Several times in the gospel of John, Jesus is talking about what lies ahead for him, his death. That is a strange thing to talk about today: Death.
First of all, people don’t even like to say, ‘so and so died.’ We describe people as having passed on, expired, gone to a better place, or gave up the ghost. If you met someone at a party or social gathering, you might talk about the latest news. You may ask someone what they do for a living. If they have children, you might ask what they are doing with their lives. It would be unusual to strike up a conversation about the end of life, even if it is about someone close to you who has died.
On more than one occasion in the Gospel of John, Jesus points towards his death because he knows what lies beyond. Jesus is speaking of the unity of all believers.
In our culture, we try to side-step death. [Slide #1 showing someone exercising] We learn that exercise slows the aging process. We have anti-aging creams and treatments for hair loss. We rarely hear that someone’s life has come to an end because of ‘old age,’ but rather due to a medical diagnosis. Medicine has extended life, but some believe that death is something for medicine and science to one day overcome. We have moved from dying at home, surrounded by family and friends, to hospice facilities, hospitals, and nursing homes. The end of life for many people in our culture occurs somewhere else, outside of the view of mainstream society. Sometimes, the only unity found in our culture around the topic of death is to avoid the issue altogether.
Jesus is talking about his coming death, and he does this more than once in John’s gospel. He hits it head-on and talks about the love that he brings from God into the world. Jesus is laying out the big picture, and his death is a part of it. Fully divine and fully human, Jesus walks the earth and embodies what God’s love looks like. Jesus closes the gap between God and humanity. It’s about Jesus' relationship with God – rooted in a love that cannot be overcome by death. Jesus shares the love that exists between himself and God, and we see this in his ministry, and in his prayer today.
In the first part of this prayer, Jesus prays for himself. [slide #2] John 17:4-5, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” Jesus is caught up in the life of God. The life that God brings freely to the world.
Next, Jesus prays for his disciples, [slide #3] saying in John 17:6, “I have made your name known..” In verse 7 Jesus prays, “they know that everything you have given me is from you…and they know the truth." In Verse 11 Jesus talks of his followers being in the world and not of the world. John 17:11 ”and now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.”
Jesus is speaking of his coming death. And Jesus speaks as one who is in the world, not of the world. The jig is up. Jesus is laying out the big picture, and we get to hear it in his prayer. We see this time of preparation. A transition as Jesus will soon die on the cross, rise again, and then return to God.
In the first part of the prayer,[Slide #4] Jesus prays for himself. Now [Slide #5] Jesus prays for his disciples. He prays that the disciples will be protected. John 17:11, “…Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus is praying for unity.
Unity! That is such a controversial word in America today. What is America united behind? Well, it depends on who you talk to. Unity or agreement exists but in many different formats. There is unity in political parties – sort of. There is an agreement in professional groups or organizations, unity in families. We see a degree of unity behind social isolation in this country. That has helped to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. Over time, we know that unity is becoming strained as we figure out how to get various aspects of this American life going again.
[Slide #6. Unity that joins us all to God through Christ]. Jesus is praying for the unity that joins him to God. He is praying for that same bond of love and commitment that exists between him and the father, be shared amongst all believers.
My professor, Matt Skinner, talks about it this way; Jesus is caught up in the life of God. God is committed to the life of Jesus. Now, we can be caught up in the life of God, and God is likewise committed to our own lives. It is an existential sharing of space between us and the divine. Jesus is praying here for that transition and unity of all believers together with God and himself. Jesus prays that we can all be one - united in that same love that forms the foundation of Jesus' relationship with God, making God visible in the world.
There is a story I want to share with you that illustrates this. [Slide #7] Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail for being part of a militant organization opposed to the all-white South African government. He was released in the 1990’s, became the leader of a peaceful movement against the oppression of the black population in South Africa, and eventually became the first black president of South Africa. Christian Piatt (2019) writes how Nelson Mandela, early on in his presidency, met with his former captors and worked towards healing. Instead of retaliation, Mandela and his team committed to forgiveness towards the previous white leadership who oppressed him and others in South Africa. This has been key to the development of peace and reconciliation in their country. What he achieved was not perfect, but it was nonviolent and moved the country towards peace and unity.
That brings me to the next movement in Jesus' prayer. We do not read that part in today’s gospel, but in Jesus' prayer, there is a third movement. [Slide #8. Jesus prays for believers who are not believers yet]. Jesus prays for believers who are not believers yet. John 17:20. “I ask not only on behalf of themselves, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” When Nelson Mandela worked for unity, it was a game changer. Jesus prays for believers yet to be. That’s what sets us apart. We are not concerned with what divides us. When we share our life with God’s life, we step outside of the divisions in our countries and the world. We pray for ourselves, each other, and for all people. We pray for the unity that only comes from God, grounded in the love that is shared in the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Death is a part of our big picture as well. We can speak with confidence of our death and beyond because we, as believers, are in the world, not of the world. Being in the world, we pray for ourselves so that our lives glorify God here on this earth. Our lives are reflections of God – reflections of what we have seen and experienced in our walk with Jesus, images of God in each other. We pray for other believers, that they remain in the world and not become of the world and lost. We pray for all believers – even for those who do not believe today, but one day will. I have one more thing for you to know today and it’s important. [Slide #9. Jesus prays for You!]. Know that, whenever you hear this prayer by Jesus in the 17th chapter of John, know that Jesus prays for you! AMEN
Piatt, C. (2019). Surviving the Bible: A Devotional for the Church Year 2020. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN. (p.202-203)