Easter 7: 20 May John 17:6-19
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6 ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
Listening to the language of the heart.
“Heart language.” That’s how my friend, who loves John’s Gospel, described John 17 during our meeting yesterday.
I struggle with John. It is heart language from another time and culture. It is a culture distant enough, that when I read John 17, I sometimes remember being a little child trying to listen to the prayers being said by the minister. I was not even mystified at the words. They were just noise. I could make no connection at all.
Traditionally, we skip these bits of the bible where we struggle to connect. If you are a minister, like me, you still have to preach on Sunday, so you retreat to the epistle reading, or the Old Testament lesson. Unless you have committed to preach something on the gospel, that is!
My approach at such times, is to break the text down into small pieces. I look for phrases that make some sense, and slowly put the passage back together in my own words. It’s a wooden approach, but it often works to open up meaning for me, and let my heart hear.
Father, the hour has come...
Jesus is presenting his last will and testament. The last words, which we have been hearing for chapters now, are coming to an end. This is the climax. In the next chapter the end begins.
glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you...
Show people who I am, so I may show them who you are...
you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him...
Show the people who your Son is, so he can do the work you authorised and sent him to do... which is to give people eternal life.
This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent...
Let the reader remember: eternal life is not going to heaven when you die; it is about knowing God... even now!
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world...
I have done what you asked me... and you people who have followed me are immensely special. God chose you and gave you to me.
and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me:
Suddenly I am all adrift. I am back in my childhood, trying to follow the prayers of the minister, and have no idea what is being said!
These people have listened to me, and followed me and done as I have asked. That is what keeping your word means; it is not believing in a list, but doing the list.
Suddenly I have a moment of insight about verses seven and eight. Do they mean, I wonder, that essentially, I know all I need to know. By doing, by following, by living the list, I know what I need to know. It is within me. I know enough. I may not understand all the mystical words of John’s gospel, but by doing I am discovering the truth—the truth that these words are God’s words and that Jesus does come from God. They are no longer theory to be believed, or not, but are lived and experienced truth. The living and the doing “makes” God real. It allows the reality of the Divine to enter my life.
There is a sense of mystery here that appeals to me, and I can feel I am beginning to get into the text.
But then, at the next verses, all this is deflated. I am stopped. It is too hard. I can’t make sense of it.
When this happens to me, I try to discern my emotions, and analyse them. This morning, I find two undeniable emotions when I attempt to re-word the next pieces of the text.
The first is the emotion of anger.
I am immediately suspicious of myself. Am I not angry, because I find this hard? Am I not simply resentful? This is heart language for my friend Christine and I resent that it is not so for me. That’s all it is. I should “get over myself” and do the hard work.
Specifically, I remember being unable to answer a question in a school test. That particular question has always rankled in my memory. How could I possibly have known the answer to that question?
Hard on that memory comes another; the memory of standing shamed in the outer office of the school principal, waiting to be caned for a fight I didn’t want, didn’t start, and was not in. I was backing away from a thug who was pushing me. This is not fair. That is the emotion, unbidden.
I really should “get over myself!” Except ... that I thrive on hard work. Sometimes I envy Christine her experience of the heart language of John, but mostly, I revel in finding my own meaning. This hard passage is not enough to account for my emotions.
I know myself. Saying that I am angry because I envy her, and those like her, is taking the easy way out. There is something else going on in my soul this morning.
The second emotion I feel is this: I am suddenly deeply tired, like a little friend called Tobiah, when he was three years old. Whenever Tobiah was confronted by something he didn’t like, he would turn his face away like a dog meeting another dog that is bigger, and would start yawning prodigiously. Sometimes he would rapidly fall asleep!
I know myself. There is something deep happening here. I am wanting to avoid it! These emotions are a clear signal telling me that the verses I am dealing with are full of difficulty for me.
9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours...
Jesus is praying to be glorified on our behalf, so we can see he has come from God. There is an immense blessing here. So far, so good,
but there is also a huge chasm being defined between people—or perhaps the chasm that already exists, is being highlighted and emphasised.
I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me... the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
I understand this. I make a distinction and a division between people myself. As I see humanity, people either live for themselves, or for the community of all earth. We believe either that all earth is here for us, or that we are here for earth. It is a fundamental difference in attitude and loyalty which goes to the heart of what it means to be human.
I understand that people are persecuted for trying to live for the community of all earth, which is the same as living for God. I’ve been there. The distinction between those who live for God, and for all earth, is sometimes stark, absolute, and hostile. There is a reality in these words of Jesus of John.
Why, then, if they are true, are these words distressing me this morning?
Part of my discomfort with these verses is surely in the way we misuse them.
