UCA Anniversary: 22 June John 17:20-26
These verses are the final part of Jesus' prayer, traditionally called his high priestly prayer. Parting prayers like parting words are very important. So ancient writers would often give special attention to their form and substance. Deuteronomy is presented as the parting words of Moses. The blessings of Jacob play a similar role. A genre of literature called, 'testaments', developed in which people imagined what great figures of the past might have said (for instance, The Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs). John's gospel reflects the same process. Almost all of four chapters (13-16) are given over to Jesus' last words and one chapter to Jesus' last prayer. Luke shows the process in a much less developed form when he transfers material from various locations into final instructions in 22:21-38.
Such passages tell us what the writer believed Jesus would have said. This was common practice even among the best historians like Thucydides and is reflected in the speeches in Acts. The passages often reflect issues which were particularly relevant for the community in which the writer was active. When in John 17:20 Jesus is portrayed as praying for people beyond the story, people in the time of the writer and beyond, 'those who believe because of their word', we can be fairly certain that contemporary concerns are on the agenda. At the same time these concerns are couched within a prayer which retains the broader perspective. This gives it a timeless quality, an enduring relevance.
It is a prayer for unity of the followers of Jesus. The unity is of a kind that people can recognise it as love and find it attractive, so much so that they will count it as evidence that Jesus really did get people in touch with God. So it is not just an invisible unity, sometimes a slogan for avoiding the challenge of unity, but unity which shows. It is unity which forms part of a larger oneness: the oneness of Christ with God. In fact it draws its inspiration and its energy from that unity. You can see that by the way the prayer states that people will believe because of the unity among Christians. Why? Because the unity among human beings is the result of Jesus' coming. To stay with the terms of the prayer, Jesus' coming shows the love and the glory, which he shares with God and is sharing with us. As 1 John put it, we love because he first loved us (4:19).
Glory and love and knowing are shared now and will be shared forever. That is the theme in 17:24-26, but it also underlies the prayer for unity in 20-23. Glory (Hebrew: kabodh) is a way of speaking of God's being in its fullness. Jesus' prayer, Jesus' vision of wholeness, is that we share in the life of God. That life is typified as love. Knowing is more than knowing about, it is knowing which allows what is known to be real for us and to affect us. Here is a vision of salvation as oneness. It spawns many other images, like reconciliation.
Oneness is fruitful category for spiritual reflection. There are hazards. Some people confuse it with making everybody the same or everyone having the same view. Try that in families! For some oneness means absorbing all others and controlling them into a union of domination. Some marriages are like that. For others it means the opposite: submergence, retreat from responsibility, submission to authority without question. Some marriages are also like that! Many religions and some forms of Christianity portray spirituality in terms of a passive merging with God – with the One. The term 'mysticism' may evoke such a model. Some would say that for this reason John's Jesus has ceased to be a real figure and functions now just as a divine persona; he is all but absorbed into deity and no real humanity is left.
How real is the unity for which John's Jesus prays? Is it about absorption into the divine, a kind of unity in collaboration as each member becomes more and more drawn up into inner mystical transcendence? Is it about being a community where everyone is nice and conflict is avoided, where people show 'Christian' love, commonly understood as a form of deceit and dishonesty practiced for the sake of harmony?
After such fantasies we hit the ground with a thud when we read 1 John. Written probably not long after the final chapters of the gospel and reflecting the language and themes of those chapters, 1 John allows us to see what must have been the gospel writer's fear when he wrote Jesus' prayer. The unity has collapsed. Some who were part of the church have gone off to form their own group and are having great success in their work in the world (see 1 John 2:19: 4:1-3). They claim the Spirit while they neglect basic acts of caring for those in need (see 1 John 3:17).
Jesus' prayer for unity must have been written when these conflicts were already on the horizon. The unity in focus was real; it was about people getting on together. It was about being a caring community. That caring included confronting major issues. These appear to have focussed on whether Jesus the Son of God was a real human being or not (1 John 4:1-4; 5:6). Connected to it was whether real human needs are to be taken seriously or not. The gospel can be read in a way that Jesus is out of this world and faith is a private journey away from life's harsh realities. The writer of 1 John says, no.
We may be seeing an early sign of the conflict in the way the writer makes such a lot of the human body of Jesus. At the thrust of the spear, blood and water poured out, just as one would expect from a normal human being (John 19:34-35). A 'blood and guts' Jesus connects to a 'blood and guts' understanding of caring and ultimately to a 'blood and guts' understanding of unity. This way of being in community is not a side issue in John, but the major testimony to faith's integrity and the primary vehicle of its evangelism. Unity is not, for John, a desirable extra but part of the salvation itself. It is not a concrete sign of the real thing which is invisible and inward, but is itself part of the real thing. Such unity will embrace great diversity, but it will also draw the line (and face the cost of doing so), wherever the reality of Jesus and the earthiness of love is denied.
Imagine Jesus praying for the Uniting Church in Australia?
He did, didn't he?
Epistle: UCA Anniversary: 22 June Hebrews 13:1-8