John 17.1-11 | Sunday after Ascension Seventh Sunday of Easter

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4 I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. 6 “I have revealed you[a] to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of[b] your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.

The Gospel of the Lord

In our Sunday context, every year the lectionary places John 17—Jesus’ prayer—as the 7th Sunday of Easter. It falls between the Ascension (last Thursday) and the Pentecost (next Sunday). In Lectionary speak, Jesus has left the building. He has returned to the Father and arranged to send the Spirit. A closer look at our Lectionary reveals Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is divided into three readings: our lesson in Year A is vs. 1-11 but in Year B vs 12-19 and Year C vs. 20-26. For the most part the lectionary sages get things right but today’s numbering isn’t quite what it should be. There is very little disagreement among scholars or readers that the chapter’s themes are best divided: Jesus’ one on one with the Father “ I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” (vs. 1-5), Jesus referring to the disciples at the table “I’m interceding for them” (vs. 6-19) and remarkably Jesus indirectly referring to us “I’m interceding not only for these but for those who will believe” (vs. 20-26).

In the context of the 4th Gospel Jesus is portrayed as a faithful, obedient Jew who repeatedly travels to Jerusalem to participate in Passover – the yearly reminder of YHWH’s saving act on behalf of Israel.

Passover is unique among Israel’s festivals because it is not done in the temple or the synagogue but in a neighborhood, in a household with family and friends. Gathered around a table, led by the father or the oldest son, the folk remember and give thanks to YHWH for having delivered Israel from Egypt and slavery.

John 13-17 describes such a family/friends Passover meal. After a bit of washing up, chapters 13-16 narrate Jesus’ final words concerning the impending tearing of the social fabric of his family. He’s positioning this core group that he has been training—those that had been walking beside him observing his teaching, preaching and healing— to take over his ministry in his absence. In the deepening shadows, he imparts instruction about what is soon to happen, expresses repeatedly concern for their well being and importantly reveals who will hold the group together – the Spirit (16.4b-15). The 14 sentences of our lesson open the closing prayer of Jesus’ life. The prayer in its entirety is a series of sincere petitions and intercessions asking the Father for the help that his siblings (1.12), his friends (15.`14-15) need in the present and would need in the future. The prayer balances two perspectives: the self-focus on Jesus’ /Father’s substantial and secure relationship with that of the disciples and their not quite yet substantial and secure relationship.

Now a few words about our context. Recognizing that the Lectionary has moved the fence posts in the prayer’s first two thematic sections, I have found it difficult not to move the fence posts to encircle the “us” in the third section. Here’s why. The Passover prayer exposes the deeper divine mystery that Jesus has experienced with YHWH as father. It seems to me the Gospel intends to break through to us, to say there is something life-giving, deeper than we imagined in prayer. So we have here a way of looking at the mission of Jesus, the mystery of his suffering and also the depth of our faith and our prayer experience in a prayer bound up in the Passover.

The narrator breaks the hours of Passover table talk by observing Jesus “looks toward heaven” (vs. 1). Making a well known prayer gesture, he turns away from the disciples to speak directly to YHWH as father. The disciples, and we as readers, become listeners for the next few minutes.

Jesus speaks of an “hour” which we readers of the Gospel know is a code word for the cross. He petitions to fulfill his role as the Son who brings honor. If we as readers are to see honor in the crucifixion, then we must see it in a biblical way. The crucifixion completes Jesus’ mission of honoring YHWH. By laying down his life in an act of love he gives himself so completely that we come to know Jesus’ love for and YHWHs love for the world expressed in loyalty, in service and in unqualified obedience (John 3:16; 14:31). About to cross the fateful threshold he looks back over the course of his life and ministry and is able to point to the eleven at the table – the evidence that he has accomplished one part of the task given to him (vs. 2). Jesus the Son honored the Father by completing this part of the mission he was sent to do (vs. 4).

