The distillation of Mystery

    The distillation of Mystery cannot be grasped...

Especially in Chapter 17, John's Gospel can seem suspiciously similar to pseudo-spiritual gobbledegook from the New Age shelves. I've also seen  'spiritual letters' from self-appointed prophets which share some of the cadence of John, but whose authors have been plainly quite unwell. Even to sympathetic eyes, the book can seem impenetrable, perhaps like those prayers from the minister with phrase upon phrase where you wonder if he's— it's usually the men— actually saying anything at all! Why would John write something like that!?

Well, perhaps it was not as strange a type of literature in its time, as it seems now. (And there is one part of the prayer which should be familiar. It is one of those prayers which is also a sermon!)

If we feel like we are out of our depth and have no idea what he is saying, it's not that the text is obscure;  it's because he wants to put us out of our depth. He wants to pull us up short; he wants to stop us being familiar with the story of Jesus, and his death and resurrection, and to see the story in a new light. His hope, and indeed his expectation, is that the swirling repetitions and the lack of logical sequence— how does this connect to that!? —   in the text, will allow something of the deeper mystery of God which he has experienced to also break through into our consciousness. He wants to say there is something life-giving in this humiliated, dying, absent Messiah which is even deeper than we imagined!

A way in to all this may come from appreciating John's understanding of the evil of what he calls "the world." It is a

a sinful, evil, … system of human governance that move[s] contrary to the values of God and [the] Kingdom. (Cruz)

This is very clear from John 3:19, for example

19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil... 

In Chapter 17 where the divide between the disciples and the world is made clear:

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. 

Indeed, Samuel Cruz goes on to say "Some scholars have suggested that one of the emphases of John’s Gospel is that Jesus was killed because of the good works he performed." I think this is true.

This evil was obvious to his readers at the bottom of the Empire's food chain. But as westerners, we are perhaps inclined to underestimate the evil of the world. Cruz  says

The modern/post-modern world in which we live seems to have moved away from beliefs about evil in the world that originated from “primitive” societies. These ideas may seem irrelevant in our age, but are ironically more relevant today than ever. In our time, the prosperity theologies and/or psychological theologies of positive thinking make it unfashionable to even use the word sin.

But this is too simple. Sin is very popular in some settings.

In one setting, we were sinners, but now we are saved. This can be used to excuse us from our part in the mess of the world, including by projecting our own sinfulness back onto "the world" making them the problem. This might include some places which preach the heresy of prosperity theology; you can have forgiveness and yet keep eating the fruits of sin— keep reading to understand what I am saying here. In other words, sin is often spoken about, but underestimated.

In another setting, sin is also used to keep people controlled with the threat of damnation. Here, sin contradicts the notion of God's love: Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. But sin is used to manipulate people who are meant to be abundantly free. (John 10:10) "Taking sin seriously" can become a means of enslavement!

There has been a deeper understanding of what sin in actually is, in some other places. We speak of corporate sin; for example, we understand the evil of sweat shops in Bangladesh, or child labour in the production of chocolate.  But we easily overestimate the effectiveness of the purchase of Fairtrade coffee, and other such choices, as an antidote to human sinfulness. Just as some companies "greenwash" their products, so our conscience may be assuaged by buying Fairtrade coffee. This is partly due to our ignorance of how global trade and industry work, but also because John's consciousness about the world is almost too much to bear when we apply it to our world. For if we truly hear John, we will not say, along with John's folk at the bottom, "You're right!" We will realise that we in the west are inescapably among the privileged and the oppressors.

To put the nature of the world's sin and evil— our evil— in perspective, and to revaluate the endemic nature of sin, and our inability to escape it, we might look at the phenomenon of slavery.  Slavery is the direct opposite of Jesus' command in John: love one another as I have loved you. Slavery is officially banned worldwide, yet it is endemic, as an article in The Guardian shows.

Contemporary slavery takes many forms, from women forced into prostitution, to child slavery in agriculture supply chains or whole families working for nothing to pay off generational debts. Slavery thrives on every continent and in almost every country. Forced labour, people trafficking, debt bondage and child marriage are all forms of modern-day slavery that affect the world's most vulnerable people.

We tend to project statements like this onto countries like Bangladesh, which is to ignore the constant pressure to roll back worker's rights in our own country. We ignore, or are ignorant of, the servitude in our own country. (Servitude is "the state of being a slave or completely subject to someone more powerful."  They may still pay you some money!)

If you need a job here in Australia, you can pack food for eight dollars an hour. This is half the legal minimum wage! If you are starving, perhaps paying $150 a week for a single room for a whole family, and not allowed to have even our measly CentreLink benefits, such work may be your only hope. Such folk often have legal limits placed on how many hours they can work, depending on their visa. But to survive, they must work more hours, and so they have no legal recourse about their pay, because then they would risk being deported for breaking the law. (Which is why I did not dob in the place where my friends were working.)

