Jesus’s departing prayer incites a different kind of revolution
Easter 7B | John 17:6-19
A Strange Prayer
I might get into trouble for saying this, but please don’t pray like Jesus. If you take John 17 as your example and try to learn to pray like this, then, I don’t know if we can help you. Or maybe just keep that prayer to yourself and lead us in the Lord’s Prayer instead.
This jumbled mess of a prayer is really stream of consciousness, isn’t it? Jesus is really pulling it off the top of his head. It is hard to make sense of it. We can make sense of this part: Jesus is praying to GOD that he has done his work in the world with these people, that his part of the work is complete, and so that the people may be protected. In that, this is a very generous prayer.
I am less generous with the fact that it is incredibly confusing and most of us lost track and stopped listening halfway through. I did. For me it was right about the line “All mine are yours, and yours are mine” and it already sounds really repetitive and confusing with a bunch of verses to go.
One of the reasons it is so confusing is that Jesus uses the word “world” 13 times in 14 verses. That is a lot of references to “the world.” However, he uses it a few different ways and with different connotations. What Jesus means by “the world” seems to change and move as he goes. It seems inconsistent, or maybe we aren’t sure what he actually means by “the world”.
Is he speaking literally? Does he mean the earth? With its ground and water and air?
Is he speaking of the people? The ones living on the earth and doing these things which Jesus thinks are problematic?
Is he speaking to the culture? Does Jesus condemn the way things are and the systems of injustice?
Is he speaking to a specific culture? Is he speaking of the Jewish Temple authority and Roman occupation?
Is he speaking metaphorically of human nature? Of how we are? How you are and I am?
It is really hard to tell given the text.
What is “the world”
However Jesus intends to use “the world”, it is a wording he uses a lot, and has used a lot through this farewell discourse. Remember that it started back with chapter 12, when he gathered his disciples after coming into Jerusalem, and he washes their feet and then starts giving them the preview of what is to come and then talks about GOD, about Jesus’s work, and the coming Holy Spirit. Then in chapter 17, he prays, and in 18, he goes out to the garden and is betrayed. But “the world” comes up a lot throughout this talk.
Many theologians have taken to see “the world” as a cultural statement. Perhaps most significant in recent years have been John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, who take the “in the world but not of the world” quite seriously. Not literally, not as if Jesus comes from another planet and is trying to make us believe we’re all aliens. But as culturally different: that we are other. Our job, then, is to rail against this world, this culture, this way of being with another world, culture, way of being. We’d call that world the kingdom.
This view is really tempting, and I’ve preached it many times, actually. It is very faithful to the spirit and the language of the text.
What this thinking doesn’t help us understand is what it means to be in this world and at the same time be different from “the world”. Yoder and Hauerwas guide us to spiritual practices, radical nonviolence, and countering many of our cultural norms that go against the teachings of Jesus. Very practical advice.
But for many of us, we struggle to tell the difference. What exactly are we struggling against? What exactly is the problem with the world in the first place? Is Jesus really trying to get us to consider ourselves resident aliens in a foreign land? Because if he were, he has a great argument from Torah and throughout the whole Hebrew Scripture that would make his case for him: that we protect the sojourner, the wayfarer, the immigrant, because we are immigrants. Jesus would have totally used that line if that’s his vibe.
Do, not Be
I am a fan of Hauerwas, so I’m not trying to diminish his work. I think Jesus is speaking to something different here than that.
Jesus’s shifting use of “the world”: from the location to the people to the culture to everything-that-isn’t-Jesus-and-the-disciples may confuse us and prevent us from seeing what is most important to Jesus and particularly to the Jesus described by the writer of John. In this book, Jesus speaks constantly of eternal life, not as an ultimate other place or the perpetual future existence of our bodies, but as living a vibrant life of vitality in the Spirit.
Jesus does not seem to be making an enemy of “the world” because he makes an enemy of “the evil one”. He does seem to be speaking to living and acting and doing in our lives–in our life together. It has less to do with who we are and more to do with what we do.
This reminds me of Brené Brown. Brown is a scholar and author with a PhD in Social Work. Her primary work has been on vulnerability and she has found a profound relationship between shame and dysfunction: that feeling shame is destructive to our mental health.
How she describes shame is fascinating. When something goes wrong, say, you pick up the wrong jug of milk at the store. You grabbed whole when you wanted 2%. Do you say to yourself I can’t believe I grabbed the wrong milk! or do you say to yourself I am so stupid–I always pick out the wrong milk!? When we focus on the action, the thing, we are speaking to the behavior. But when we focus on the person, we aren’t correcting behavior, we are building shame, we are harming. And when we do this to ourselves and to other people, we are perpetrating an action that has a long, destructive impact on a person’s psychological health and who we become. It is harmful to focus on the person, rather than behavior.
Jesus, talking about “the world” seems to be describing the desired action rather than describing the status quo: the culture or people. You sent me, I came, I taught, I send, may you protect them, I sanctified so that they could be sanctified. It is all action. None of it is about who any of us is on the inside. None of it is about screwing up or evil or bad people or a bad culture.
Do like Jesus
This jumbled, messy prayer of Jesus’s is about action, about doing.
Doing what exactly?
Well, that his followers would keep doing the work Jesus taught them to do. That they would build up the Kingdom of GOD. Protect the followers that Jesus gathered. Teach and love and sanctify. Find new followers and pass on this work to them.
You know, do the stuff that Jesus does.
It is helpful to note how the disciples heard Jesus. Here and throughout. That they were divided over what Jesus was teaching them. That they were fighting over who would betray Jesus and who were the best disciples. They didn’t know who would be in charge without Jesus there to make decisions for them. And that Jesus is praying for unity in light of this division. Unity is not a description of who and how we are, it is an action.
Like “peace” is an action. It is not the absence of war, it is not a descriptor of a situation. It is a direct action of one person with another. We make peace. We aren’t suddenly at peace. We create it with our actions. That is the basis of GOD’s peace: Shalom.
We are called to action. Action that breeds life, health, and vitality to our community by making and building a healthy community here. Not as who we are and who we wish to be, but because we are called to dream and plan and draw up and build and decorate and bless and celebrate the kingdom of GOD. That we will be clothed in that kind of power. Power to make this world the very revelation of GOD.
We start by doing those things Jesus told us to do. As followers. As healers and visitors and blessers and preachers. As builders of the kingdom. Doers, each and every one of us.