First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 7

William Loader

Easter 7: 20 May  John 17:6-19

The prayer of Jesus in John echoes the themes of Jesus’ last words, especially as they are portrayed in John 15-16. The prayer is part of John’s image of Jesus’ legacy to the church, following the common custom which I have described in the last two weeks. It tells how John thought that Jesus would pray for his and the wider church and how he would address its contemporary issues.

There is an intertwining here of several key themes. In 17:1-5 Jesus reports that he has completed the task of making the Father known and asks to return to the Father’s glory. In 17:6-8 the Son elaborates his report. It is an important clue about how John understands Jesus’ significance. The main thing is that he passed on to the believers what he received from the Father. This is variously described as the Father’s name or word or ‘everything’ or words. The focus is not information-giving, but the establishment of a special relationship with God. The offer is, in that sense, not revelation (information, knowledge-about), but relationship (coming to know a person). In this relationship is life, eternal life. 17:3 makes that plain.

17:9-16 gives us Jesus’ prayer for those who have entered this relationship. They are special. They are variously described as people given to the Son by the Father (17:6,9,11). So they are special because they belong both to the Father and to the Son. They share not only the relationship, but also the task which the Father gave the Son. Thus 17:18 indicates that they are sent as the Son is sent (a thought which reappears in John 20:21). But Jesus is concerned about them on three fronts. First, they are faced with the world and its hostility, which will kill him, but from which he will ascend to the Father’s glory leaving them behind to do the job. Second, they may be tempted to give up, like Judas. Third, there is the possibility of disunity.

While John’s gospel portrays God’s love for the world of people (3:16!) as the basis for Christ’s coming, it also sees grave dangers for believers in the value systems of the world. One response to such dangers is for Christians to live in a world of their own, to withdraw, or to make forages out into the hostile environment in mission, but constantly to return to a reclusive huddle. The greater danger for most today is probably the opposite: not withdrawal from the world but conformity with its prevailing values and politics. It is to surrender to the norms of what it commonly means to be a good and patriotic citizen, which usually includes religious (Christian) sponsorship of some kind to make it all feel right. It usually means reinforcing the status quo and, where that is oppressive and unjust, collusion in injustice. It is not as dramatic as Judas’ act, but probably far more serious in its consequences.

That brings us to the second concern: loss of holiness. Being kept from the devil and being kept holy are two sides of the one coin. Holiness is christologically and theologically defined. To lose holiness is to lose touch with the Son and the Father. Jesus attends to his own holiness (17:19) and is concerned about that of his disciples (17:12,15-17,19). In John’s frame of reference, the issue is remaining one with the Son and the Father. It could seem like a very closed and exclusive system if we forget that underlying it all is an image of God as love which is reaching out to all. Losing touch with love is losing touch with holiness. It is playing to some other tune. It is betrayal. John copes with Judas’ betrayal by saying it was in accordance with scripture and was a work of the Satan (17:12; 13:2,27). Whether one personalises evil or not and whether one sees it as predictable or not, the betrayal puts love to death - and still does, so that we look up into the eyes of Jesus on the cross and see our contemporaries.

John shows no knowledge of the virtuous image of Judas portrayed in the second century Gospel of Judas. The latter is more likely to be a product of the kind of movement with which John's community later had to struggle. In it Jesus imparts true knowledge, which reflects a second century system of thought according to which flesh and blood humanity is the product of a depraved deity and salvation is escape from embodiedness into heavenly realms. So Judas was doing Jesus a favour, facilitating the death of the man who clothed him, as its Jesus puts it. These movements wrote their struggles with the wider church of the second century into the first century by choosing Judas (and also Mary Magdalene and others) as their representatives. The latter are supposed to have been privileged with such secret information by Jesus (which just happens to coincide with emerging gnosticism of the second century!). The alleged secret encounters and liaisons have inspired legends and would-be history novels in our own day. Somewhat pathetically, these figures are portrayed as alienated and not understood by the rest of the disciples. The ploy has even taken in some people today, and has an attraction especially for who anyone struggling with the "established church" (and there are surely also good grounds for doing so at times), but the people who fall for the gnostic ploy in this instance fail to realise that their heroes were, in fact, promulgating a life-denying escapist spirituality which in some parts of Christianity we have only just put to rest. The seeds of such anti-material Christianity begin to be sown about the time of 1 John, if not before, and the larger than life Jesus of John's gospel might have been part of its inspiration.

The third concern was unity (17:11). It will return when Jesus is pictured praying for future disciples (17:20-23). In recent weeks we have seen that loving one another was a major theme. 1 John shows that the community did end up splitting (2:19). There, some of the same terms reappear. The split is the work of the antichrist (Satan) and antichrists (2:18). It had to do with what the world found acceptable (4:4-6). Those who remained had overcome the world and love for its agenda (2:12-17; 5:5-7). Those who had left denied the reality of Jesus’ humanity and denied humaneness in relations with others (4:2; 3:17). The stream that flows into the gospels of gnosticism is beginning to flow.

At one level Jesus’ prayer was a failure: divisions came. On the other hand, one could argue that John’s Jesus never meant unity for the sake of unity. Unity was not an ideal in itself, but always and only in the context of unity with the Son and Father. Unity can be a collusion of betrayal. There are many crazy ideas about Christian unity. For some, unity is an embodiment of the principle of peace according to which everyone is always nice (and therefore usually dishonest) and conflicts are not tolerated (and, so, go underground, and turn demonic). True love and peace, by contrast, is about making and having space where conflicts can be dealt with, worked through and, if need be, lived with, but in a way which does not turn them to destructiveness.

Another form of denial is to relegate the idea of unity to a very abstract level, where it counts for the oneness all Christians have in worshipping the one God and one Jesus, but is not allowed to affect how people work together and live together. Clearly the unity envisaged in this prayer is something much more concrete than that. It is a unity which can be seen and may even model the resolution of conflict to wider society in a manner which will persuade people there is something to the Christian message. That is, effectively, what John 13:34-35 hopes, but to mount such claims in today’s world is, alas, to invite scorn - and with some validity. It remains, however, the vision, not for propaganda but for community with integrity: to live the eucharistic vision of peace and justice together now. Our unity is ultimately our unity in God and what God is doing; so is our holiness; and God so loved the world ...

Epistle: Easter 7:  20 May  1 John 5:9-13

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