Easter 7: 1 June John 17:1-11
Like Jesus’ final words to his disciples, so also this account of his final prayer has to be understood against the background of common patterns of ‘biography’ of the time. For further detail on this see the comments for Easter 5. The main point is that it was customary in portraying someone’s life to seek to crystallise the essence of their message for future generations in the accounts of their last words and sometimes their final prayer. It is not that there was such a prayer which Jesus spoke in this distinctively Johannine way of which the rest of the tradition, reflected in the other gospels, had no knowledge. Rather in John’s story of Jesus’ life and importance he has creatively imagined what Jesus might have said and what would have been the issues for him in this final prayer.
At the same time, as elsewhere in the gospel, John will have drawn upon the older traditions known to him, many of them reaching back to Jesus, and been inspired by them. Many find in John 17 influence from the Lord’s Prayer. It has also been described as the ‘high priestly prayer’ of Jesus, a designation inspired by the portrait of Jesus in Hebrews and by the imagery of 17:19. While not a minuted prayer from the upper room in 30 AD, the prayer (like so much of John’s gospel) is an inspired and inspiring account of who Jesus is and what he has done which belongs to the treasury of faith. It is not a private prayer, but one written to be heard and reflected upon.
Following the model of the envoy commissioned for a task Jesus is making a report to the commissioner. The commission is variously described as glorifying the Father on earth (4), making God’s name known (6), and passing on God’s words (8). The commissioning is variously described as being given authority (2), being sent (3), being given work to do and bring to completion (4), being given what is the Father’s to pass it on (7-8), coming from and (again) being sent from the Father (8). The goal of the commission is variously described as the passing on of eternal life (2), thus enabling people to know God and Jesus Christ (3), to keep the word (6), to receive the words (8), to know and believe what the Son claims about his commission (8), to glorify the Son (10) and to become one (11). All that! - in the space of 11 verses.
But there is more. As the Father’s envoy Jesus not only reports that he has finished the task (4), but also requests reinstatement to his former status. That is, he asks that he may be glorified (1). This means: being brought back to the glory of the Father’s presence, which is where he started (5). The ‘hour’ (1) has in mind the events about to be unfolded in Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion. People will read those events as a hopeless failure. But people of faith will see that while at one level Jesus will be lifted up onto a cross, at another level he will be lifted up to glory. For John all these events come together as one, so that we are not to think of death without resurrection, exaltation, glorification, and ascension. It enables John to engage in much of irony: lifting up the Son of Man, for instance, is wonderfully ambiguous. Many sayings of the gospel find their echoes in this reference to ‘the hour’ (13:31-32; 12:23, 31-33; 8:28; 6:62; 3:13-15; 2:5).
What does all this mean? The imagery varies, like the instruments in an orchestral piece, but the same theme is being repeated throughout the gospel and its melody is clearly heard in this account of Jesus’ final prayer. The Son came to bring the offer of life. The life consists in being in a knowing relationship with God. The envoy model suggests the Son came to bring information, but in fact that, too, is imagery. What he brings is the offer of life in relationship. Hearing Jesus describe his own commission in this way helps us keep this focus. While John also knows and uses those traditions which place emphasis on Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sins, that is not the dominant melody. The focus is the encounter with the Son already during his ministry which invited people into relationship with the Father. After his departure the Spirit through the disciples will take that offer of life to the whole world.
In verse 9 the prayer moves from reporting that the job has been done to making a request. While in the logic of the prayer it is God who is to hear this, in the context of the gospel story being read it is the hearers who are to hear it. John is telling them/us that Jesus is worried about something: disunity and division. He prays that the disciples will be one. Later he will extend this concern to all future disciples. Unity is not a strategy of convenience and economy here nor just a strategy for marketing (although this thought is not entirely absent as 17:21 and 23 and13:34-35 show!). It is not a cleverly ambiguous ecumenical declaration which papers over differences. It is rather an extension of John’s understanding of what eternal life (or salvation) means. It is not about a place or a gift or a certificate of acquittal so much as about a 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.
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. John’s gospel is also pointing us to that as our hope. It does have a future - generously Jesus wants nothing less than that we share the same hope which awaits him (17:24-26). It has a future because it has a present in which already here and now we share and delight in the life of God who is always taking initiatives of compassion. The greatest antidote to greed is to want only the reward of being one with the God whose being is self giving love.
John’s gospel has a wonderful way of bringing it all together in focus and within the gospel John 17 does this especially. It can help us recognise what matters. Its distinctive model of christology helps make this possible, but also offers us a way of thinking of Jesus and his significance which works where John’s elaborate model is not assumed, such as in the earlier gospels and in the earliest traditions. Combined with their earthiness you can then see how what John is saying in abstract takes us into being a community of compassion which touches every area of life and challenges all systems and instances where it is absent.
First Reading: Easter 7: 1 June Acts 1:6-14
Epistle: Easter 7: 1 June 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11