John 14-17, often referred to as the “farewell discourses,” are the final teachings from Jesus to his disciples in the hours leading up to his arrest. However, John 17 wraps up the farewell discourses not with another teaching but with a prayer. Jesus prays that the Father would be glorified (not unlike teaching us in the Lord’s Prayer to begin praying with “Father, hallowed by thy name”). He prays that the disciples would experience complete joy, be protected from evil, and be sanctified by the truth that is Jesus himself. We put a lot of emphasis on our need to pray, as we should. But John 17 reminds that we might be putting too little emphasis on the blessing that Jesus wants to pray for us.
His final petition in the prayer is that the disciples “may be one.” “As you, Father, are in me,” he says, “and I am in you, may they also be in us.” He prays this on behalf of those currently present with him, but also on behalf of all future disciples. This is a prayer for the worldwide Church forever. And he prays for the oneness of the Church, “so that the world may believe,” that Jesus is truly the full and perfect revelation of God. Apparently the best thing the Church can do for the world is not to have the best strategy for outreach, but to be one with Christ and one with each other. If we want to sabotage our witness, we can simply bicker and gossip and whatever else demonstrates a lack of oneness.
This oneness, it’s not just one more mandate atop a pile of rules; it is nothing less than Jesus’ final prayer for his Church, that we would experience real unity. It is not unity based in agreement, but in truly sharing with each other the one life of Jesus Christ, sharing with each other the one love of Jesus Christ, sharing with each other the one joy of Jesus Christ. Every branch finds its source of life in the one vine (John 15). It’s all one thing. That’s what unity means to us. This is unity that looks in the mirror and sees your spouse, your child, your friend, your brothers and sisters.
The farewell discourses begin with a meal at which Jesus does something unexpected, even scandalous. He bends down and washes his disciples feet, and challenges his disciples to continue doing the same for each other (John 13). The servant posture of washing each other’s feet works because we all take our turn bending down and washing someone else’s feet, just as they then bend down and wash someone else’s feet, and so on. No one is too good, too high up, too separate to bend down and serve. The unity of the Church is not just good advice. It’s not a strategy for keeping the band together. It’s not the avoidance that overlooks each other’s faults for the sake of keeping the peace. For the Church, unity is the fruit of seeing the vine’s life in every branch, seeing Christ’s life in each other.
The oneness of God and Jesus is grafting us into their oneness as well. The life of God is the life of Jesus, which is the very life of you, which the very life of the person sitting next to you, the person across the room, the person who passed the bread and cup to you, the person sitting in another church building right now with a Bible open in front of them. It’s all one thing.