As always, if we take the time to delve deeply into today’s gospel reading, we’ll discover an incredible depth of meaning as well as a powerful message—it’s from the mystical Gospel of John, after all. We have here only six verses from what has been called Christ’s High Priestly Prayer at the Last Supper, which encompasses the whole of Chapter 17. For John, this prayer concludes Christ’s earthly mission. Chapter 18 begins the passion narrative.
Jesus opens this priestly prayer with an intercession on behalf of his disciples. But, when we reach our passage in verse 20, his focus changes: “Holy Father, I pray not only for [my disciples] but also for those who will believe through their word…” Whom is he praying for? What is the scope of his prayer? Who is it who would come to believe through the preaching and teaching of the Apostles? Jesus is praying for all believers everywhere and throughout all of history. He’s praying for you and me.
What does Jesus pray for on our behalf? That we may all be one. Not only that, but he prays that we might share in the unity of the Trinity itself. Listen: “…as you, Father, are in me and I in you…” Jesus presents himself to us as the image—the icon—of the Father, such that “whoever sees me sees the Father…Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” [John 14:9-10] The Prologue of John’s Gospel sums it up: “No one has seen God; the only Son who is with the Father has revealed him.” [John 1:18] The model, the paradigm, the ideal that Jesus holds up for us in his prayer is the perfect unity of the Trinity.
That’s not all. He continues: “…that they may also be in us…” There it is. Jesus is praying that we—you and I—may be grafted onto the Trinity itself. He wants us to be so perfectly united with the Father through him that whoever sees us will also see the Father.
Why? Why must our lives be so taken up in perfect unity with the Father? What’s the purpose? What’s our purpose? Jesus continues his prayer: “…that the world might believe that you sent me.” Our unity with the Father and with one another is essential to the mission of Christ’s Church. Without that unity, the Church is spiritually impotent. Just as Christ is the sacrament of our encounter with God, so also is the Church. We are the outward signs of the Father’s love. He meant it to be that, through the Church, people would come to know the love that the Father poured out on us in Jesus. It’s through the Church that our being grafted onto the Holy Trinity is accomplished.
Listen to how Jesus describes this grafting: “And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one…” What is this “glory” that Jesus has bestowed on us? Think of it in terms of the divine Presence that descended on the meeting tent of the Israelites in the desert, or the divine Presence that filled the temple in Jerusalem. That glory is the fullness—the weightiness—of God’s Presence. The word for that Presence in Hebrew is שְׁכִינָה (shekhinah). Its cognate in Greek is σκηή (skēnē), meaning a tent or dwelling. It’s that word that John uses in the prologue of his gospel where he says, “The Word was made flesh and εσκήνωσεν (eskēnōsen)—pitched his tent—among us.” If you go back and re-read the remainder of today’s Gospel with this in mind, that may give you a different perspective on it.
Our unity is the essential sign of God’s Presence among us, and the driving force—the energy—behind that unity is the power of love. But it’s not just any love. It’s the all-consuming, self-giving love the Father has shown us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, his Son, and the gift of his own Spirit—God’s own life force—that enables us to love in a way that doesn’t seem humanly possible. That’s a very big order, isn’t it? It is, and, frankly, it doesn’t seem as though many of those who claim the title of followers of Christ—Christians—are doing a very good job of it.
Some Christians want to change the world. They want to remake it in the “image and likeness of God.” They paint pictures of how the world ought to be and hold them up as models of belief and behavior. They preach and teach, trying to convince others of the importance of living in accordance with these models. They go so far as to criticize and even condemn those who don’t—or wont.
Once again, we ought to look to Jesus. Did Jesus try—or even want—to change the world? I don’t think so. “I came that they may have life and have it to the full.” [John 10:10] I think Jesus came to save the world. But save it from what? Save it from itself. In all his preaching and teaching, Jesus didn’t set up some sort of idealized model that he demanded his followers adhere to. Not at all. His own life was that model. He asked his followers only one thing: to love one another as he loved. Where have we gone wrong?
We’re not here to change the world. We’re not here to present some idealized standard of behavior for others to follow. We’re not here to demand conformity to a set of beliefs. We’re not here to criticize others who may understand things differently from the way we do. We not here to force compliance. We’re certainly not here to condemn anyone for anything. When we do, we’re being unfaithful to our mission.
What are we here for, then? We’re here to change the one thing we can: ourselves. If we truly understand and appreciate the gift the Father has given us in the Son and Holy Spirit, we’ll understand that our mission is to conform our lives to Christ’s and to do what he did—that is, to love as he loved. What does that mean for you? I don’t know. I can’t say. I do know it means being true to the voice of the Spirit within you, putting away fear and self-interest, and doing your best to give of yourself without reservation or recompense.
It’s only in loving that we become one with the Father, Son, and Spirit. And it’s only in loving that we, the Church, become faithful to our mission to bring that unity to the world. We accept the world as we find it—it’s not up to us to change it, even if we could. We surrender ourselves to the will of the Father who calls us to love as he loves. And the result is a heart filled with gratitude for a life beyond our imagining—a life of love—a life that will never end. Gratitude. That’s why we’re here this morning: to relive as one body the life, death, and resurrection of the One who made that life possible and to share it with our God and with one another. That’s what it means to offer Eucharist. That’s what it means to be one, as Jesus prayed that we might be.