ETERNAL LIFE IN A WORD
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
May 28, 2017 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)
Eighth Anniversary of New Millennium Church
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
17After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people,* to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6 ‘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. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for 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. 9I 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. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And 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 are one.
As I pondered this passage I was blessed by a childhood memory. I do not recall how old I was, but I must have been less than sixteen. I recall my mother praying aloud, for me. I do not know if she knew I was listening. Perhaps she knew. Perhaps she prayed aloud intending that I would overhear her speaking with God on my behalf. I do not know.
I only know that I heard my mother praying for my protection. I heard her talking to God, with me in mind. That memory warms my spirit, even now.
I think about that memory when reflecting on the passage we read from John 17 and what some call the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus. The mood shifts from the end of chapter 16. Between chapters 13 thru 16, Jesus spoke with and to his close followers to prepare them for his death and eventual departure from physical fellowship with them.
But John 17 is his prayer to God, who Jesus has called “the Father” in his words to the disciples. We have John 17 because this prayer was not only uttered by Jesus. It was overheard. It was remembered. And its words and meaning have comforted and encouraged followers of Jesus across the centuries until today.
In this prayer, Jesus petitions God, for us. At John 17:9, we read: 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.
We belong to Jesus because we have received his witness about God. We belong to God because Jesus came to represent God. Jesus came to actually show us God’s character. Jesus came to explain God to the extent humans can understand God.
In this prayer, Jesus also defines eternal life. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3). Eternal life is defined by “oneness” with God and Jesus Christ! The words Jesus uttered in this prayer show that we are meant for that “oneness.” We are meant be part of the union between God and Jesus. Jesus has declared that our essential being is a function of the relationship between God and himself.
We first encounter the term “eternal life” at John 3:16, during the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. At John 3:16 we learn that “eternal life” has something to do with (a) God’s love for the world, (b) God’s gift to the world of God’s “only Son,” (c) and our relationship in God’s love through believing God’s Son. What Jesus stressed to Nicodemus is the desire of God that everyone have eternal life by trusting God’s love as revealed by God’s Son. God wants everyone to be part of the divine union between God and the Son.
In a word, “eternal life” means “oneness” with Jesus in God’s love. That “oneness” with Jesus makes us one with God’s love. “Oneness” with Jesus brings us online with God’s purposes, God’s promises, God’s hopes, God’s passion, and God’s power. “Oneness” with Jesus is our life in God!
In the prayer he offered at John 17, Jesus emphasized that the relationship between himself and God involves us, includes us, and is never meant to exclude us. Somehow, we are implicated and affected by all Jesus did for God. In this prayer, Jesus emphasized the “oneness” that makes us part of all he did, and all that God wanted to do by sending Jesus into the world.
Notice also that Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11). That petition leads one to wonder about the threat Jesus recognized. What danger concerned Jesus so much as he faced leaving the world that he petitioned God to protect us from it?
I think Jesus was asking God to protect us from divisiveness caused by self-righteous partisanship.
It is certainly true that the love of God is challenged by the drive to build empires of politics, religion, and commerce. Yet, imperial politics, religion, and commerce do not prevent people who love God from living in “oneness” with each other. Imperial politics, religion, and commerce operate to seduce us from God’s will, distract us from God’s presence, discredit us as God’s people, and destroy our work for God.
But self-righteous partisanship is what divides us as people of God. In every period of history, people who profess to love God have preferred to fracture into camps and fuss with one another.
We have fussed among ourselves about who should be admitted into our fellowships.
We have fussed among ourselves about how to pray.
We have fussed among ourselves about spiritual gifts.
We have fussed among ourselves about who should be baptized, when people should be baptized, and even how people should be baptized.
We have fussed among ourselves about whether women are equal to men when it comes to leadership.
We have fussed among ourselves about ownership of religious property.
Jesus prayed that God would protect us – “in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” – because he understood the way human pride and interest in self-advancement threaten our sense of being and acting as one community. Jesus had seen his disciples squabble among themselves for influence. He sensed that pride and desire for self-advancement would cause us to not remember our oneness, together, with Jesus.