We misuse them as a weapon to cut people off. We call people who are different from us “the world,” and consign them to hell. We do it to people who are actually closer to God than we are, but who challenge us or shame us. To save ourselves from our failings, and get rid of the light they shine on us, we say they are wrong. They are of the world.
We also misuse these verses because we are hypocrites without compassion. We condemn those whom we see living for themselves, whilst we conveniently ignore, or do not yet even see, how much we live for ourselves and how little we live for God, and for all earth.
It is important for me, and for all of us, to reread my last paragraphs with some changes: part of my discomfort with these verses is surely in the way I misuse them....
John 15 also speaks of the world. The essence of how we actually live out our faith is also summed up there. “‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ (15:12) This agape love is not some mere principle. It is a sharing of longings and fears. Love works because it enters into the experience of others. It does not work “top down,” it lives along side. It is compassionate. Compassion used to be called mercy.
Compassion is the gift of being able to experience life as others experience it. Compassion heals my hypocrisy. It allows me to “have mercy” on others, and then on myself. It means I no longer project my disgust at my failings onto them. I do not have to hate the world anymore, because I do not have to hate myself.
Compassion is the gift of God that lets me see God in others... in all others. Compassion lets me into the kingdom. It is that relaxing of my selfish self that means I begin to experience eternal life. It empties me of the need to know, and control, and be in charge. It is the great healing which means “I know all I need to know.” I’m repeating what I wrote above:
By doing, by following, by living the list, I know what I need to know. It is within me. I know enough. I may not understand all the mystical words of John’s gospel, but by doing I am discovering the truth—the truth that these words are God’s words and that Jesus does come from God. They are no longer theory to be believed, or not, but are lived and experienced truth. The living and the doing “makes” God real. It allows the reality of the Divine to enter my life.
This is all gift, and not definable or achievable. It is given. Compassion is like the last tumbler in the lock, falling into place, opening the kingdom. We have the key, but compassion is what loosens the stiff lock of our own resistance to what God is giving us and allows everything to be un-locked.
The problem is that compassion changes only us.
For when we are compassionate, we become ones to be hated. Compassion on your part, exposes all my failings. It thrusts them in my face. It means, unmistakably and undeniably, that you have seen me.
Perhaps I will love you, and respond with joy, because you cared for me. You saw me, and you did not hate me or despise me, and it unlocks my heart and fills me with joy.
Or perhaps, I will hate you with passion, because you saw me, and knew me, and know all the dirty failings of which I am so ashamed. I must destroy you, so that I will not be exposed. (...the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil... John 3.) I must say that you are evil, to protect myself.
Worse than this, there are times when my response to you will not be shame. I will not be so spiritually advanced that I feel shame. Instead, I will be enjoying my life, lived for myself, just as it is. Your compassion to another threatens my life and my way of being. This cannot be allowed. The world is here for me, and you wish to take it away from me. My survival, my life, depends on stopping you.
You can say all you want about a greater good for all people. You can even pretend that if I follow the way you are pointing, that life will be even better for me... much better. But I want what I have. I will kill you if you take it from me.
So, at best, I am like an injured dog, snarling and snapping at those who seek to help it. I know my pain, but it is too great to move somewhere else. At worst, I will plan and plot to prevent you from helping me, or others, because such help means I lose my life. Saving my life and therefore losing it is no longer a clever saying of Jesus. It is why I, the world, hate you. Jesus has done well to pray for you. You need it.
I guarded them... but now I am coming to you... 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
After all that I have said about what I will do to you, Jesus prays your protection not from me, but from the evil one. There is worse than what I can do to you. There is the loss of your self back into the world of self centred comfort.
Is this why John 17 so discomforts me? Because it is better to die on a cross than be recaptured by the world?
As a lonely and alienated person, compassion finally let me love the world, instead of being always on the defensive. It let me into the world. Then I discovered that it gave the world even more reason to hate me. This is why I do not like I read in John 17.
We need that “love with which you have loved me” (17:26) to be among us as church, and for Jesus to be among us. For with the best will in the world, because we love the world, in fact, we have caused the world to hate us.
Jesus being in us, and we in him, means we share all things. It means we share the cost of that kingdom which the world opposes. The world will hate us as much as it hates the kingdom and its Christ.
And now, at last, I am in the language of heart. To give in, and to not follow the Christ and seek to live for all earth, is to enter an abyss; an abyss where life is lost. But to follow is to be hated. It is to cross the Kidron Valley to a place where there is a garden where my life will be betrayed by my fellow human beings whom I have at last learned to love, and let love me. No wonder he prays for me.
My heart has been changed. I can reason that the way to life is through dying—that’s the underlying theology here, or I can simply acknowledge that in the grim warning of chapter 17, I am meeting love. It truly is language of the heart.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Thanks to my friend Rev Christine Gilbert.
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