The Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare
Looking up to heaven, Jesus prayed, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world” (John 17:6).
St. John tells us in the opening verse of today’s gospel, that what we are about to hear is a prayer by Jesus. It is a prayer for his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Now, we only hear part of the prayer this morning, yet we hear enough to grasp the goal of this action: Jesus desires the disciples to see in their life with him and each other how a sustainable human community can be reached. This morning I would like to take a few moments to reflect with you on this topic, and how Jesus’ prayer for his disciples is an invitation for all who would follow him to share in the depth of unity that Jesus has with God; a unity that makes possible our sharing in the divine life.
Before we move into the prayer, I wish to say a few words about what praying is all about. When we pray we are asking something of God, be it God’s attention or some benefit for us or someone else, or some item or action that will, we hope, help us to live a healthy and human life. We often pray for some significant things; consider our prayers for world peace or safety for those in trouble. These are large, sweeping concerns that are important. At other times, our prayer is for something very specific; perhaps it’s the health of a loved one, or the passing of a test at school, or patience with that annoying co-worker who always takes my stapler and never returns it even though I have said a thousand times: please make sure to return my stapler.
In our gospel reading, Jesus is not asking that some general benefit come to his disciples. He doesn’t for instance, wish them good luck or even a long, fruitful life. Instead, Jesus asks for something specific, something that only Jesus can ask because he is, in the language of classic Christianity, the eternal Son, God in the flesh. Jesus is praying that the disciples will share in the fellowship, or better, friendship, that defines the relation between God the Son and God the Father. This might seem like a tall order, considering some of things we say as Christians about the relationship. I have in mind the language of perfect unity, eternal love, unending goodness; language that we use when attempting to describe the mystery of divine unity that we call Trinity. Yet, this is what Jesus prays for, that ‘they maybe one, as we are one.’
What Jesus asks for is quite wonderful. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we lived with the same unity of love and goodness as we confess is shared in the fellowship of God: Father, Son and Spirit? Undoubtedly, if you have lived long enough, you are already aware that despite Jesus’ desire for holy friendship, we are born with a constitutional inability to live together even on a good day. We achieve a precarious unity of relationship only with great difficulty and for a short time; it is as if there is a flaw in the very flesh we inherited which makes for division between us. The very thing that should make us one, the fact that we come into existence as members of one species, the human species, is the source of our isolation. The nature in which we are born is twisted and tends to alienate us from each other. Whatever community we try to set up by purely human means, whether it’s as citizens of a particular country or consumers of particular market goods, we fail to reach real unity; we fail to have a sustainable community (Herbert McCabe, The New Creation,).
It was part of Jesus’ mission from God that Jesus’ life with his disciples would reflect the fellowship between Jesus and God the Father. We might even say that it was only in being present to Jesus that the disciples could truly be present to each other. This life of being present to Jesus and each other would later be understood as what constitutes our unity: to God and his life of joy and love, and to one another, as friends. But I am getting ahead of myself. The point I wish to make at this point is this: the life of the disciples, their sharing together in the gift of love that Jesus brings, was the hallmark of being a follower of Jesus.
We could all agree that what Jesus is asking in his prayer is a perfectly good thing. Who wouldn’t want to share in the life of friendship that we know, through faith, is shared within the Holy Trinity? Yet, questions abound: how does this sharing of one life, the life of Jesus, take place? It all sounds well and good coming from St. John’s gospel, but what is at stake here? There are several moments in our gospel reading where emphasis is given to what the disciples have received in walking, talking and generally, being with Jesus. We hear of the ‘word’ being given, Jesus’ glory being given, protection and even sanctity being given. In an important sense, all this action of giving and receiving resembles a classroom of sorts. Through his prayer for his disciples, Jesus is acting like a good teacher, providing a lesson to his disciples in what human community can resemble.
Just as the sign of a good teacher is how they make a teacher out of a student, so it is with Jesus and those who follow him. Teaching occurs not when a person stands before a group of students and simply starts speaking or gesturing or writing on a board; no, teaching occurs when the students are learning, or to put it another way, teaching takes place within the student through the skills of the teacher. And this is just how we understand what is taking place in the disciples through the Christ’s mission. As they begin to resemble in their own the life of Jesus: his manner of hospitality to the stranger and sick; his impatience with unjust political arrangements; and his call to worship the living God, then the disciples begin to share deeper and deeper still in the life of their teacher. It is as if the very source of Jesus’s life and mission takes up residence in the life of those who follow him, enabling them to reflect in their words and deeds, the very words and deeds of the one who they could call Lord. We call this ability to do the work of Jesus, grace, and grace is nothing less than the creative goodness of God making it possible for us to live humanly well.
I want to be clear that what I am talking about is how our sharing in God’s life is not a reason for us to neglect our humanity; on the contrary, God’s grace makes it possible for us to be more human not less. To this, Jesus prays that the disciples maybe sanctified in God’s truth, that is, to be given the vocation of being a people who shun the lies and illusions that we create in order to protect ourselves from the world and each other. Such lies and illusions surface anytime we tell ourselves and our children that we are free from caring about violence (in Syria, for example); or, free from responding to the evils of human trafficking in Asia; or free from mobilizing against destructive mining practices in Africa. We sometimes talk and act as though we are free from such awful things because we live at a time and in a place when we can have or do what we want. Our needs are endless, our desires insatiable, our right to consume, inalienable. But these are nothing other than illusions, and as follows of Jesus we are invited to employ the truth of God. This ‘truth’ is what we learn when we consider the kind of world that we as free and enlightened people have made: it is in short, a crucifying world; a world that daily rejects God’s love; a world that kills those who dare to think that love is the way we live with friend and enemy, instead of just a brand to sell Subaru cars. Jesus warns that living truthfully might make the disciples hated; but of course, living a full, human life got Jesus killed so we should not have any illusion that living his life will lead to only riches and accolades.
The vocation to be a truthful people is what we, as the church, are given as followers of Christ. We live into this vocation through continuing Christ’s mission of teaching and proclaiming the vision of a sustainable human community; a community shaped and formed by friendship with God and each other. How do we teach and proclaim? With our lives, of course. That’s the whole point. Jesus didn’t pray that the disciples would just have good thoughts about things relating to God. Good and clear thinking is very important, don’t get me wrong; however it is the degree that our life and friendships are patterned on Christ’s life and fellowship in God, that human community is made possible. The astonishing thing that Christianity proclaims about such patterning is that the greater our common life reflects the love, goodness and truth of Jesus’ relationship with God, the more truly human our community, and the decisions and priorities we have, becomes. To repeat something I said earlier: Christ is present to us in so far as we are present to each other. The goal of Christ’s prayer for his disciples is that his disciples learn how living humanly well begins with receiving God’s gift of grace and love.
Today, we can recognize the prayer of Jesus as his prayer for all who would follow him. In that we are being transformed into his likeness by God’s gracious Spirit, so we are gathered, loved and sent forth to share the divine life of love, goodness and truth. We share this life through our lives in our care for those in need, our commitment to truth, and our being a people of worship. It might sound like a tall order, but our sharing in the mystery of human community through Christ: dead, buried, resurrected and ascended is what we are all about. It is our vocation. It is why Jesus prayed to the Father, it is how we dare to proclaim that a sustainable human community has been part of God’s plans from the beginning. It is, in short, our hope; but better yet, through God’s help, a sustainable human community is our destiny.