I have long felt that, in understanding God’s call on our lives, the pivotal passage in the New Testament of the Christian Bible is John 17.
I have discovered more recently, in early retirement, just how significant that chapter of the Bible is for me personally. In discussions around difficult issues I have found myself returning to Jesus’ prayer in John 17. The call for unity embodied in that prayer pulls at my heart strings and provokes a surprisingly strong emotional response. …
Professor David Ford seems to have a similar sense of the profound importance of that chapter to the overall message of John’s Gospel, and, as a consequence, to the whole New Testament story. He speaks of John 17 as the point at which John’s Gospel, “sounds its greatest depths, reaches its greatest heights, opens up its innermost secret of intimate mutual indwelling, and orients the desires of readers toward union with the ultimate desire of Jesus.” [1: p9]
If we are to take Jesus’ prayer in John 17 seriously, that ‘we will be one, as he and the Father are one’, we have to take our differences over many issues seriously, address them and, in the midst of our disagreement, then seek unity — that is the challenge of John 17.
In this respect, Loveday Alexander writes that: “We shall need (as Pilling frequently reminds us in the report about human sexuality, ) ‘a complex process of theological discernment, a process that begins with the discipline of listening, which requires the ability to move outside the limitations of our own experience to pay attention to what God is doing in the experience of others.’” [3: p48]
Let’s take this particular issue as an example of the challenge posed by the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Loveday Alexander was writing in 2014 about the ongoing debate within the Church of England over human sexuality. We are now, at the time of writing, in 2022, and that process of listening in relation to human sexuality has been going on in the Church of England over the past 8 years.
We are probably more aware of the issues, in this particular context, than we ever were, but as far as I can see, we are no closer to a way forward that will hold us all together in unity and that will satisfy, not only those with different views within the Church of England, but also those in the wider Anglican Communion.
Indeed, a number of us in the wider Anglican Communion still see the very process of listening to be too great a compromise. For some of us, Scripture is clear, the matter is determined by the text of Scripture and the traditional teaching of the church. There must be no equivocation over the issues involved. The firm belief of parts of the Anglican Communion is that the Church of England and a number of other provinces in the Anglican Communion need to repent and return to the tenets of Scripture. That view, held with great integrity and commitment, says that unity is just not possible while parts of the Communion are so manifestly in error.
Others of us cannot accept that position. For us, a careful study of Scripture and the cultures in which it was written and our own lived experience lead us to a very different conclusion. Many in this other part of our church family are just as resolute as those in the first group.
In reality, we are not united but divided, and it seems that we hold each other to account as responsible for that division.
And yet, in this particular context, we are not so very far apart. We see many of the of the possible perversions in all sexual relationships as sinful. We are not happy to condone engagement in physical sexual acts outside of committed, faithful, monogamous relationships. We strongly condemn abuse in all its forms whether inside or outside of a marriage and family life. We see no place for promiscuity, no place for selfishness. I hope we also have a strong commitment to mutuality in marriage and in relationships.
But, we do not agree on one key issue relating to who can participate in a committed, faithful, monogamous sexual relationship. And for so many of us, on whichever side of the argument we sit, this matter is essentially insurmountable, either because of our view of about what scripture says, or because of our essential identity as human beings. It seems as though neither side in the debate can see any grounds for hope and both seem to agree that this issue takes us beyond the remit of Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17.
As I have already said, that prayer in John 17 is, for me, a pivotal point in scripture. And it provides the context for Jesus’ later commission in John 20:21-22. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…”’ (John 20:21-22)
As we have noted, Professor David Ford (the author of a new (in 2022) commentary on St. John’s Gospel ) agrees with this assessment. He talks of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 being “the most profound and far-reaching chapter in the Bible” . Jesus “prays (John 17:18) about what he later does in the pivotal verse John 20:21, and pours out his ultimate desire for all of us later believers: that we be united in love with each other and with him, ‘as’ he is united in love with his Father, and that this might overflow into the world God loves (John 17:20-26). It is a mission of inspired loving, for the sake of the whole world, including (since Jesus is the one through whom ‘all things came into being’ – John 1:3) the whole of creation.” 
“All through John’s Gospel readers have been prepared for the death of Jesus (beginning with John 1:29), and for the resurrection of Jesus (beginning with John 2:22), and for the giving of the Holy Spirit (beginning with John 1:33). Now, climactically [in John 20:21-22], the crucified and resurrected Jesus actually gives the Holy Spirit. The words that accompany this give all of us Christians our core vocation and mission. We are sent ‘as’ Jesus was sent.” 