The prayer’s use of “Father” (vs. 1,5,), only true God (vs. 3), Holy Father (vs. 11), and Name (vs.11) is consistent with the Fourth Gospel. On the one hand, in the ancient near east, accessibility to divinity meant accessibility to power and authority. In John’s world, at this Passover table,“father” is a distinctive designation having its rooted-ness in the Exodus/Covenant traditions of Israel worked out as the love of a father for a son/child (Dt. 1.3,8.5,14.1). In calling YHWH “father,” Jesus embodies the only begotten son who can speak to the revelation of YHWH as the only true loving god. In addressing YHWH as father Jesus, the obedient messianic son, speaks to his trust, his confidence in YHWH’s loving fatherly ways. This covenantal relationship—of utter loving commitment—lies at the heart of Jesus’ prayer.

As the “hour” darkens, with every high lonesome word this prayer pushes us toward intimacy. In calling YHWH father Jesus presents us with a sensitive, nuanced relationship. As the elder son he models our parental relationship with YHWH “I pray for them…for they are yours” (vs.9). Parental relationship is at the core of this prayer. Parental relationships worked out in prayer acknowledges there is a supernatural reality around, above and underneath us. Sometimes for me, perhaps for you, when we as parents pray for our child, we come to know that the motivations of prayer are deep, primal. I am suggesting the deeply loving intercession in this prayer made in our favor by Jesus should be dearly, dearly treasured. Prayer, then, is family table talk, voiced in the most profound words we have on the tip of our tongue “I”,”my”, “you”, “our”, “we”, “they”.

The prayer reveals Jesus has been dispatched by the Father with authority to change people’s lives with a supernatural gift: eternal life (vs. 2). In the Fourth Gospel, eternal life is quality of life, not only life after death. It is a way of living now that makes the presence of the Father/Son/Spirit flourish.The life that Jesus offers us is infused with supernatural revelation. It reveals symptoms of what is going on within our heart. It reveals the wounds and brokenness that often stand in the way of life, our entanglement with others, our service. Eternal life is healing, living life as it is meant to be lived – to the full. It is living who we were meant to be, not living life for ourselves only.

In this Passover prayer, then, I am reminded that how and what Jesus prays for reveals a lot. At a very deep level his prayer describes what our worldview, our life,relationships, priorities and concerns should be. Ultimately his prayer reveals an understanding of who God is as a father. In this Passover prayer, I am reminded that I am not the only child. I belong to a family with siblings, an older Son and a Father who loves all of his children. My destiny in this prayer is to be drawn into a community committed to obedience and honor of the Father and the Son. Jesus’ prayer begins to fill out a pattern for me of what it looks like to be a christian in prayer in a community as the Spirit leads.

By way of illustration, I would like to highlight one pattern of prayer from our Sunday service that shapes the character and quality of community.

On the way to the Eucharist table, where we are invited to meet with the crucified and risen Jesus, we pass through the Prayers of the People. For me, the Prayers of the People is a sacred time in which the priesthood of all believers is experienced. It is a time in the service when you and I speak to the needs, concerns and thanksgivings of family, community, workplace and acknowledge those who have gone before us in faith. As we together voice the petitions/intercessions, they begin to draw us, heart and soul, into discovering how deeply we are loved and cared for and how deeply those we are praying for are loved and cared for. Everyone has been hurt by life’s trauma. Part of the emotional power of the Prayers of the People is its ability to unlock human hearts. Don’t we all know that having someone else who knows and cares is an ointment on a wound. Don’t we all feel hugely relieved to have another bear some of the weight, even if separated by distance. It’s grace-filled.

This final sentence of our lesson “Holy Father, keep watch over these you have given to me in your name so that they may be one as we are” (vs. 11) reminded me of the “encircling” attributed to St. Patrick. At the start of a journey or in uncertain situations, a person draws a circle around herself or himself depicting the Lord’s unifying care, praying:

“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,

Certainly, we are always encircled by Jesus’ unified protection in the midst of the world in which we remain but to which we do not belong, but note the prayer’s final lines

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me”.

– when we unite ourselves with others we can have added confidence in challenging times.

May the Lord richly bless you my beloved

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