John 17:20-26 (NRSV)
20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
For a long time I found John’s Gospel a bit too cold and stylised for my liking. The other three are more straightforward and Jesus comes across as more down to earth and human. John’s gospel was the last to be written and in a time when more people had come to terms with the idea that Jesus was God, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The effort to emphasise his divinity more strongly, I think, makes him comes across as being quite distant with his “verily, verily I say unto thee”s and his longwinded, repetitive speeches. John’s gospel was the last one I would reach for if I was trying to introduce young people to Jesus because it was my impression that he came across kind of lecturing and boring on a first read through.
As the years go by and I (hopefully) get less heretical with age, I have come to love John’s Gospel and to appreciate the way it captures this different aspect of Jesus’ character. In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s accounts I was attracted to the visceral stories of Jesus’ encounters with lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes, with the poor, the sick and the disabled. I enjoyed cheering him on during his confrontations with figures of authority. The child-friendly parables were some of the earliest scriptures I learned about. In John’s account Jesus is more of a rabbi. Instead of being stunned into admiration by his outrageous actions, or being charmed by accessible, narrative-driven parables, this perspective on Jesus demands us sit at his feet and listen carefully to the big ideas he wants to teach us.
Now I think I am able to sense more of his voice and tone beneath the words as John has recorded them. I recognise something of that engaging man who captured my attention and my admiration in the other Gospel accounts. This prayer once seemed long-winded and the language of everybody abiding in everybody else seemed to go round and round in circles. Now I see that the repetition is the sign of a passionate message that Jesus doesn’t want us to miss.
At the bottom of it all He is speaking earnestly about His desire for us all to know God. And actually, knowing Him is not enough. It’s almost like Jesus wants to envelop His disciples (and anyone who listens to them and believes) into a kind of spiritual bear hug so that our faces are smashed right into the reality of God. There is a palpable desperation in His voice because He knows what this life is about and wants to draw everyone who will listen into the secret.
Jesus is describing a pure closeness and intimacy with God and He uses the word “unity” to describe it. How could a puny human like me aspire to unity with the creator of the universe? But Jesus’ passionate prayer has left me feeling hungry for that very reality. As He describes what that unity with God is like, I look at my life and feel like I must be spiritually starving myself. This Jesus knows that everything good about Himself and His life arises from the fact that He was loved to the depths of His soul, since before time began, by the God of the universe. He is confident in this knowledge because He stays close to the Father, and really believes any one of us can experience the same: that we can be loved with this love and be glorified by it, and that we can enjoy unrestricted access to God Himself. I can almost feel him tearing His own hair out at the thought that anyone would ignore this message and live a life apart from God.
There are any amount of sermons about unity in the church that this passage also starts to open up. I’m going to cheat and completely ignore all of that. Today I just want to share with you that sense of urgency that I felt coming off the page as I was reading. Sometimes my sister-in-law makes me die laughing when she is reprimanding my niece and nephew. If they are being a bit evasive about something naughty they’ve done she’ll get right up in their faces and say “look me in the eyeballs and tell me what happened!”. If I could paraphrase what I think Jesus is saying to you here, I think it would be, “Look me in the eyeballs til I tell you that you are loved beyond belief and you need to start making me your priority!”
Emma Rothwell works at Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain. She lives in a 250 year old cottage on campus, and probably cares too much about the tiny flower bed she made at the front of it. Emmas recently stepped down from the post of Diocesan Youth and Children's Officer for the Dioceses of Meath and Kildare. Before that, she was a secondary school teacher of Religious Education and English. She loves British panel show comedy, reading, thinking on really long walks, dancing at weddings and talking to you about things you really care about.