Chapter 29: Jesus Prays for the Unity of the Church
Perhaps you will ask yourself: when I am baptized, to what Christian denomination will I belong? Why do we profess in the Creed “one Church” while we find in the same Church various denominations such as Maronites, Chaldeans, Syrians, Copts, Armenians, Latins, Greeks, etc.? Can the Church still be one despite such diversity, much like a symphony, which can have a charming melody, though played by numerous instruments in harmony? How do we understand the divisions within the Church throughout history, as well as the ecumenical movement in the Church? If we refer to the Gospel, we notice that Christ prayed, on the eve of his Passion, that his disciples might be one.
This will be the starting point for our meeting today After that, we will discuss the theme of Church in different denominations, while stressing that unity does not mean total uniformity.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: Jesus prays for Unity (John 17:1-26)
1After saying this, Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said: “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you; 2and, through the power over all mankind that you have given him, let him give eternal life to all those you have entrusted to him. 3And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I have glorified you on earth and finished the work that you gave me to do. 5Now, Father, it is time for you to glorify me with that glory I had with you before ever the world was.
6 “I have made your name known to the men you took from the world to give me. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now at last they know that all you have given me comes indeed from you; 8for I have given them the teaching you gave to me, and they have truly accepted this, that I came from you, and have believed that it was you who sent me. 9I pray for them; I am not praying for the world but for those you have given me, because they belong to you: 10all I have is yours and all you have is mine, and in them I am glorified. 11I am not in the world any longer, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name, so that they may be one like us. 12While I was with them, I kept those you had given me true to your name. I have watched over them and not one is lost except the one who chose to be lost, and this was to fulfil the scriptures.
13 “But now I am coming to you and while still in the world I say these things to share my joy with them to the full. 14I passed your word on to them, and the world hated them, because they belong to the world no more than I belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to remove them from the world, but to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. 17Consecrate them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world, 19and for their sake I consecrate myself so that they too may be consecrated m truth.
20 “I pray not only for these, but for those also 21who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me. 22I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. 23With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realize that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you loved me. 24Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may always see the glory you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25Father, Righteous One, the world has not known you, but I have known you, and these have known that you have sent me. 26I have made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and so that I may be in them.”
2. 1- Explanation
According to John’s Gospel, after the Last Supper, and before going to the Garden on the Mount of Olives, Jesus prayed for the unity of his disciples. At the start of chapter 18, begins the path of arrest, passion and glory. The farewell discourse begins at 13:13 and it extends until chapter 16. These chapters (Jn 13-16) are a dialogue with the disciples, in which Jesus reveals who the Father is; he promises to send them the Holy Spirit; and he shows them that he is the way, the truth, the life, and the true vine. He concludes his dialogue with his disciples with a prayerful exchange with his Father (Jn 17), and he gives them an example: after all possible discussions and dialogues, we need to turn to the Father in prayer. The term “priestly prayer of Jesus” dates back to the 16th century when David Citreo quoted it, probably taking it from St Clement of Alexandria (215). We know that Jesus appears in the Gospel of John in the manner of a high priest because his “seamless garment” (Jn 19:23) and also because of his intercessional prayer.
The Gospel of today is divided into three parts:
1- Jesus prays for his own mission: (John 17:1-8)
– (V.1) looking up towards heaven means the orientation of his whole being to God; it is a familiar gesture in rituals. The name “My Father” is the main name given to God by Jesus, and in Aramaic it is “Abba”. This is how he addressed him several times in his life (Jn 11:41 and Mt 11:25), and this is a sign of his exceptional relationship with him.
– “The hour has come”: Jesus had said to his mother earlier (John 2:4): “My hour has not come yet.” The “Hour” indicates the time for the glorification of Christ, his death and his resurrection.
– Jesus twice asks his father to “glorify” Him (John 17:1, 5). He adds “Father, it is time for you to glorify me with that glory I had with you before ever the world was.” (John 17:5), meaning that he is asking the glory he had before he became man. The Father has decided on the hour – the hour of the completion of Jesus’ salvific mission – and Jesus is willingly remaining in loving obedience until his crucifixion. “Glorify me” means that Jesus seeks strength to bear the suffering and to recover his divine appearance hidden within his human body.
2- Jesus prays for his disciples: (John 17:9-19)
Jesus asks for his disciples four things: unity; that his joy may be perfect in them; to be guarded from evil and from the world; and to be sanctified in the truth.
– unity: for them to be one (v.11): the example of the unity of believers is Jesus’ union with the Father. This union is the fruit of a reciprocal love. Indeed, in the union lies the strength.
