In two of the gospels (Matthew and Luke), the disciples ask Jesus, “teach us to pray.” His answer became what we call the Lord’s Prayer. But we are in the gospel of John. And the closest we get to Jesus’ Prayer is this long oration often named “the priestly prayer.” We are still around the table on that last night. Jesus is getting closer and closer to that time he labeled, “the hour has come.”
It is interesting that here in the gospel of John Jesus does not go to the garden of Gethsemane, to go off alone, to pray. Here Jesus is praying in community. We all get to hear his prayer. And although it has portions that thank and glorify God, it also contains prayers for us—for those who will be left behind when he goes.
Today I would like us to think about two images from this prayer: eternal life, and being one. In this passage we get to hear what Jesus (in the gospel of John) thinks eternal life is. “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
What do you think about that as a definition of eternal life? That sounds like something that is not necessarily “by and by,” not something that has to do with after-death, not something that is just bequeathed to the elect—a present from God. This eternal life for Jesus is a relationship—a relationship with God and with Jesus. How does that work? Is this a ploy by the preacher to make sure that we show up in church on Sunday morning? Is this a matter of confessing a certain creed? What does it mean to know God? How can any of us “know” God?
Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles makes an argument that in the gospel of John, knowing and loving are intertwined. In our culture we often separate love and knowledge. Have you ever thought, “I don’t dare let people KNOW who I really am, what I really think, because if they did, they wouldn’t LOVE me?” And so, we often hide our true selves, thinking we need to be loveable rather than known.
This doesn’t work in John’s world. It is only in getting to know a person deeply that one is set on the path to love. Remember the Samaritan Woman who has that long conversation with Jesus, even though he knows things about her, even though he is a Jew and she a Samaritan, even though he is a man and she a woman. As they verbally play back and forth about water and living water, about who is going to be the giver, about “water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14), a relationship is born. The Samaritan woman is changed, so much so, that she runs into town and tells everyone that they must come meet this man who knows everything she did (and still is willing to be in relationship with her!). Is this what Messiah is? She asks.
So eternal life, in John, is about being in relationship with God and Jesus—about being known, fully known by God, and trusting we are still loved. It is about our own need to continue to have that conversation with God (which Jesus is modeling for us in this “heard” prayer). And as we talked about last week, loving Jesus means keeping his commandments. And his commandment is that we love one another.
So we can’t get away with just holing up in our private God space and communing and thinking that is enough. Jesus is very specific in his prayer for us. He will no longer be here. But we will be. The torch passes to us. And Jesus asks for God’s protection as we go out to do the hard work of knowing and loving the world, and he asks for protection that we not forget “we are one,” we are in this together.
I was very moved by an excerpt in Seasons of the Spirit that pushed this concept of “being one” past divisions of Christian denominations, and into a true world oneness. Here is part of what it said:
Our faiths command us not to sit idly by amid mounting hostility and mistrust, but to make a substantial contribution to peace-building in a polarized world. We must avoid the polarities of truth that have come to drive the international agenda. We can promote a middle way that is not only ethically right, but strategically prudent. One way to begin is by learning about one another’s spiritual traditions…
The world’s major religions share the essential belief that compassion is the key to spiritual awareness, and that compassion does not mean just detached sympathy for others but active engagement with them. Belief means action, and we must act.
All our ancient faiths and philosophies remain profoundly relevant in this troubled time. Our faiths remind us that it is vital to recognize the humanity of the other in order to affirm our own humanity. In that sense, interfaith dialogue must be linked practically to and meaningfully with political dialogue. It must be a parallel process rather than a pleasant afterthought. This is how we can restore the peaceful role of our faiths when it is needed most...
HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
and President Emeritus of Religions for Peace, 2007
Our lesson today prepares us for the work Jesus envisions we will do—once he has left (and Ascension was last Thursday in the church calendar). Next week, we remember that we are given the Spirit, once again, not for just personal use, but to propel us out into the world, “Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
I see a challenge here. Are we willing to deepen our conversation with God—to let God see us, warts and all; Sure that God will love us still?
Are we open to learning how to have that type of conversation with others—particularly others that are not exactly like us? What would it mean to get to “know,” to learn to love, our “foes”/the other—in politics, in religion, in life.
I’m positive that body-slamming, or word-degrading is not the best way to have that honest, and difficult, and maybe transforming connection with others. Are we willing to spend some of our “eternal life” time trying to figure out how we, individually and as a church, might create spaces so we might all be known?
It is interesting that this John passage about being known is paired with the Acts description of who it was meeting in that upper room—a list of disciples, and even the acknowledgement that there were women there, including Mary the mother of Jesus. If you want an assignment for this week, see what you can learn about these men and women—including the women not named but possibly Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Joanna, and Mary and Martha of Bethany.
May we lift our own prayers and blend them with Jesus’ prayer for us. May we feel empowered to continue the work Jesus started here on earth—making concrete our “eternal life” relationships with God and our neighbors. And may a spirit of one-ness blow through our world—uniting all those who are willing to do the hard work required to know and love others.
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.