Jesus had seen pride and desire for self-advancement work on James and John, two of his closest companions, to the point they behaved like knuckleheads. Luke’s Gospel informs us that after the Lord’s Supper, the disciples squabbled “as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:24). Several days earlier the mother of James and John had come to Jesus, with her sons in tow, knelt before him, and asked that he designate that her sons be his chief power brokers (Matthew 20:20-27). Therefore, Jesus knew how the effect of pride and self-interest worked to turn the disciples into divisive knuckleheads while Jesus was with them. That is why he prayed to God for their protection at John 17:11.
Pride and self-interest are toxic forces that weaken intimate relationships. Pride and self-interest divide us from one another. Pride and self-interest cause us to prefer split into factions within congregations and denominations and sub-denominations within the overall population of people who profess to be followers of Jesus.
Imperial religious, political, and commercial challenges have seldom caused followers of Jesus to forsake unity with each other. Quests for power have usually been responsible for our disagreements.
Does the long history of fussing, fighting, and splintering by people who profess to love God as followers of Jesus mean God hasn’t answered the prayer of Jesus? Some people may think so, but don’t include me among those who think that way.
God has been working across our history to restore humanity and the rest of creation to oneness. Human pride and self-interest have dogged our efforts to be true to God in every age and place. But God has not stopped working! God did not stop working when human pride and self-interest fractured and frustrated the power of community in past periods.
Jesus prayed for us – prayed for our protection – because he knew that God does not stop working when human pride and self-interest work to fracture and frustrate our duty and ability to fulfill God’s purposes of love and justice. God does not stop working! The issue Jesus was concerned about was whether we would stop believing that we are one community. Will we become sickened and exhausted from the toxic effects of prideful and self-interested divisiveness that we forget, or choose to stop believing, that we are one?
Jesus prayed that God would protect our sense of knowing who we are, together, in God’s love. Jesus prayed for God to protect us from the idea that we are somehow not one community, but separate and rival communities. Jesus prayed that God would protect us from the notion that our different points of view somehow make it impossible for God to get anything good done in the world.
I think God answers that prayer. God answers that prayer anytime we reach across our lines of pride and self-interest to stand up, together, for love and justice. God answers that prayer anytime we realize that we are sisters and brothers, together, in God’s love.
God answers that prayer when Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Episcopalians, Catholics, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, and any other crowd of folks get together and say it is wrong to oppress people who are hungry.
God answers the prayer of Jesus when we get together and declare it is wrong to oppress refugees and immigrants.
God answers the prayer of Jesus when we, in oneness, say it is wrong to deny people clean water and decent food and safe shelter because they can’t pay for it.
God answers the prayer of Jesus when we, in oneness despite our different camps, declare and protest that it is wrong to make Wal-Mart the world’s biggest retailer by allowing it to mistreat workers.
God answers that prayer when we, in solidarity with the love and justice of God – and despite our different camps of religious pride and self-interest – proclaim that it is wrong to send men and women to fight wars based on imperial commerce and corporate greed, wrong to lie about why we send them to fight and suffer and die, wrong to deny needed care and compassion to the communities harmed by our wars, and wrong to call a nation godly that does such things with impunity.
In these and so many other ways, God is answering the prayer of Jesus.
The issue is not whether God is answering the prayer. The issue is whether we are acting in the oneness of God’s answer. Are we being one with other people of God the way God and Jesus are one? Are we working together the way God and Jesus work together? Are we more than separate camps, factions, and denominations? Do we want to be more?
Do not doubt that God is answering the prayer. Think about being part of God’s answer. Do not question whether we can be one as God and Jesus are one.
Believe that God and Jesus are working, through the Holy Spirit, to bless our commitment to be one community for love and justice. God and Jesus are working, through the Holy Spirit, to put us in line and online with God’s power, God’s purpose, God’s passion, and God’s presence in the world for love and justice.
Beloved, God is answering the prayer of Jesus. Let it be said of us that we are examples of God’s answer concerning the love and justice situations of our time and our place.
Then, our oneness will glorify the oneness that exists between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.