Unity is a God-Entrusted Life – Reverend Roy Cooper

A Reflection on John 17:20-26 for Christian Unity Week

Be good. Take care of yourself. Have fun. Work hard. Make good decisions. Learn a lot. Be careful. Call if you need something. Remember, we love you.

Those are the kind of things we say when we are leaving a son or daughter at University for the first time. We give our last-minute instructions for what the other should do after we have left. It would be easy to hear today’s gospel as Jesus’ departing instructions to his disciples. It would make sense. After all, it is the night of the last supper. Jesus knows he is leaving. He will soon be crucified and the disciples will have to find their way without his physical presence. So why not give some last minute instructions about how to act, what to do, the way they should treat each other? That’s what we might do, but that is not what Jesus is doing. That is a misinterpretation of the text.

Jesus is not entrusting the future of the disciples to themselves. He is entrusting their future to God. His words are not departing instructions but a departing prayer. The disciples are God-entrusted not self-entrusted.

John 17:20-26 is not a conversation between Jesus and the disciples but a prayer from Jesus to his Father, and our Father. Today we overhear Jesus’ prayer for us. His prayer isn’t for our benefit only but for the life of the world, so that the world may believe the Father sent Jesus. Our unity becomes the sacramental presence of God in the world. Our oneness continues the embodiment of God in human flesh and life.

Jesus prays three times for oneness. ‘That they may all be one.’ ‘That they may be one.’ ‘That they may become completely one.’ The oneness for which he prays echoes the ancient Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael, ‘Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one’ (Deut 6:4).

That Jesus is praying to the Father for our oneness, rather than giving instructions, means that unity is of and from God. It is not something we do or create. It is the very life and being of God. We do not establish unity, we participate in and manifest to the world the already existing oneness that is God.

This doesn’t mean we can just sit back and wait for God to answer Jesus’ prayer. We too have a part in answering Jesus’ prayer. Our oneness must take tangible and visible form if it is to show the world the invisible and spiritual life and presence of God. In some way, our lives in relationship to God and one another become the answer to Jesus’ prayer.

Our lives and relationships are to be outward and visible signs of God’s inward and invisible presence. We can become and live this, however, only when we know ourselves to be God-entrusted rather than self-entrusted. That means our life comes not from ourselves but from God. That’s what allowed Jesus to choose the cross. That’s why he prayed rather than instructed. It’s how we become one as Jesus and the Father are one.

Right about now some instructions would be really helpful, but I don’t have any. Jesus didn’t give any. There is no list. I can’t tell you what to do but I can tell you where to begin looking. This oneness exists at the intersection of our love for God and our love for each other. It is the intersection of the vertical axis and the horizontal axis. Unity is cross shaped. That point of intersection is, according to St John’s account of the gospel, the hour of Christ’s glory, his death and resurrection. That is the preeminent image of a God-entrusted life. That’s where we find our oneness. That’s what we show the world.

Each time we live with a God-entrusted understanding of ourselves, boundaries soften, divisions are not as deep, and relationships reconcile. Each time we take a step toward a God-entrusted understanding of ourselves and let go of a self-entrusted life, we move towards oneness.

When, in love for God and each other, we surrender our self-entrusted life to a God-entrusted life, we embody the Father’s answer to Jesus’ prayer and we are one as Jesus and the Father are one. In that moment we have, as a friend of mine says, ‘met the glory of God and it is us.’

Rev Roy Cooper is a former President of the Methodist Church in Ireland.