At the close of the Easter season we’re presented with Jesus’ last prayer to his Father, just before the Last Supper breaks up and he and his friends begin the walk across the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane. As with all of Jesus’ words in John, this final prayer demands careful attention from us – perhaps even more than usual. First, it’s just hard to understand, especially if we’re hearing it for the first time at Sunday Mass. There’s not much in the way of story here ; this pericope is almost pure theology. But there is some story, a context in which Jesus makes this prayer, and that can help as we try to unpack some of his meaning. Second, and even more important, we should bring all our attention to bear on it because of the question of Jesus’ audience. On one level Jesus is speaking to the Father about his mission and about the disciples clustered around him in the Cenacle ; on another level, however, Jesus is speaking about us, the readers for whom the evangelist wrote the gospel, as we see in John 20 : “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you come to believe because you have seen me ? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name” (vv. 29-31). So this prayer is being prayed in our hearing, so to speak, and for our sake. Reason enough to pay attention !
Let’s back up a little, however, and look at the context before jumping ahead to our own time. (It’s good to remember that “it’s not always about us” !) Since he washed their feet, Jesus has been talking to the disciples non-stop, speaking in densely symbolic language at times (“I am the Vine, you are the branches” 15 : 1-17), at other times speaking clearly of “love” or of not calling them slaves, but “friends.” He has attempted to explain the relationship between himself and the Father and has promised that the “Advocate” (16 : 7), the “Spirit of truth, will guide [them] to all truth” (v. 13). Hearing these words, the disciples boldly say : “Now you are speaking plainly, and not in any figure of speech. Now we realize that you know everything. . . .because of this we believe that you come from God.” (vv. 29-30) They think they’ve got it, but Jesus predicts that the hour is coming when they will all be scattered and he will be left alone. Finally, he says : “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have overcome the world” (v. 33).
So that’s the setting for our gospel of this Sunday, the last one before the Holy Spirit comes swooping down on us next week, on Pentecost. It’s a familiar story ; Jesus speaks and the disciples only half-understand, with Jesus ruefully aware of their frailty and loving them despite – or because of – it. If we’re honest, it’s probably our story, too.
But when Jesus moves away from all of that discoursing and begins to pray, a different dynamic comes into play. No longer directed at uncomprehending fishermen or reformed tax collectors but to his Father, his language reminds us of the synoptic “Our Father.” Raising “his eyes to heaven,” Jesus speaks to his “Father,” and alludes to his “hour,” a Johannine theme first introduced way back at the Wedding of Cana. Then Jesus had told his Mother that his hour had not yet come. Now, however, his hour really has come and so he turns to his Father. Five times in five verses we hear the word “glory” or “glorified” rolling off Jesus’ tongue, but what does glory mean ? One hint is found in 17 : 5 : “Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.” This reference to the time before time reminds of us readers of John’s gospel that Jesus is before all else that is – that he and the Father are one. According to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, these words go “beyond the previous affirmations about Jesus’ glory in the narrative and the discourses and recall the “glory” of the Word in the prologue (1:14) which will ultimately be shared by the disciples (v. 24). Such glory will be enjoyed by the disciples (and ultimately by us) in “eternal life,” for which we get the following definition : “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (v. 3).
That brings us to the second part of today’s gospel, in which Jesus speaks of those to whom he has “revealed” the name of the Father. They were chosen to receive the revelation of the Father given to them by Jesus, and, despite all their weaknesses, Jesus says, they have received it and they have kept it, have even “truly understood that I came from you. . . .” (v. 8). They do know his true origins (unlike the Jews who quarreled with him in Chapter 8) and know that God is the source of everything he has said and done. Having been given to Jesus “out of the world,” meaning out of the place where hatred and unbelief hold sway, the disciples have a new relationship with him and the Father. At the same time, however, he says : “I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world” (v. 11). In other words, they have come from the world, been transformed by their experience of the revelation they’ve received from Jesus, but still remain vulnerable to this world’s darkness. If anything, this transformation will spur the world to do to them what it will do to Jesus. So he prays for them, and that seems natural, very typical of this “Good Shepherd,” but there’s also something surprising in his prayer. He claims to have been “glorified in them” (v. 9).
Jesus has “been glorified in them.” Hard to believe, really, when you think about what’s already happened with these guys, and what’s yet to come in just a few short hours. If we put ourselves into their shoes, it’s as hard, if not harder, to imagine – could Jesus really ever be “glorified” in us ? He says so, but still...
To understand any of this, even a little bit, it seems that we’ve got to change our way of thinking about “glory,” to drop our own certainties and look to Jesus for help. If we do, we discover that his clarity about glory extended into the future. Although we don’t get it in today’s passage, a little further on in this same chapter we hear him say : “I pray not only for them [the disciples], but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (v. 20). That’s us, you know.
When our own slowness to understand and our own weaknesses weigh us down, when “glory” seems like a word restricted either to movie stars or to winners of the World Cup, the Super Bowl or Wimbledon, it’s good to remember that he’s speaking about us here, you and me, not those other “glorious” types. And he’s not just speaking about us, he’s praying for us – we who are in the world but not quite of it.