Or perhaps your pay sheet shows you are paid the correct wage, but then you are forced to give some of your pay-packet back. Or perhaps you have unpaid work trials which stretch out into weeks— interns, anybody?.

And what of the "new economy?" Have we any idea how many folk live in a kind of slavery to maintain Facebook and Google, for example? Anyone can google Amazon and see the complaints about working conditions in their warehouses, but how much does it take to do all that checking of our Facebook posts and tweaking of search algorithms? In the industry, there are those who get to do fancy coding and exciting cutting edge development, and then there are the rest, the ones who do the repetitious, mind deadening "assembly line" work of computing. They are called code-monkeys. Our whole society sits upon the backs of those who do menial, life deadening tasks which are no life at all, but more akin to a kind of slavery.

I was once offered a quote by a business which prided itself upon its social conscience; they give money away to good causes. But there were two amounts quoted, one for cash, and the other if I required a receipt:  We are all implicated, and all tempted, despite our best efforts. I refuse to buy prepacked salads; at least one Australian supplier uses slave labour, in my estimation. But I still buy coffee. There is no way out of this; whatever we give up, we are still a part of the global economy and the global slave trade. Chocolate, phones, computers, cars, food; there is always someone at the bottom. None of us have clean hands. Slavery is killing the world through our enslavement of others and through our enslavement to owning more things.

Where do we find life in the midst of an evil world? Only near the cross, the implement used to intimidate the population of Jesus' time into accepting its slavery. This is the mystery which John claims to have perceived. Near the cross, in danger of the cross, we find life.

Social and political action is never enough. Religious or not, we need to abandon our allegiance to the world. We must see through the world and then leave it. Only then are our actions sufficiently uncompromised. This applies especially to the religious; there is no prosperity gospel. Grace and the cake of the world do not go together. Grace and life go together.

But what is life according to John?

the same theme which is … repeated throughout the gospel … is clearly heard in this account of Jesus’ final prayer. The Son came to bring the offer of life. The life consists in being in a knowing relationship with God. … What he brings is the offer of life in relationship. Hearing Jesus describe his own commission in this way helps us keep this focus. While John also knows and uses those traditions which place emphasis on Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sins, that is not the dominant melody. The focus is the encounter with the Son already during his ministry which invited people into relationship with the Father. After his departure the Spirit through the disciples will take that offer of life to the whole world. (Bill Loader. I've added the italics.)

This life, life in relationship with God, is what John calls eternal life. Eternal life is, at base, life for all people, without slavery. It is the presence of the kingdom of God among us, even if it must begin in the presence of slavery. Even if some have not realised what they have been offered, and even if others have rejected it: Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. (16:2) It is life which does not value one person over another. It has one source:

"And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."

This "knowing" is life with God which goes far beyond mere belief— a tick box list of things to "believe in"— and towards a startling intimacy:

John's notion of God's glory is informed by the Old Testament which speaks much about the glory of the Lord (kavod adonai). As in many other places in John, Exodus looms large in the author's imagination. Consider Exodus 40:35:  "Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle." Here's the point: the glory of the Lord is God's presence. With every word he or she can muster, the author of John pushes to intimacy. The incarnation, glory, love, father, mother, son, one, knowing--every last word declares that God created this world, with the help of Jesus, for the single purpose of unity with all of creation. Intimacy and unity. Jesus came to reveal that as God's sole intention, to model that unity, to complete that unity. Jesus glorified God by completing the works God sent him to do. (Jaime Clark-Soles. I have added the emphasis.)

Jesus removes hierarchy, that scourge of imagining some humans to be worth more than others, which underpins all our slaveries: Love one another as I have loved you; wash each other's feet; you are my friends. He calls us friends, based on the keeping of the commandment to love each other, and that text is in the immediate context of the hatred of the world! And the Greek says "I do not call you slaves… " God is not like us.

4You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you slaves any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

18 ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.19If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. 

The world is turned upside down in the imagery of John. Not only is the command to love one another, rather than act with enlightened self-interest, or as competitor. Not only do you wash each other's feet— wash your companion's toilet. Not only do you lay down your life for your friend— when did you hear any of that in a business seminar? But more than all that, the least of all people, the losers whom the world hates, are the friends of God. And held high over all this is the great contradiction: Jesus' glory is the cross. In John 17 he says "I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do." (17:3)

The Greek word for "finish" is teleioō, the word Jesus will utter at the time of his death when he says tetelestai, "it is finished." If Jesus glorifies God on earth by accomplishing God's works, then he glorifies God by the crucifixion that completes these works. The question is how he does this.

