Thought for the day
Expectedly, very far away worlds can seem familiar. Such is the case with the world of our second reading (and perhaps our Gospel): an intense community, factions within, pressures from outside, different “versions” of the faith, not always reliable leadership, the departure of members, perhaps some significant. Questions arise. What has happened? Who are we? What do we hold on to? Where should we turn? What should we do? The faraway world of 1 Peter and even John’s Gospel seems suddenly recognisable to us today. Their message is simply: keep to heart of the proclamation, Christ our life; keep loving each other; trust the Holy Spirit; it is not our project but God’s!
Remind us again, loving God, of the great events that give us new life in Christ. Rekindle the gift of the Holy Spirit within each and within all. This prayer we make through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
John 17:1 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he looked upward to heaven and said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that your Son may glorify you— 2 just as you have given him authority over all humanity, so that he may give eternal life to everyone you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life —that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me at your side with the glory I had with you before the world was created.
John 17:6 “I have revealed your name to the men you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they understand that everything you have given me comes from you, 8 because I have given them the words you have given me. They accepted them and really understand that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying on behalf of them. I am not praying on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those you have given me, because they belong to you. 10 Everything I have belongs to you, and everything you have belongs to me, and I have been glorified by them. 11a I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.
John 17 forms the climax of the “Farewell Discourse” in the Fourth Gospel. Given the depth of the writing, perhaps it is no surprise that the entire chapter is read only on this Sunday (Year A: 17:1-11; Year B: 11b-19; Year C: 20-26). Even in those places where the Ascension is celebrated on the seventh Sunday of Easter, it would still be good to take up this gospel for reflection and prayer.
In any case, the entire chapter is read this coming week in the daily readings: Tuesday (17:1-11a), Wednesday (17:11b-19) and Thursday (11:20-26).
Kind of writing
The literary setting is the Farewell Discourse, itself a familiar genre from the Old Testament, Jewish writings at the time and from the New Testament itself. The community setting is implied by the literary genre: how will the believers sustain their life and faith after the departure of Jesus? As usual in the fourth Gospel, we experience the double perspective in which the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter community overlap.
John 17 has the following layout:
Jesus prays for his glorification and describes eternal life (1-5)
The beginning of eternal life in the disciples (6-8)
Jesus prays for his disciples (9-19)
Jesus prays for future believers (20-24)
Jesus concludes his prayer (25-26)
Our reading takes us through parts I, II and the start of III. All of John 17 should be read, to grasp the full power of the prayer. In the course of it, the Johannine Jesus speaks of himself in the the third person—a hint that we are hearing the voice of the community.
The themes are: hour, glory, work, perfecting, love, fragility, disciples, union and communion, Jesus’ self-gift and the revelation of God. The only topic “missing” is the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, present very richly in the preceding discourses. The prayer is serene.
Old Testament background
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13–14)
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. (Deuteronomy 18:18)
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless the (Numbers 6:24–27)
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33–34)
New Testament foreground
There are two kinds of New Testament background to bear in mind: the Synoptic and the Johannine.
The Synoptic tradition
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matt 11:25–27)
This passage is known in scholarship as the “Johannine bolt of lightning”. Below is the Our Father in Matthew’s version showing further striking overlaps with John 17. The Note in the Revised New Jerusalem Bible reads, “(t)he majestic final ch. of the discourses is almost a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer.”
Our Father (John 17:1, 5, 11, 21, 24-25) in heaven (17:1), hallowed (17:17, 19) be your name (17:6, 11-12, 26). Your kingdom come. Your will (17:24) be done, on earth (17:4) as it is in heaven (17:1). Give (17:2, 4, 6-9, 11-12, 14, 22, 24) us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue (cf. protect: 17:6, 11-12, 15; guard: 17:12) us from the evil one (17:15). (Matt 6:9–13)
The Johannine tradition
From the Prologue onwards, there are many echoes of the key vocabulary and topics (given in the brief commentary).
But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor 2:7–8)
Verse 1 Verses 1-5 summarise the great themes of this Gospel. The hour is immensely significant across this Gospel, reflection its frequency (26x in 24vv.). Cf. Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. (John 13:1). The verb to glorify is also important (23x in 16 vv.), pointing us to the “lifting up of the Son of Man.”
Verse 2 “Authority” has been present from the very start of this Gospel: But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power (literally “authority”) to become children of God (John 1:12; cf. John 1:12; 5:27; 10:18; 17:2; 19:10-11). In this verse, we also have the last occurrence of “eternal life” (John 3:15-16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2-3), defined in the next verse as faith in Jesus Christ. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Verse 3 A dense summary of the gospel proclamation. “To know” is in its full biblical sense—not merely intellectual knowledge but the loving engagement of the whole person. “The one sent” is practically a title of Jesus in this Gospel. It echoes Deuteronomy 18:18 above. Like wise, “true” means utterly reliable in relationship (cf. to the true to).
Verse 4 “On earth” is a hint of the incarnation in 1:14. This is the only use of the word “work” in this Gospel. The meaning is made clear by the verb (plus the corresponding noun and adjective), to finish which has a rich use in this Gospel (John 4:34; 5:36; 13:1; 17:4, 23; 19:28, 30). NB: Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (literally to perfection”). (John 13:1) When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished” (literally perfected; John 19:30)
Verse 5 Cf. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (John 1:1–2) And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
Verse 6 Word, either as logos or rēma, points to both the message and the person of Jesus, which are really identical in this Gospel. Cf. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63) Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6:68) Name is always powerful in a biblical context (cf. nomen omen).
Verse 7 That is, they recognise God’s disclosure in Jesus himself.
Verse 8 To receive, cf. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. (John 1:16) To receive or to accept is indicates coming to faith, in this Gospel (46x in 41vv.). Truly has the sense of really, while retains its interpersonal connotation in this Gospel. To believe is a key catechetical term in John’s Gospel, as a comparison with its synoptic use shows: Matthew (11), Mark (14), Luke (9), John (98). In John’s Gospel, belief is always a verb and never a noun.
Verse 9 The prayer of Jesus is focussed on believers not on the world, because in this Gospel the world is hostile to faith, even though “God so loved the world.”
Verse 10 This mysterious (mystic?) phrase takes us back to an earlier verse: All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:15) Intriguingly, Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’ (Luke 15:31)
Verse 11a The ambiguity about Jesus’ place (is he here or is he gone?) shows that this is the community looking back on the events of salvation. Cf. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. (John 1:10) Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. (John 13:1) See John 17:21-23.
Pointers for prayer
1. My own hope for eternal life may seem abstract. Does today’s Gospel help to make it more real and more relational?
2. The teaching of Jesus — his word — is part of who I am as a disciple. How to I recognise that word within me and how to go about living it day by day?
3. A name is a very precious thing. Do I like my own name, for example? Being entrusted with the “name” of God means being entrusted with God’s very self — an extraordinary claim.
God our Father, glorify your Son in the lives of the people called by his name. Through no merit of ours, you have made us your own, to be your witnesses on earth. Keep us true to the name we bear, that people everywhere may know that you are the God and love of us all.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.