Week of Sunday June 5 - Easter 7
Gospel: John 17:1-11
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6 ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
The lectionary selection stops short here, but the prayer continues.
12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come...’ This sounds like the closing prayer of the meeting. In fact, it is the closing prayer of his life. John 18 tells us that “after Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden...” The gospel ending is suddenly rushing upon us.
We could do worse than read this mystical prayer as his benediction, his last “good word,” spoken to us, and for us, as we face our lone journey to a garden somewhere.
Like all of John, the words have layer upon layer of meaning. There is comfort and challenge.
The comfort is rich. In verse 15 he prays “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” And then, in verse 20ff, “‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” Jesus who will be glorified as Christ... prays for us; for you and for me!.
The challenge is startling. We wade toward Jesus, seeking an authentic faith, through a swamp of popular imagination. This imagination does not simply believe that eternal life does not end. In funerals and their preaching, there often seems a curious blend of loss and denial. Someone said to me that it’s almost as if the dead person is not really dead. They have somehow been translated, uninterrupted, to the green golf courses of heaven! The radical disruption, that cataclysm of the death of the material brain which somehow holds our consciousness, is not addressed. Expectations in parts of the New Testament that there was not an instant resurrection, but that we would only be raised in the twinkling of an eye at some later date, are forgotten. (e.g. 1 Cor 15:52)
Are we wading in the wrong direction?
Those who live and believe in me shall never die, Jesus has said in chapter 11, so we can see where the sense of never ending about the word “eternal” comes from! But that sense is explicitly absent in John 17. In his last testament, Jesus says very clearly, “3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Eternal life is about quality of life, not length of life. It is about relationship with the Divine. The timelessness of this suggests that eternal life is possible even now. Eternal life is not defined as “life after death.”
Death changes everything, from our perspective, and the word “eternal” does have overtones of “not ending,” but in the mind of John, these are only the surface contours of something much deeper.
The depths are about relationship. “All mine are yours, and yours are mine,” says Jesus. (10) “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us...” (21) Relationship is the core of the deep life. Relationship is where reality is. This is not the relationship between casual friends, or the nameless neighbour whom we nevertheless always give a wave from the letter box. This is “in me” and “in you.” This is profound connection.
Loader says of this kind of relationship
That relationship is one of love, just like the relationship which exists between the Father and the Son (see 20-23 and 13:34-35). So it has to include such a relationship of love also among disciples; otherwise something is simply not being properly understood. If the focus in understanding salvation is not on this relationship, but, say, primarily on a place or a gift or a certificate of acquittal, then the horizontal dimension of mutual love is more likely to be the casualty, because the appeal there is too often just a variant of greed (getting something for me). Christianity has been plagued with the ‘thinging’ of eternal life and John’s gospel is an excellent antidote.
He goes on to say
John helps us avoid the commodification of the gospel and invites to an understanding of being good news by being community in which love is lived out. Jesus had needs. It is not about pretending we do not have them and that the gospel does not address them. Jesus states that he wants the closest relationship with God possible. That is what he is asking for. It is OK to ask for that. But that is not a commodity. It is a hope for communion.
I have the feeling in the last few weeks that I have been saying community, community, community! Yet it is only this community which provides me with transcendence into the eternal, that other quality of life of which John is convinced.
Community, decided the later church, is intrinsic within the Trinity. When I go outside and look at the stars and am touched by God, and no longer feel alone, it is community which my heart is sensing and towards which I grasp. When I had a wild mystical experience on a desert road, decades ago, I was not separate from God. When I read and study, and struggle to articulate something of God, is the desire of communion that drives me; the hope I am not alone, meaningless, a poor nothing.
As a cynical Australian male, where is my scepticism about ascending bodies, resurrected Christs and mystical prayers— let alone old fashioned hymns— addressed and dissolved? It is in community, where I am loved, valued, encouraged and upheld. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Where there is no unity, where the flavour of the church is backbiting, power grabbing and hypocrisy, then all my scepticism about the surface stories of the gospels is reinforced. All my prejudice is confirmed. There is no deep reality shining out of the love of people for each other to cause me to look for a deeper meaning which transcends the literal stories of the gospel.
It is the community of love which makes the gospel real. It is the community of love which contrasts with the society around me. That contrast is most clearly with the “me” centred society. However, there is also in the community of love a clear distinction from the philosophies of “enlightened self interest,” or utilitarian “what’s best for the most.” It is the community of love which takes the gospel from being a call to a difficult and painful sacrifice which emulates Jesus, into freedom and joy. It makes joy full.
This all comes back to one of those jargon words we use in church without thinking much about them: Glory. In my past “glory” was talked about like a thing. People extolled the glory of God in a fashion that left me certain there was a secret from which I was excluded. I was not one of the initiated. In an environment which was almost obsessive on defining its beliefs, what “glory” actually was remained strangely elusive.
Glory is God’s presence made known. It is not a thing to be had.
Jesus has glorified the Father by making him known. He has let us see who God is. This has not been by listing the attributes of God, text book style. This has been by loving, by building community among us. He brings us into community with himself and the Father.
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
The glory of the church is not the money. It is not the liturgy or the music, or the fine buildings. It is the community of the people who glorify God because they are the manifestation of God. They are the ones who make God famous. They do that not with proofs, or fine theology. They do it by love.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (13:34-35)
The community is where we meet God. All the glory we long for, all the certainty we seek is in the community that is one and loves each other.
John’s gospel reminds me of the knot work and interlaced borders of the Celts. They appear complicated, intricate, and repetitive. With careful observation they often prove to be profoundly simple. Is all the glory profoundly simple? Could we cut the knot by concentrating on our community, and not the stringing together of theologies and programs? That would be an eternal blessing.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.