Easter 7: 8 May John 17:20-26
Last advice is important. Last prayer is also important. By portraying Jesus’ last prayer John is preserving an image of what mattered most to Jesus. It was not really about history in the sense of trying to reproduce what actually happened. It was more about an image and an understanding which would speak to his own and future generations. That is the image we have, especially from this passage: Jesus is praying for us! While the wording doubtless owes much to John’s historical imagination, what it represents is in the deepest sense historical. It represents the central concern of the event of Jesus.
That central concern is oneness, unity. It is multi-dimensional: oneness with God, oneness with others. Its foundation is that divine glory is to be seen and shared in Jesus. ‘We have seen his glory’, the prologue stated in 1:14. ‘Glory’ was a way of speaking of God’s being. The unity is not any unity. It is not a contrived peace or collaboration. It is rooted in the event of Jesus. That life opened a window on God’s being. To use the imagery which John favours, Jesus was God’s envoy and ambassador. It was not that Jesus came offering new information. Rather his life is to be seen as an offer of relationship, a hand stretched out from God. 17:23 ensures we do not miss the essential ingredient: the relationship is not any kind of relationship; it is one characterised by love.
It is typical of John’s gospel that the event of Jesus is reduced to stark simplicity, and usually encapsulated in symbols. Jesus embodied, incarnated, the offer of life, light, water, bread, truth. The focus is on relationships characterised by love, both vertical and horizontal. John’s thinking about Jesus and God determines how he thinks about Jesus and the disciples, and how he understands the community of the disciples. Thus the unity works in all these dimensions.
It is not a notional or spiritual unity without concrete expression. The focus on oneness assumes an inclusiveness in which no one and nothing is left out. It is not spiritual or intellectual only. It is not unity only on paper. It is to be as embodied as God was in Christ. We see something of what this means when we turn to 1 John. By the time that sermon had been written there had been a split in the community. It was about doctrine. It was about lack of love. It was about failure to respond to physical needs. It seemed to have been rooted in an understanding of Jesus which also denied his human aspects. Splitting up his life led to splitting up the lives of individuals into spiritual and practical concerns. It led to splitting up of the community in which, it seems, one group saw itself as the spiritual ones and neglected the rest of life.
It is very likely that John composed this prayer with that kind of emerging danger in mind. Jesus is praying that the community will hold together, that they will live from the unity they celebrate in his life and his relationship with the Father. Alas, failure. That failure repeats itself when Christians write each other off, when love degenerates into hate or apathy.
Unity is not an extra; it is the essence of what it means to be Christian. The key words like reconciliation, atonement, assume its centrality. Did John imagine uniformity? It is striking that the gospel depicts considerable diversity in responses to Jesus. The beloved disciple outruns Peter not just on Easter morning. There is room for such diversity. But John and John’s tradition also exhibit opposite traits. Voices which demand unity can often be voices which demand that everyone should agree with them. Unity with integrity does require that we can articulate not only what we affirm together but what we do not affirm. John’s gospel and 1 John have some of the most divisive statements in the New Testament in depicting Jesus’ dispute with non-believing Jews in John 8 and in depicting the Christian dissenters in 1 John 2.
It is arguable whether these writers and their communities practised what they preached and what they prayed. On the other hand, they warn us against shallow notions of unity in which compromise can betray the gospel and so betray people. It all depends on how we understand the basis of unity. While an exclusive reading is possible, it is also possible to find in John and 1 John an invitation to generosity based on a simple and inclusive understanding of faith: in Jesus we identify God’s generous hand stretched out. John encourages us to think centrally and simply. John encourages us to think theologically or theocentrically. Jesus only matters because God matters. Oneness in sharing God’s life as love is a broad and inclusive platform upon which many can stand and which can tolerate great diversity. There is no place for hate, prejudice, writing people off. That necessarily excludes some people who refuse such inclusiveness. John’s style of theology gives support to a generous theology.
The final words continue the expression of love. Jesus’ last prayer is that those who celebrate his love come to share it fully in the presence of God also beyond death. This could sound like comfort for the select group, with total disregard for the rest of humanity. This would not do justice to John who portrays the whole event of Jesus’ ministry as an expression of God’s hand stretched out to all, to ‘whosoever’ (John 3:16). Thus even these final intimate aspirations of Jesus are potentially a wish for all people. It all makes sense because this shared life is not something to be found only beyond this life, but to be found here and now and to be lived out in real relationships and real community.
John’s theme of unity has the Christian community as its focus, but ultimately its theology is more inclusive than that. When we run with it, we find it opens up possibilities for all humanity and for all creation.
First reading: Easter 7: 8 May Acts
Epistle: Easter 7: 8 May Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21