It is not easy for any of us to say anything about Jesus, as presented in the Gospels, or anywhere else, that is not glowing in every aspect. After all, we are dealing with our Lord and Savior, the Second Adam, the King of Kings and all that. So, I hope you do not hear this as a criticism, but the Jesus we encounter in the 17th chapter of John sounds nervous. Here is somebody with a lot on his mind and very little time. He has finished most of his ministry. He has enjoyed the last bite of his last supper, a supper spoiled by the knowledge that one who had lived, toiled and celebrated with him was now to betray him. Jesus has come to the climax of his life. He has come to the cross. His crucifixion should be the end of it.
His death will demonstrate who he is, who God is, and both the worst of who we are and the best we are meant to be. Nothing will more make the Word become flesh than the death of his own. It is his idea that this is the climax of his life inasmuch as he says, “I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4 NRSV). He may not want to go to the cross, which he clearly does not, but he has come to understand that his ministry will otherwise be incomplete. Only through crucifixion can he demonstrate absolute loyalty to a trustworthy God in the unlikeliness of circumstances. Only through the cross can he demonstrate the ultimate powerlessness of the raw powers of military might, human social systems, and the devil’s chronic irritation with God’s place for us in creation. Jesus will let wickedness unleash itself on him with hurricane, tonadic, earthquaking, nuclear exploding force and God, he believes, will say, “I won’t let that be the end of it. Come Sunday.”
The man who has told us to not be anxious seems to understand the necessity of the admonition. He seems pretty anxious himself right now.
Why? Why not? Our Lord is just about to be delivered to his enemies. He will face depravation of food, drink, sleep and dignity. He will soon be given a speedy trial and a slow execution requiring him to carry his own cross through narrow, winding, hilly streets with people cussing at him and spitting on him. He will be placed on that cross because that allows for optimum suffering of body and spirit, between two rank criminals with his friends in hiding and his mother watching. If there was not some anxiety, faith not withstanding, we would have to wonder at his sanity. He has faith; but, when we get to the end of the day, faith is still, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”(Hebrews 11:1) He does not know it like we know the earth is in orbit. He knows it as I know I will fly home tomorrow and the Cubs may win the World Series. One is more likely than the other but neither is absolute.
Jesus does not want this. He prays for some other avenue of salvation for us, some exemption for himself, begging, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”(Luke 22:42 NRSV). However, that particular prayer is not the one recorded in the 17th chapter of John. In John, the gravity of the moment is there, the anxiety, too, but it is not about him. In that most dread-filled time in his life he prayed for his disciples. He prayed for the Eleven Apostles still standing and faithful women. He prayed for them and those who would follow. He prayed for us.
Those eleven we can understand. They were Galilean peasants, with little demonstrated knack for ministry, being given jobs far beyond their talents, strengths or inclinations. They had three years of study but not one day of Easter. Soon to be without Jesus by their warm sides, they were going to be up against the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Rome, their mamas and daddies, and their own ideas of how things ought to be done. He has seen them quibble over privilege, place and seating arrangements. He has seen their willingness to cozy up to the power brokers, and he has heard what they have to say about carrying their own crosses. (They are against the idea.) Jesus has great love for those vessels of clay and he has great confidence in God, but we have to hear him praying, as Don Tuttle has put it, “Oh my God, I’m turning it over to the church!”
They are going into a world, but are not part of it. (The world in John represents everything in the world that is willing to do business without reference to God. This includes ignorance, indifference and hostility.) Their job is to infuse God into that world. This means precious little about imposing preferential religious legislation. It has a whole whale of a lot to do with breathing life and hope and redemption into the human experience. It has to do with justice, mercy and kindness in human faces and public places. If that sounds like little more than civility, right now civility sounds like a lot. But it does mean more than that. It means practicing the sacred arts of loving the unlovely, forgiving the unforgivable, giving without expectation of gain. It is practicing the presence of Christ. How can they do that?
He prays they will be sanctified in truth and that sounds pretty churchified. Because it’s churchly language, it’s dangerous; but, the Greek word is “hagiazein” and what that means it that they be “set apart.” They are set apart for special duties but more than that, they are to have set apart attitudes of mind and heart. They cannot practice the presence of Christ in a God ignoring world if those attributes of Christ are not part of them, and that does not come easy for them.
Nor would it come easy for those who follow after them, and that is us. If our master prayed for anything on that lonely night, he prayed that we be one. That has always been a problem. Jesus prayed that all who believe on him might be saved, and that we be one. Most of us are glad to have the one but most of us despise the other. Do we not? Sometimes it really is honest, reasoned theological or biblical differences of opinion. There can certainly be varying understandings of how we experience the Holy. All the above can be true, but they can also be the cover for some pretty evil stuff. They can give us good excuses for systems of pride and class, race and clan. We can use the church for which Christ died as a vehicle for promoting our own causes and propping up our own prejudices. It can be the pony we ride for demanding societal change on our terms or re-enforcing a status quo that serves us well. All the instincts of Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Romans, our mamas and daddies and our own ideas of how things ought to be can be so poured in to the Living Water as to make it unpotable and distasteful. As some of us sang in the ‘60s, “Do it in the name of heaven/You can justify it in the end.” The neglect of Christ’s prayer that we be one isn’t a call to uniformity and ecclesiastical corporate merger; it is a call to take him seriously. That we can accept the gift of his grace while so casually neglecting his prayer, “Too bad for him” we might as well say, amounts to an ongoing crucifixion. Our contentment with any confessing Christian not accepting — embracing— another, especially in some bogus theological pretext, strikes to the heart of what Clyde Carmack meant by saying: “Get rid of thinking you may love whomever you choose.”
It was after worship one Sunday we were having dinner in a booth in an Indianapolis restaurant of no distinction whatever. It would have been unmemorable had it not been for the guy behind me. It was 1:30 p.m. and he was still out on a date begun the night before. It seemed the young lady had some misgivings regarding residual values imposed by church and family. He was seeking to keep things going his way and he used philosophy. He said, “Well, there really are no absolutes.”
What a remarkable line, and he did it so well! I was impressed by his imagination, but I immediately thought, “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” I thought of, “I am the Good Shepherd; the Good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” “I am the vine; you are the branches.” “May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Some things seem pretty absolute. What would be our excuse?