VII Easter, Year B
1 Jn 5:9-13
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus– for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry."
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us–one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
(1 John 5:9-21)
If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one–to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal. We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
"I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we areone. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
Jesus’ final prayer in the Fourth Gospel can be read in several ways. It has been called a ‘high-priestly’ prayer and rightfully so, for there is a specific consecration in this prayer. It has been thought that this text may refer to the unity of the Christian community in Christ. This too is also explicit in the text (17:21). Even more so, this theme of Christian unity is grounded in the prior unity of the Jesus with his abba. His ‘coming to them’ is the implicit promise of the Spirit. One could therefore argue that deeper still the author of the Fourth Gospel wants us to see that there is such a complete oneness of Jesus with his Father that to say ‘Jesus’ is to acknowledge the agent of the Creator.
But what does this mean? Scholars since Bultmann are fond of referring to Jesus as the Revealer in the Fourth Gospel. In its most crass form this simply suggests that Jesus is an intermediary who brings a ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’ knowledge. In its more elegant stylings, however, it is recognized that the revelation that is occurring is that that of agency. And this is important because it gives context to the christological discussion within the framework of the laws of Jewish agency and second, it develops the theme of positive mimesis. At stake is not some metaphysical claim by Jesus but rather our judgment on his character: was Jesus anything like God? Was he like what God would be like if God were here?
His story will end as the greatest sign of all; the love of God displayed as non retaliatory forgiveness in the death of the Son, Jesus. Yet, even the church is included in this theology of the cross for it is recognized that ‘the world hates them’ as it hated Jesus. And so the church, filled with the presence of God, who is love, responds to the words of Jesus who is echoing what he hears his abba say. Jesus’ perception of God is not a ‘devotional’ rendering of the gospel texts. If rightly heard, it is a prophetic challenge to all the gods of violent religion. The Creator (1.1) is coming to claim the creation. He sends forth his ambassador, his logos. As Girard has reminded us in Things Hidden, a crucial aspect of the logos of John 1 is its non-violent character.
John 17 takes up virtually all the threads of the gospel and weaves them together. As we read it we are textually taken up into its world and so the gospel is all about us as well. It is about our encounter with Jesus, our discernment of his character, our hearing of his voice. Anyone who reads the gospels has to make a judgment at the end: were the authorities right in arresting, trying, convicting and executing Jesus? If not, why not?
This is the point of the resurrection in the gospel story. God has trumped humanity’s judgment with his own in raising Jesus from the dead and sending the Holy Spirit. And this is the hope by which Jesus offers this prayer found in the Fourth Gospel.
The confidence of the Johannine Jesus as he prays is quite different from that of the Synoptic tradition. Both are, of course, crafted in the matrix of Christian worship and so can be rightly called ‘community creations.’ But, there should be little doubt that Jesus prayed prior to his arrest.
From a purely historical critical perspective we know quite a bit about Jesus’ spirituality. The studies of Jeremias alone on ‘Abba’ give plenty of food for thought. Scholars, however, have long recognized our propensity to read back our own spirituality onto the biblical text and that’s why they came to reject both the liberal and Pietist approaches to the gospel, as though the gospels had something to say about Jesus’ encounter with God. Pushing this theory to the extreme would inevitably mean that the gospels were really about the early church and the early churches’ perceptions of Jesus. Concerning Jesus, Schweitzer and Bultmann and far too many knowledgeable people have concluded we can know precious little about Jesus ‘experience.’ Of course we can’t, especially when we neatly compartmentalize parables from miracles and ethics from eschatology and theology from spirituality and so on and so forth.
But, when seen as a whole, as the big picture, a real character emerges from the pages of the gospel texts, one who is both like us and yet unlike us and like another. We mention all of this because the author betrays his hand in our prayer in 17:3 where Jesus is fully ‘named’ Jesus Christ. But as he does so well everywhere, the author of the Fourth Gospel takes his themes, which, from his perspective, are Jesus’ themes, and has interwoven them in reflection with this same risen Jesus. So called ipsissima verba are the more to be appreciated as diamonds in a beautifully crafted setting. This is how our author handles his ‘tradition.’
It should also be noted (as does Brown) that there are significant parallels to the Book of Deuteronomy and to the genre of farewell discourses. The Mosaic parallels are important for two reasons. First, they underscore the necessity to read this gospel in a Jewish framework and second, they form part of the argument for the influence of the prophet like Moses theme in certain traditions of early Christianity. We mention here David Moessner’s demonstration of Deuteronomic influence on the Lukan travel narrative (Lord of the Banquet). Aspects of Paul’s theology carry elements of this as well. The Prophet Like Moses theme develops in two distinct ways in early Christianity. On the one hand we find Jesus being presented like Moses the Torah giver (as in Matthew’s gospel; some aspects of Paul). On the other hand, we find Jesus presented as Moses the one who is rejected by the people who refuse to listen to God, thus, e.g., Luke and the Fourth Gospel. Both are sides of each other depending upon the perspective taken.
Finally, we make a hermeneutical observation. Like many other places in the New Testament John 17 has been seen as an early Christian hymn. If so, it has been completely integrated into the prayer and is no longer able to separated from it (like the Logos hymn of John 1). We are reminded of the dictum that ‘the one who sings prays twice.’ The early church was a singing community and that joy is reflected all over the New Testament. This element is robbed of its liveliness when it is subsumed under the rubrics of liturgical development. Scholars need a bit more imagination when they reconstruct the early church. The early Christians, for all of their warts and flaws, saw far more clearly than we the implications of the life and story of Jesus. And they believed that he was truly present with them by the gift of the Holy Spirit. And they lived and they wrote inside of that reality. They knew and understood that in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead a threshold had been crossed and nothing would stop them from announcing his name. Song or not, if the text is spoken aloud its rhythm can be felt.
