John 17: 6-19
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Church of the Holy Innocents, Corte Madera
Today we are privileged to eavesdrop on an exquisite 3-part prayer Jesus prays to God his Father in the presence of his beloved disciples. This beautiful prayer is often called the high priestly prayer of Jesus. In the first part Jesus prays for himself, in the longest section (our Gospel for today) he prays for his disciples, and in the short last section he prays for the believers yet to come- you and me.
Jesus prays with great love and great concern for the welfare and protection of his small flock. He begins by affirming that he has made the name of God known to his disciples- he has made God himself known. He has in fact fulfilled the promise of the beginning verses of the Gospel of John- the glorious hymn that reads in part:
It is God the only Son who is close to the father’s heart, who has made God known.
This prayer we hear today often echoes the Lord’s Prayer, which is given to us in the Gospel of Matthew. The name of our Father in Heaven is frequently hallowed in this prayer. And references to the Kingdom proliferate: The disciple’s joy that will be made complete speaks of the coming of the Kingdom, as does the longed for oneness of the community- Jesus prays to God, “That they may be one as we are one.” Jesus asks God to “protect his disciples from the evil one” just as the Lord’s Prayer asks that we be delivered from evil. But this is not a prayer Jesus teaches us to pray. And this is not a discourse addressed to the disciples as the rest of the long farewell address at the last supper has been. Jesus prays this prayer directly to God for the disciples, for us, perhaps as a lesson. In his last hours on earth Jesus does not make a last ditch effort to give the disciples a final list of revelations. He addresses it all to God, as if to instruct that he is leaving the church in the hands of God, which is where the disciples should place their future and their hopes. They need to understand that the life of the community rests in God’s hands.
We get to hear as did the disciples, the utter intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with God his father. The Hebrew word Abba, that Jesus used translates not as father, but as Daddy, an affectionate term you will not hear in used in Old Testament references to God- this intimate relationship with God was something new. Jesus’ faith in the love that God has for him is striking, and the confidence that he will be heard seems to be complete. ”You have given, you have loved, you have sent. Now keep, sanctify, and let them be one.” Jesus prays. Jesus is moving toward his pre-existent relationship with God- moving into a permanent oneness with Him. But for Jesus to return to this pre-existent glory, the incarnation must come to an end- Jesus must die. So there is an urgency- a poignancy to this intimate intercession.
When hearing Jesus’ great intimacy with God, we are given a glimpse of the Kingdom. We are given a glimpse of a relationship with God that transcends all limits and conventional notions of life. A glimpse of a day when our joy will in fact be complete, a day when God’s care and love and knowledge of us will be realized. We will experience the end of ordinary reality and the beginning of our reunion with the divine.
And finally, at the end of this prayer, it becomes clear that what we are hearing is a commissioning. We are to be sanctified in the truth. To sanctify is to be commissioned for some particular task, and therefore to be made holy. But it is mission that is the substance of this sanctification- the task is more important that the holiness.
And so the disciples, and you, and me, are being sent out- commissioned, to spread the truth. A chapter after our Gospel story, Jesus, being interrogated by Pilot, says to him,
I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilot famously asks him, “What is the truth?” Jn 18:37
Truth in the Gospel of John seems to be the whole of the revelation of God, and it seems to be synonymous with “the word,” and synonymous with Jesus. Jesus brings grace and truth (1:17); he is the truth (14:6) the true light (1:9); and the true vine (15:1) and he is the way, the truth and the life. This truth then, is the revelation of God’s substance as redeeming love as expressed in Jesus. Jesus then prays for the disciples to be set apart for the truth. This truth is both the sanctifying power and the purpose for the sending out of the disciples, for the sending out of all of us.
As much as the gospel message today is full of Jesus’ great love and protectiveness for his disciples, its last words are these words of commissioning- of dedication. The prayer is no less that the sanctification of the whole world through the sanctification of Jesus’ disciples.
I am reminded of a time I was preparing some young people to watch a baptism. I was about to show them the blessing over the water that is part of the baptismal service, when one rather precocious child said, “Shouldn’t we use living water- wild water for something like that? So we walked a short block to a creek in the park and we scooped up a bowl full of water. Having brought the prayer book with me I said the blessing over the water, and we prepared to head back to the church. Another one of the young people suddenly lit up and said “Why don’t we pour the holy water into the creek- then the creek will run into the river, and the river will run into the ocean, and all that water will be holy!” Unable to resist such an original theological thought, I handed the bowl to her and she poured the water into the creek. I never checked in with the creatures of the creek and on-ward to the sea, but we never forgot that day, when we sent out that blessing, all the way to the ocean.
Jesus poured his disciples into the river of the world, having sanctified them, having taught them to know God’s name, God’s truth and God’s son. And those disciples poured us out into that untested water. And in the last part of the priestly prayer, Jesus says, “May the love with which you have loved me be in them, and I in them.”
This is a solemn commissioning, but it is not without levity- even joy. Jesus wants to make our joy complete- he said so. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” He wants for us the joy of the children who were so easily welcomed into the kingdom of heaven, the joy of children who stop at nothing in their joyous attempts to sanctify a creek and a river and an ocean. If we can but glimpse that infinite love that exists between Jesus and his father, that Jesus so generously shared with us, if we can even begin to mirror it with our own fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends and especially strangers, that blessing just might begin to stretch from ocean to ocean, and illuminate a truth we will never have to explain.