosity says I care enough about you to want to understand where you are coming from. And I respect you enough to believe you might have something to teach me even if I think you are wrong.
The other side of this coin is accountability. If I claim you as my own, as part of the body of Christ, then I am also responsible for holding you accountable. This takes courage and grace and love. It, too, often looks like asking real questions and listening to the answers. Questions like the one we Covenanters often like to ask: Where is it written? Can you show me how Scripture informs your understanding of this issue? Are you living out these convictions in a way that demonstrates love of God and neighbor? This isn’t about trying to make other people more like us. It’s about all of us becoming more like Jesus. Like curiosity, accountability assumes the best of the other person, invites us closer in rather than pushing us away, and opens the door to learning and connection. Accountability says even if we disagree, I believe you, too, want to be like Jesus, and I love and respect you enough to hold you to that standard.
When Jesus came to the end of his earthly ministry and approached the Father for the last time, he had us on his mind. He knew that our unity could only come from our identity in him and therefore, our oneness would be our witness. We don’t have to agree with one another to live out of that oneness, we simply need to agree that our hope—our only hope—is in Christ. Then we claim one another, learn from one another, and hold one another accountable to Christ
at work in us.
What a powerful witness that will be.