Thought for the day
The community of faith — the church — does not exists of and for itself. We belong to the church because of God’s own mission to all of humanity. As we share this mission, we recognise that the project is not “ours” in a double sense. It is God’s project, first and foremost. Even more, the Spirit is already at work ahead of us in everything and everyone. Our missionary task is more nuanced: as we recognise the Spirit at work in our own lives, we hope to help others come to the same realisation and ownership, the same love and hope.
God, Father, Son and Spirit: show us how to be bearers of your mission, your love, your Good News in our time. May we live wholeheartedly what we have received that others may be drawn to your embrace. Amen.
John 17:11 [Jesus said:] I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them safe in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.
John 17:17 Set them apart in the truth; your word is truth. 18 Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. 19 And I set myself apart on their behalf, so that they too may be truly set apart.
John 17:20 I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, 21 that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.
John 17 forms the climax of the “Farewell Discourse” in the Fourth Gospel. Given the depth of the writing, perhaps it is a surprise that the entire chapter is read only on the seventh Sunday of Easter, as follows: Year A: 17:1-11; Year B: 11b-19; Year C: 20-26. The introductory material here covers all of John 17, as foundation for the commentary.
Kind of writing
The literary setting is the Farewell Discourse, itself a familiar genre from the Old Testament, Jewish writings at the time and from the New Testament itself. The community setting is implied by the literary genre: how will the believers sustain their life and faith after the departure of Jesus? In the course of it, the Johannine Jesus speaks of himself in the the third person—a hint that we are hearing the catechetical voice of the community.
John 17 has the following layout:
- Jesus prays for his glorification and describes eternal life (1-5)
- The beginning of eternal life in the disciples (6-8)
- Jesus prays for his disciples (9-19)
- Jesus prays for future believers (20-24)
- Jesus concludes his prayer (25-26)
Our excerpt takes us through most of parts II and III. All of John 17 should be read, to grasp the full power of the prayer.
The themes are: hour, glory, work, perfecting, love, fragility, disciples, union and communion, Jesus’ self-gift and the revelation of God. The only topic “missing” is the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, present very richly in the preceding discourses. The prayer is serene.
Old Testament background
The rain and snow fall from the sky and do not return, but instead water the earth and make it produce and yield crops, and provide seed for the planter and food for those who must eat. (Isaiah 55:10)
I will praise your name continually, and will sing hymns of thanksgiving.” My prayer was heard, for you saved me from destruction and rescued me in time of trouble. For this reason I thank you and praise you, and I bless the name of the Lord. (Sirach 51:11–12)
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them. (Numbers 6:24–27)
For his faithfulness and meekness he consecrated him, choosing him out of all humankind. (Sirach 45:4)
It is not with you alone that I am making this covenant by oath, but with whoever stands with us here today before the Lord our God as well as those not with us here today. (Deuteronomy 29:14–15)
Then you will know that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has sent me. (Zechariah 2:9)
…and He prepared me before the foundation of the world, that I should be the mediator of His covenant. (Assumption of Moses 1:13-14, a non-canonical book).
This is our God; no other can be compared to him. He found the whole way to knowledge, and gave her to his servant Jacob and to Israel, whom he loved. Afterward she appeared on earth and lived with humankind. (Baruch 3:35–37)
New Testament foreground
There are two kinds of New Testament background to bear in mind: the Synoptic and the Johannine.
The Synoptic tradition
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matt 11:25–27)
This passage is known in scholarship as the “Johannine bolt of lightning”. Below is the Our Father in Matthew’s version showing further striking overlaps with John 17. The Note in the Revised New Jerusalem Bible reads, “(t)he majestic final ch. of the discourses is almost a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer.”
