Into Glory -- Lectionary Reading for Easter 7A/Ascension Sunday
John 17:1-11 (NRSV)
17 After 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, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
“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. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 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. 9 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. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 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 are one.
As the Easter season comes to a close, it’s time for us to transition from reflecting on Jesus’ visitations with his disciples to the ongoing ministry of Christ’s church in the power of the Holy Spirit. With Pentecost on the horizon, our focus begins to look forward into the future, where God’s realm will come in its fullness.
This final Sunday of Easter offers two textual choices. We can focus on the Ascension story, which is developed in Luke 24 and Acts 1, or we can follow the readings set out for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I have chosen to engage with John 17, which helps give definition to the post-Easter reality. Since John doesn’t have an Ascension story, per se, this reading provides us with a glimpse at John’s vision of Jesus’ ultimate destiny. That destiny is to share in the glory that is God. As John 17 begins, the disciples, whom Jesus has been engaging in one last teaching session, step into the background and Jesus turns his attention to the Father, whom he addresses in intimate prayer (though we are invited to observe).
For my own denominational tradition verse 11, which speaks of oneness, is the key to this passage. Since we have made Christian unity a centerpiece of our core message, this is understandable. This prayer for unity, however, encompasses more than institutional harmony. Whatever unity might exist within the community is rooted in Jesus’ prior unity with the Father.
Jesus appeals to the Father, asking that he return to the glory that was his prior to creation. Glorify me, Jesus prays, even as I glorify you. It’s not difficult to read this through the lens of celebrity. Bring me fame and I’ll bring you fame. While that nuance exists as an expression of the Greek word doxa, I don’t think that’s what Jesus (or John) has in mind.
In context, the word doxa seems to reflect the Hebrew kabod, which can carry the meaning of presence. Note that in verse five Jesus prays that Jesus might share in the presence of God that he had known before the world was created. This reference carries us back to John 1, where we are told that the Word was God and that this Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. By knowing – experiencing – relationship with Jesus the disciples have the opportunity to participate in the divine glory – relationship – that had existed from before this world existed.
Reading this passage in a Trinitarian manner, which I think the text allows, Jesus is acknowledging his own relationship with God, a relationship of complete harmony and unity. But he doesn’t stop there – he seeks to bring the disciples into this experience of divine presence. This works best, I would think, with a relational/social understanding of the Trinity – by believing (trusting) the disciples are drawn into the inner relationship of the Godhead.
If the glory that Jesus speaks of is the presence of God, then the word here concerning eternal life needs to be understood in that context. Because the idea of eternal life too often gets linked with pearly gates and angels playing harps that it has become an unusable image many progressive/liberal Christians would rather do without the concept. Better to be content with John Lennon’s vision of a world without heaven. But are these the only choices – pearly gates or no heaven?
From a pastoral perspective, not having a vision of eternity to share with the families of those who have died leaves very little good news to share. If there is no vision of resurrection to share with the congregation, most families would leave the office or the funeral or the grave deeply perplexed and bereft of comfort. Indeed, it should instructive that most cultures and religions have some sense of something lying beyond the grave. There appears to be a primal need for such a vision.
What then is John’s vision of eternal life? He tells us that it is to know “the only true god, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” In other words, it involves being in relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ. While we have a tendency to read this individualistically, in Jewish context individuals are always part of a community – that might be the people of Israel or the more compact community of Jesus’ disciples, for whom John seems especially concerned at this moment. For John eternity is not out there in the future – it has already begun. The choice is ours whether we wish to step into it. What this means, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note, is that knowing God “is to follow the way of God (v. 3; cf. Ps. 9:10; 24:4; Isa. 45:3) that can lead to immortality (see, e.g. Wis. 15:3; Philo, That God is Unchangeable 143). John adapts this thought: Jesus is the way to eternal life- animation by God” [Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 47].
While there is a dualism present here that we must acknowledge – one that should be troubling to us (Jesus doesn’t seem too concerned about the World) – there is a message to be received in this conversation. The idea of eternal life becomes problematic when we begin to engage in deciding who is in and who is not. What I hear in John is simply the recognition that we have a choice as to whether we will embrace the message of God’s realm. That said, theologically I am convinced that God will do what is necessary to reconcile all things (including all humans) to God’s self. Eternity, therefore, begins now – if we’re willing to embrace the message. If we’re willing to embrace this message, then one consequence is that we have the opportunity to begin living lives without the fear that perfect love casts out (1 John 4:8). It is a life lived in relationship with God (vertical dimension) that gets expressed in our relationships with each other (horizontal). We see this expressed in the Lord’s Prayer, where the earthly mirrors the heavenly (“on earth as in heaven”).
Looking forward into the future – Jesus asks that he might return to the Glory that is God, inviting us to share in that glory. While we can interpret this in terms of a “pie in the sky” vision of eternal life, a vision that often undermines the ethical component of the eschatological vision; such need not be the case. A truly biblical vision should have earthly implications. As Clark Williamson reminds us – our choice has ethical implications. We can carry with us a sense of ultimate doom, or ultimate confidence that overcomes certain kinds of fear.
There is an ethical consequence of our choice, because to decide to believe in the ultimate victory of God’s love over death, transience, and nihilism undergirds and makes sense of our moral life, whereas the alternative denies that how we live our lives makes any ultimate difference. So the option is between believing that God’s loving grace will triumph, or believing quite the opposite, that it will not. If we take our clues about ultimate reality and what is ultimately real from the decisive revelation of God in Jesus Christ, we will choose one way. [Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology, p. 315].
We may not have all the details as to how this future vision will work out, but Jesus seems to offer to us the promise of a unity with God that will bring unity to God’s realm – not uniformity of course, but justice revealed in love. That is, therefore, the promise of eternal life.