7. Sent in holiness and unity (John 17:16-23) – a mission of distinctiveness
They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them bythe truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. ‘My prayer is not for them alone. 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.
Few Bible passages can compare with the majesty John 17. In this amazing chapter, following His teaching in the upper room, Jesus prays to His Father. The prayer is an insight into the relationship they have enjoyed eternally. It reveals the heart of Christ as He approaches the cross. As we read these words, we are drawn into the plan of the ages. What is, perhaps, most amazing, is that Jesus actually prays for us. He begins His prayer with a simple request to share once again the glory He has shared eternally with the Father. Having glorified His Father throughout His life on earth, He is anticipating His ascension and return to the position of highest praise that is His by right. Then Jesus turns to praying for the eleven – the men He has trained to become the foundation of His Church. Finally, he prays also for all those who will come to believe in Him through the message these men will preach. Of course, this is not the last time Jesus prays for us – according to Romans 8 and Hebrews 7, He continually intercedes for us at the Father’s side. In fact, John 17 has often been called Jesus’ ‘high priestly prayer’ in recognition of the insight it gives into how He continually prays for us as our high priest.
As Jesus prays for the twelve and for us, there are two major concerns on His mind. Firstly, sanctification. He prays that the twelve will be sanctified – set apart for His purpose in the world. This is the basis of the famous adage that Christians are to be ‘in the world, but not of the world’. We are sent into the world, but we belong to Christ. We reflect the cultures from which we come, but we are different because we belong to Jesus. We have been cleansed – as Jesus had told Peter in John 13 – and so we are holy. The agent of our sanctification is the Word of God, which is truth. The gospel word is a living message that has power when it takes root in our lives through the Spirit’s operation to transform us into Christ-like people. Our holiness is essential in mission. If we have no distinctiveness, then we can make no impact. If we are indistinguishable from the world we inhabit, there is no hope that others will see the difference Christ makes. Yet this is not a negative holiness – defined by what it is not and what it does not do. It is a positive, confident, engaged holiness – working in the world and belonging to it, but doing so with values that are aligned with the truth of Christ’s Lordship.
The second great concern in Christ’s prayer is unity. Jesus says that He has given us His glory and this should lead us to be truly united. The point is that we are already one – Christ has accomplished that. Reconciled to Him, we are reconciled to one another. Indwelt by the same Spirit, we share in the same life of Christ. Yet this spiritual unity must be made visible in our actions and audible in our words. The greatest scandal of the Church is our lack of active unity. We fragment over secondary doctrines and allow differences of style and preference to become the basis of splits and schisms. Worse still, and perhaps especially in mission agencies, we divide over the individual visions of dominant leaders who insist on conformity to their will. Following the worldly wisdom of marketing, we publicise ourselves and imply our superiority to other churches or other agencies. The unity that is ours in the Spirit is deeply hidden under layers of agendas that have little to do with Christ’s ultimate purpose. If we are serious about unity then we need to allow room for diversity of gifting. We should seriously think about merging existing churches and agencies and we must subsume our ambitions under Christ’s great purpose for His Church. It is in our unity that the reconciling power of the gospel is seen.
The great lesson for mission that this final passage from John’s Gospel reveals is this:
Christian mission depends on unity and holiness – it is only as we work together in a unity centred on Jesus and the gospel, displaying holiness in service of the world that we can make Jesus known.