Commentary on John 17:20-26
The liturgical season of Easter draws to a close with Jesus’ final words to his friends before his arrest. In John 13-17 Jesus has been comforting, instructing, and preparing “his own” (as his friends are called in 13:1) for what is to come and for what they are to become in the world. Now, in the text for today, he prays for them.
In these concluding verses of the prayer that makes up John 17, Jesus says that the purpose of all he has asked for in the preceding verses is this: that all disciples of all time may be one in the specific sense in which Jesus and the Father are one, the mutual indwelling of love that has defined that relationship not only in the life of Jesus but also in the oneness of God and the creative Word from before the foundation of the world. Jesus prays for his own, the ones present and those who will believe in him through them (which means we can read it as a prayer for us), to be drawn into the love of the Father and Son-Word-Jesus.
Already Jesus has promised dwelling places in the house of God (14:2) and has promised that he and God will make dwelling places in us (14:23). Now Jesus speaks of and requests this oneness and refers to the mutual indwelling of himself and God, and of us with him and with God, 10 times in five verses. The word translated “completely” here in the NRSV is a verb form meaning that we are to be made perfect in oneness.
The purpose, he says, of this perfection of oneness is not only an experience of divine love for us in our communion with God and one another. The purpose is beyond us. This being perfected in oneness is so that the uncomprehending, sometimes dangerous world (1:10; 16:33; 17:25) may also believe and know God’s love in the sending of the Son (17:21 and 23; 3:16).
The oneness of the Father and Jesus is synonymous with love in John, and what the world is to see in our display of that oneness is the love of God miraculously made manifest. Our love for God and one another becomes then an offering in and for the world to experience the love through which all creation has come into being.
Like the love for one another in 13:34-35, which is a way for other people to see that we belong to Jesus, and like our oneness as branches nurtured by the vine and tended by the gardener God for our own fullness of joy and love, but also to bear fruit (15:1-11), the oneness Jesus asks for here among those who believe in him is not an exclusive club, but an invitation to the world—an invitation as open, loving, joyful, and fruitful as we can allow ourselves to be.
The Greek word translated “believe” also means “trust.” Believing in Jesus and in God (for example, 17:20; 1:12; 14:1) is presented in John not as an intellectual exercise but as being in a trusting relationship of love with someone who embodies God’s love for the world and who calls us friend. It is trusting him that love is the lodestar of life.
To understand what this looks like, we may look at how Jesus manifests God’s love for the world in himself—in what he does, what he says, and how he is—and also listen to what he says it means for us to love him, and by extension, one another and the world. As Jesus tends, feeds, bears witness to, and breaks barriers for love, Jesus’ own are called to do the same thing (15:27; 21:15-17).
The Gospel also explains how love is possible. This love clearly cannot depend on feelings of attraction, desire, affection or even liking. It is a behavior-shaping attitude toward the world, which is both a gift we cannot manufacture and a choice to live into the promises of that gift that is already given. We cannot paste it onto ourselves. Like branches of a vine, we live in something larger than ourselves, in which we are nurtured to bear fruit by the Spirit dwelling in us (about which we read in the Pentecost passage for next week). But because we are more than vines, we also become more loving by choosing to follow Jesus’ model and teachings (13:14-15) about what love is: tending, feeding, bearing witness, and breaking barriers for love—societal barriers and also barriers we set up for ourselves, including some that we may think make us rightly religious but which do not make us loving.
This love is the substance of Jesus’ glory. And it is what he wants us and the world to know.
Oneness and love are linked throughout the passage with knowledge, and that is where it concludes. To know God is to have love in us and to have Jesus in us. This also takes us back to where the prayer began, glory and knowledge. To know God in 17:2-3 is eternal life, and now we find that eternal life will be an extension of the love of God stretching back before the foundation of the world, forward to us, and beyond us to the communion of the saints and to those who may be able to experience God’s love through us.
And so the Easter season culminates where the Gospel began: with Jesus making God known so that the world may know that every soul and all creation has come from and has a place in the creative love of God.
May 29, 2022