– perfect joy (v.13): joy is the eschatological gift in the Messianic time. Joy is the fruit of the presence of the Spirit in us (Gal 5:22)
– protect them from the evil one and the world (v.5): the disciples must spread the message of salvation throughout the world; that is why Jesus does not ask for them to leave the world, but to be protected from the evil one. Indeed, we say in the Our Father “deliver us from evil”, sometimes translated as “the evil one”. Evil means the power of darkness and sin, the devil, the enemy of God, division and hatred. The world (the Cosmos), in John’s Gospel, means those who are against God and deny Him. John speaks in his first letter of the sins of the world (1 John 2:16) “For nothing the world has to offer – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – could ever come from the Father, but only from the world.”
– Sanctify them in truth (v.17): Jesus prays for the future mission of the disciples, asking them to participate in the divine life, by distancing themselves from evil and clinging to the truth of salvation.
3- Jesus prays for all believers: (John 17:20-26)
– The prayer of Jesus opens up here to include all future believers, that is, us too; it contains a new term “love” (vv.23:26), which must characterize the lives of believers. He has asked for the unity of the disciples and now he asks for the unity of all believers. Unity confirms the credibility of the mission
– The perfect example of unity and love is Jesus’ relationship with the Father, when he prays “may they all be one, Father, as you are in me and I am in you” (Jn 17:21). When believers live in love and unity, they will participate in the glory of Jesus. What is the purpose of this loving unity? The first goal is for the world to believe (v.21), so it means witnessing for others, going on a mission; the second goal is participation in the glory of Jesus through his relationship with the Father (v.24).
2. 2- Summary and Practice
Today’s Gospel shows us the extraordinary relationship between the Father and Jesus. Through baptism, Jesus brings us into this relationship. We should always remember that when we say, “Our Father who is in heaven”, for we are speaking as God’s children, He loves us and He hears us. When Jesus says, “I am coming to you” (v.11), we understand that he is speaking about his return to the Father. But he does not return only as God, but as God and man; and so, he opens the gate of salvation for many people. The characteristics of our enlightened life lie in knowledge, unity and mission. We meet Jesus, we make his acquaintance, we come to love him, and then we unite with him, and with each other, and as a result we embark upon our mission. In fact, the mission and the proclamation of the Good News are the fruit of an experience obtained through our knowledge of Jesus, and our love for him and for one another.
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: The Unity of the Church and Ecumenical Work
It is worth recalling some historical data. Jesus wanted his disciples, together with the first believers, to form a community that would then spread the Good News all over the world. This community is not like other communities, because it is not the result of the personal will of a few individuals. It was Jesus who wanted this to happen; he called them to be present in the world, working with him for the Kingdom. The disciples went to proclaim the Good News everywhere. We then find that in several places of the world, churches have been established; we are not talking about churches as buildings built in stone, but about believing communities gathered around the celebration of the Eucharist, with a common doctrine, and sharing goods in common. In each city, the faith was expressed in the local language; thus, the churches have spread in different cultures. This diversity was a cause of great joy for Christians, to grow in knowledge of Christ, each in his own language and his own culture. At the same time, however, it was important to ensure that faith remains one, despite its spread to different regions and cultures of the world.
Because of geographical and cultural distances, and because of progress in the knowledge of the mystery of Christ, the Church was obliged to clarify certain dogmas by using philosophical terms, in order to help people to understand the issues, whatever their background. Many initiatives, which were not always easily accomplished, were implemented. The sinful nature of man was also always present, as well as, for example, the interference of kings and emperors, which has caused conflicts with regard to understanding Christian concepts. This has resulted in divisions between the churches, and has caused painful wounds, for the separation of Christians is contrary to the Lord’s will. At the same time the Church has always tried to preserve or restore unity in the Faith.
The unity of the Church comes from God; it is He who sends His Holy Spirit to cleanse hearts and to help the Church to express the Faith more adequately. Christians have constantly called for this unity; and so began the ecumenical work, that is, the work of all Christians in the world for unity. Intensive theological dialogues have taken place, and believers have prayed for this intention, and it can be said that the Church today has taken a giant step towards unity. The work continues, a lot of expertise has been gained in this field and this in turn motivates the Church always to move further along the path towards unity.
The three great “families” of the Church are: Catholics who are obedient to the authority of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope; Orthodox, divided into several churches and who agree with Catholics on many elements of faith; and the third family is the Reformed community, often known as Protestants. This last includes an almost innumerable number of churches, which complicates and delays ecumenical work. We have come a long way, but there is still some way to go.
While waiting for full unity in faith, it is essential to unite in love and prayer, whenever possible, so that God may give us His grace, to strengthen us in our weaknesses and to heal our wounds.
4- Reading and Meditation: A Reading from St Irenaeus (c.140-202)
Faith of the Church
For the Church, although dispersed throughout the whole world even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and from their disciples the faith in one God, Father Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them; and in one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became flesh for our salvation; and in the one Holy Spirit … The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth…
For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain … nor those in the East … nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master) … For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.31