In answer to his own question, Craig R Koester says that in John

 If readers are to see glory in the crucifixion, they must see it in another way… the crucifixion reveals God's glory by conveying divine love. The crucifixion completes Jesus' work of glorifying God on earth, for by laying down his life he gives himself completely so that the world may know of Jesus' love for God and God's love for the world (John 3:16; 14:31).

God loves us to the death, instead of making a profit.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…. But take courage; I have conquered the world! … Love one another as I have loved you.  … If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own: All the intimacy, all the glory, and all the richness of the life Jesus speaks of draws us out of the world into an eddy around the cross; and we are always at risk of being pulled into the centre.

At the cross, the world seeks to limit eternal life with death. Eternal life is a life "the world" resents, because it strives to live in justice and equality. It seeks to overturn the status quo of slavery and exploitation. It is a light which judges the world simply by loving. And this dangerous loving one another, is the way we know God. When we love, we find God in our midst.

They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ (14:21)

Remember, this is not a statement of propositional revelation by Jesus. It is the lived experience of the community of John. It is their experience of eternal life in the midst of persecution, and in the struggles of disunity— why else the prayer at verse 21: that they may all be one?

But does eternal, the Greek word αἰώνιον, mean forever? Robert Cornwall says

From a pastoral perspective, not having a vision of eternity to share with the families of those who have died leaves very little good news to share.  If there is no vision of resurrection to share with the congregation, most families would leave the office or the funeral or the grave deeply perplexed and bereft of comfort.  Indeed, it should instructive that most cultures and religions have some sense of something lying beyond the grave.  There appears to be a primal need for such a vision. 

Or does αἰώνιον mean better than forever!? As a young bloke I read the Gospel of Matthew and decided that if it was true, I was on the wrong side of the fence. The assurance of a future in the face of death was a great step forward in my struggles with the emptiness of life.

In later life I could see no hope of existence beyond the death of the body, yet decided, even so, that the Jesus vision of life together rather than the hierarchical life which held us enslaved, was the only humanity for which it was worth striving. I had grown a little. Now I followed Jesus for reasons other than my own needs. And that introduced me to the cost of being ethical, that place where parts of "the world" stop loving you because you are not one of their own.

And that, somehow, re-introduced me to the Mystery we call God in a much deeper way. My pathetic little doings of love— often more aspiration than actual— somehow resulted in a far more real sense of the reality of God: no pretending, far less speaking in hope, and a settled peace I'd not thought possible.  

My future was re-written. John Tierney and Martin E. P. Seligman say

it is increasingly clear that the mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past… Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead… While most people tend to be optimistic, those suffering from depression and anxiety have a bleak view of the future — and that in fact seems to be the chief cause of their problems, not their past traumas nor their view of the present…

As I look at the little bible study which so graciously accepts me, I see this. None of the traumas in our lives is forgotten. But we see different futures; or not. And the power of that group for us is deeply connected to this:

in Jewish context individuals are always part of a community – that might be the people of Israel or the more compact community of Jesus’ disciples, for whom John seems especially concerned at this moment.  For John eternity is not out there in the future – it has already begun. (Bob Cornwall)

Eternity has begun in this little community which loves each other.

ζωὴν αἰώνιον— life eternal can be a future hope. But it is, first of all, now. And

It is not about a place or a gift or a certificate of acquittal so much as about a relationship.

That relationship is one of love, just like the relationship which exists between the Father and the Son (see 20-23 and 13:34-35). So it has to include such a relationship of love also among disciples; otherwise something is simply not being properly understood. If the focus in understanding salvation is not on this relationship, but, say, primarily on a place or a gift or a certificate of acquittal, then the horizontal dimension of mutual love is more likely to be the casualty, because the appeal there is too often just a variant of greed (getting something for me). Christianity has been plagued with the ‘thinging’ of eternal life and John’s gospel is an excellent antidote. (Bill Loader)

Given the primacy of spirit in our Reality, I suspect some kind of continuing "us" is indeed possible, perhaps even more likely than not.  But I know that it was only in the letting go of "life after death," and in the living for some kind of justice now, some kind of relationship now, some kind of loving now, that I have come to the conviction that whatever is needed will be given to me when I die, and what is not needed will be taken away.

All that stuff about John and his strange way of writing? Well, the distillation of Mystery— which is what John seeks to do— is not a thing to be grasped. Instead, it opens us up. It discombobulates us with the cross— upsets us and turns our reality around. John's text seeks to be a means of that.

Andrew Prior

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!

Previously on One Man's Web
John 17:1-11 - My Glory and the Lifter of My Head

John 17 - Letting Jesus become Christ 
John 17:1-11 - Glory 
John 17:6-19 - Salt in the world 
John 17:6-19 - God help us 
John 17 - Don't Hate the Good Life 
John 17 - Sermon Draft: This is life

You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.




This functionality requires the FormBuilder module