Our Father (John 17:1, 5, 11, 21, 24-25) in heaven (17:1), hallowed (17:17, 19) be your name (17:6, 11-12, 26). Your kingdom come. Your will (17:24) be done, on earth (17:4) as it is in heaven (17:1). Give (17:2, 4, 6-9, 11-12, 14, 22, 24) us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue (cf. protect: 17:6, 11-12, 15; guard: 17:12) us from the evil one (17:15). (Matt 6:9–13)
The Johannine tradition
Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so the one who consumes me will live because of me. (John 6:57)
For I have given you an example —you should do just as I have done for you. (John 13:15)
I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34; cf. John 15:9)
Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you. (John 20:21
A farewell discourse in the Acts
And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem without knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit warns me in town after town that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. But I do not consider my life worth anything to myself, so that I may finish my task and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace. (Acts 20:22–24)
Verse 11 The present tense is unexpected until we remember the risen Lord is speaking, looking backwards. Vv. 11-16 are a prayer of consecration, that “they may be holy.” “Holy father” echoes biblical tradition: Leviticus 11:44; Psalm 71:22; 111:9; Isaiah 6:3.
Verse 17 “In the truth” is not abstract veracity but the person of Jesus, who in this Gospel is himself the way, the truth and life (John 14:6). Truth here translates the biblical concept of faithfulness, that is, interpersonal truth. The “word” (logos) means words in the usual sense and also the Word made flesh, the person of Jesus. See: “…nor do you have his word residing in you, because you do not believe the one whom he sent.” (John 5:38)
Verse 18 The verb to send (apostellō) is used, from which our word apostle. The apparently insignificant word “as” carries an enormous freight in this Gospel. More fully translated as “just as,” it indicates that the mission of Jesus continues fully and completely in the mission of the disciples, an essential teaching for Mission Sunday. Cf. the citations above under Johannine tradition. This verse also anticipates the commission in John 20:21.
Verse 19 An echo of texts such as Deuteronomy 15:19 and perhaps Sirach 45:4 above. “For their sakes” (in Greek huper autōn) means for the benefit of or for the sake of, rather than in place of.
Verse 20 The Moses tradition is echoed here: see the important Deuteronomy 29:14-15 above. Such a prayer reflects the post-Easter spirituality of the community. The proclamation of Jesus himself anticipates the first conclusion of the Gospel in John 20:30-31.
Verse 21 Concern for unity and love among the surviving followers are standard topics for a farewell discourse but of special relevance here. The Johannine community was made up of followers of John the Baptist (ch. 2), Pharisees (ch. 3), Samaritans (ch. 4) and Gentiles (ch. 4). As well as being mixed, the community experienced some kind of schism, registered in John 6:66 and 1 John 2:19. The teaching on unity and love is needed because it is not being lived and not being practiced. Still, the goal of such communion is not inward looking, some kind of holy huddle, but outward looking, so that the mission itself may be credible (cf. Zechariah 2:9 above).
Verse 22 Glory is a key term in this Gospel — for the identity of Jesus in God, for his destiny in being lifted up and for the core reality of the faith community. The Greek for glory (doxa), has the connotation of appearance, the way things seem from the outside. By the contrast, the Hebrew word (kāḇôḏ) points to inner substance, weight, reality. Having the “glory” that Jesus had means being in communion with the Father, sharing in the paschal mystery of Jesus, and being empowered by the Spirit. See the important gloss in chapter 7: Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:39)
Verse 23 Just as God’s glory “tabernacled” among the people in Exodus 40:34, likewise the Word made flesh has tabernacled among us (John 1:14). The mutual indwelling (14:20; 17:26), takes this covenantal presence (shekinah) to a new level. Cf. Baruch 3:35–37 above. The adverb “perfectly” echoes two passages. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now loved them to the very end (= completely, perfectly). (John 13:1) Jesus said, “It is completed (= perfected)!” (John 19:30)
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus prays for his followers — of all generations including ourselves today. Do I feel his intercession for me and my own calling as a disciple and witness?
2. Within communities of any kind, division is simply normal: it’s just what happens. How do I myself work towards reconciliation and greater unity?
3. To be witnesses to the love of God means to live the love we have received ourselves, as a wordless — more effective? — living witness. Do I own that as a central part of my mission?
God our Father, glorify your Son in the lives of the people called by his name. Through no merit of ours, you have made us your own, to be your witnesses on earth. Keep us true to the name we bear, that people everywhere may know that you are the God and lover of us all. We ask this through Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.