The portraits of Jesus and the relationship of Jesus to God that abound in the church are frequently flawed. Far too often and in far too many ways, the insidious mimetic scapegoating mechanism has taken an aspect of the gospel and covered it up in our worship, in our theology and most dangerously, in our spirituality. We become confused and unclear in our following of Jesus.
Today’s text is an invitation into the divine life as it is fully experienced in the Christian community. It is found by following the path of the cross. The unity spoken of here includes our self-giving, as Jesus had given himself. This is not a doctrinal unity although there is a clear christology in the Fourth Gospel that is virtually ignored in the churches today. This unity is grounded in the knowledge, the experienced patterning of realia, of God, as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit. For the author of the Fourth Gospel as well as for us, real following of God is possible because it is Jesus who comes to us to guide us and Jesus followed God to the bitter end and God put THE stamp of approval on Jesus “when he raised him from the dead and gave him a name above all names.”
This unity given us in our ‘naming Jesus together’ (worship) is really to acknowledge the name of the Living God. Not the god of our personal theologies, or the god of our denominational traditions, nor the god of our linguistic capabilities, but the Creator, who gives life and breath to every creature. We mean the God of sparrows, and lilies of the field. Why not? Jesus did. This is the One of the Unpronounceable Name (Ha Shem), the Creator, the Covenant Maker, the Living God. If John 17 demonstrates anything it is this: Jesus’ spirituality is tied intimately to his belief that he has known this God. This being so, if Jesus was all about peace, then so was the Creator. And with this statement we are light years from most modern theology and getting closer to that of the early church.
It is my belief that a congregation can be a part of any church tradition or affiliation and so live the life of Jesus that communities are shaped by their presence. Every tradition has a measure of witness to Jesus. The unity of the Church may be attempted on a bureaucratic or institutional scale. Sometimes the unity of the Church is grounded in theological discussions of Scripture and the Symbols of the faith (creeds and confessions). Maybe it is time to begin to ask about the unity of the Church in Christ.
Perhaps it is time for Christians to reach across ecclesial and theological grounds and begin to fellowship with other congregations who seek to live closely the Life of Jesus. Surely we could gain from each other’s insights on a grass roots level. It is not so much working out the minutiae of theology as it is discerning how to live the life of the Sermon on the Mount. Some congregations’ bear marvelous witness to Jesus, thanks be to God for their love of God and neighbor. As Eastertide ends and our rejoicing in the feast of the Risen Jesus makes way for his ascension and the Coming of the Spirit, may we seek to affirm the good work that God is doing in our world in those whose lives are molded by and look like Jesus. May we begin to bear witness to Him in each other and encourage, love and cherish one another, even as the Father and the Son love one another.
Some Sermon Thoughts:
One of my seminary professors was fond of saying that we waste too much time in church “building community.” Community, oneness already exists. We may not see it, may not act like it, but it pre-exists our recognition of it. This is the hope I take away from John 17, the hope I preach.
You and your worst enemy are one. Jesus asked it of the Father. It’s done. Now, what shall we do about it?
It makes me want to avoid any behavior, any speech that sets someone else “outside the circle.” I may disagree with them, but I don’t shun them. I may say that their thoughts don’t reflect what I know about Jesus, but I do not call them “unchristian.” I may correct them in love, but I do not punish or shame them.
Like the experience of Christ in our lives, the experience of oneness often hides from us until we trust that reality without any good reason. We aren’t prone to do that sort of thing until all other options have failed us, and the “Balkanization” of human society may just be bringing us to that point of giving up on the “old ways.” Maybe we’ll be willing, as a people, as a nation, to trust a oneness we cannot see when it becomes clear that acting as though we are different peoples just doesn’t work.
Our text today combines two themes, witness and faith. Bearing witness is a key theme in the Johannine literature as is believing (this literature tends to use the verb ‘to believe’ rather than the noun suggesting the dynamic personal act of trust).
Whereas in the Gospel, the Son bears witness to the Father, in our text it is the Father who bears witness to the Son. And the son is about life (ζωη).
Christians bear witness to life, not death. They do not bear witness to a dualistic God who is both life and death. While YHWH may assert in Isaiah “I create good and evil’, in the New Testament, it is the case that God is only the God of life. As we saw from the beginning of this letter, to call God love and light only, and not love/wrath nor light/darkness is to make a theological claim of the highest order.
Christianity has a long and storied history of bearing witness to a God who is Janus faced. This stems from the mixing of the biblical revelation with Greek philosophy which began in the early second century. It also stems from the confusion of failing to recognize that there are two distinct trajectories or perspectives within the Jewish Scriptures. The God and Father of Jesus bears witness to the Son precisely because the Son has imitated the Father. Even as Jesus brings life not death, compassion not retribution, even so he does this in the name of God.
We are enjoined at the very end of this letter (5:20) to refrain from idols. The greatest idol we must flee from is the idol of the Janus faced God of Christianity. Until we do this we will not be breathing the air of the wonderful apostolic message.
No significant issues today.
By now, if you have been preaching this letter you are aware of the deep inner connections that the author makes, particularly regarding theology and ethics. As we approach Pentecost and Trinity Sunday it is worth asking whether we have a doctrine of the Trinity that is congruent or whether in fact our view of God is really some dualistic.