Easter 7 • John 17:1–11 • June 5, 2011
By William W. Schumacher
In the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Martin Luther drew a stark contrast between a “theologian of glory” and a “theologian of the cross,” and that distinction may still make a Lutheran preacher reluctant to dwell on the glory of God in a sermon. But this present text, the first part of our Lord’s high priestly prayer, connects the cross and the glory of God so closely that one cannot be seen without the other.
Jesus acknowledges that “the hour has come” for the Father to glorify the Son. This is in contrast to some earlier statements in John’s Gospel (e.g., 2:4; 7:30) that described events when Jesus’s “hour” had not yet come. But now—the night of his betrayal and arrest, the night before his crucifixion—Jesus prays in the full knowledge that the time is ripe for him to complete the work the Father sent him to do. That work, of course, culminates in his suffering and death: the cross is the pinnacle of Jesus’s glory, because the Father gave him (3:16) and sent him (4:34) precisely for the purpose of saving the world (3:17). That is why he can speak of his “being lifted up”—on the cross, of all places!—as the beacon of salvation which would draw people to him (12:32–33). He does not shy away from death, because that is the glorious purpose for which the Father sent him in the first place (12:27-28).
Glory is all over the place in Jesus’s prayer, and we do well to pay attention to it. The Father glorifies the Son—and gives us to him. That is, Jesus is carrying with him all those who belong to the Father as he makes his way to suffer and die. The Son glorifies the Father—by doing what the Father sent him to do (v. 4). This includes giving us the Father’s words (v. 8) and giving us eternal life (v. 2).
Because we belong to the Father and have been given to Jesus, Jesus is now glorified in us. When we know God through him, that is eternal life (v. 3). When we receive and keep his word, we believe God sent him (vv. 6–8). When we are one, the Father is at work answering Jesus’s prayer and continuing to glorify his Son (v. 11).
The unity of God’s people in Jesus is mentioned in this text, and receives more emphasis later in the same prayer of our Lord (vv. 20–23), so we might make one additional remark concerning it. We are so accustomed to a world in which the church of God is fractured and disunited in all sorts of way (by doctrine, by practice, by politics and power, by culture, etc.) that we find it easy to brush aside the plain sense of Jesus’s words. But the fact remains: Jesus and his Father are in deadly earnest about us being perfectly united. Divisions in the church, whatever their cause or origin, are contrary to God’s will. In Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, the elf Haldir of Lothlórien says, “In nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.” The “estrangement” and disunity that we see all around us express not God’s will but his enemy’s.
Liturgically, it is only a little jarring that we encounter this pericope in the Easter season instead of as a passion text. In fact, it is the text’s original context that allows us to hold “glory” and “cross” together (and “call a thing what it is,” as Luther would say), whereas the victorious joy of Easter might incline us to contemplate a false glory posing as an alternative (or antidote!) to the cross. And, of course, this prayer of Jesus prepares us for Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit, who is given in answer to Christ’s prayer and still keeps us in the Father’s name by the power of his word.
A sermon based on this text will keep in view that these words are a prayer, not a lecture. The disciples (including us) are overhearing Jesus as he speaks to his Father. We do, of course, learn from what the Lord lets us overhear, and Jesus’s prayer is recorded for us. Yet we must remember that the goal here is not to construct an accurate analysis of prayer, or even to develop a perfect theology of prayer. Our vantage point is not, and cannot be, “objective” or detached. Rather, Jesus and his Father encircle and embrace us in this prayer, and invite us to learn to pray for one another, too.
This is what the Son of God prayed for the night before he went to the cross. This is what the Father gives in answer to that prayer. God glorifies himself as he saves sinners and gives them eternal life. God is glorified when we believe in Jesus Christ as the one sent from the Father, and know the Father through him. God is glorified when God’s people in the world are unified in God’s name and kept by his word.