“But,” says Ford, “the ‘as’ does not mean exact repetition. We are not in first century Palestine. His Spirit is breathed into us so that we can both learn from how he was sent and also improvise endlessly upon it. We are to be inspired in our learning together (the Holy Spirit guides us into ‘all the truth’ – John 16:13, so our learning is never to stop), in our loving like Jesus, and in our praying like Jesus (try praying the Lord’s Prayer in the light of John 17!).” 
In his commentary, Ford says that the thrust of John’s Gospel is towards “doing life-giving signs for all who are in need, daringly crossing deep divisions, seeking more and more truth, engaging critically and constructively with the civilization of which it is a part, prophetically challenging the pathologies of power, modeling servant leadership, and building communities of prayer, love, and friendship that serve God’s love for all people and all creation, seeking to be part of the fulfillment of the desire of Jesus in his final prayer.” [1: p11]
“The essentials,” he says, “are summed up in John 20:21-22. Jesus gives us the deep ‘peace’ of knowing we are utterly loved, at home abiding in the love at the heart of all reality; the deep purpose of being ‘sent’ to love as he was sent by his Father; and, amazingly, the ‘Holy Spirit’—breathed into us minute by minute as he lives in us, we live in him, and we are energised and inspired to learn, pray, love, and serve as never before.” 
One significant element of John’s gospel message is the way in which “it nurtures in readers a global horizon that can unite them with the desire of Jesus for an ultimate unity of all people and all creation in love and peace.” [1: p11]
This means, as we have already noted, that we are to be inspired in our learning together, in our loving like Jesus, and in our praying like Jesus. … Jesus prayer is pivotal to our corporate life as his Church.
As Professor David Ford says: we are to be inspired by Jesus’ prayer in John 17 which calls us to a unity with each other which reflects the unity of the Godhead. We are called to reflect in our relationships the “innermost secret of intimate mutual indwelling,” [1: p9] that characterises the relationship between the three members of the Trinity. Indeed, Ford entitles the chapter in his commentary which focusses on John 17, ‘The Summit of Love’.
Our missionary calling as disciples of Jesus is a call, primarily, to unity. This is to be one of our ultimate values, it is to define us as followers of Jesus. It is to be at the very core of who we are. For me, this increasingly means an emotional, almost visceral, commitment to unity.
Whatever our differences in theology and practice, whatever different denominations we might form, we are called first and foremost to a loving unity which surmounts all barriers. We are to be ‘like Jesus’ who prayed, with what was close to his dying breath, that we would be one ‘as he and the Father are one’.
While commenting on John 1:29, Ford offers us a definition of sin: “This also is a pointer to the meaning of the sin of the world. [John 1:29] The basic sin indicated in the Gospel of John is lack of faith/trust/belief, inevitably involving lack of love. The desire/will of God is for a love inseparable from trust. The ultimate desire of Jesus, expressed above all in his climactic prayer in John 17, is for people to be united in trust and love with God and one another through him, a unity in which the whole of creation is embraced. This is the “summit of love,” the joy, the “eternal life,” the peace, for which people are created and into which they are invited, and whatever prevents or distorts or falsifies or opposes this is sin.” [1: p48-49]
Essentially, nothing pertaining to our faith should be allowed to take us outside of the scope of Jesus’ prayer for unity. Historically, the Church has allowed many things to take priority over that prayer. In doing so, each time, it places itself outside of Jesus’ desire for it.
At the moment, I find it nigh impossible to envisage the reconciliation of people holding divergent views on human sexuality within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. I am grateful that others are ultimately responsible as the guardians of our unity and our faithfulness to the canon of scripture. My fervent prayer is that the Spirit will continue to lead us into all truth and that we will be able to fully accept our differences and fully embrace the unity for which Jesus prayed.
- Professor David Ford; The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary; Baker, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2021.
- The Pilling Report was published by Church House publishing on 28/11/2013. Its full title is The Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality.
- Revd Canon Professor Loveday Alexander; Homosexuality and the Bible: Reflections of a Biblical Scholar; in Grace and Disagreement: Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality; The Archbishops’ Council, 2014, p24-51.
- Professor David Ford; Improvising in the Spirit: Lessons from the Gospel of John; Re-Source Wednesday Lecture; Re-Source Autumn Newsletter 2022, Scargill House, p10-11; https://www.resource-arm.net/files/uploads/Autumn%202022%20Newsletter%20(Online).pdf, accessed on 4th November 2022.