The lectionary places Jesus' prayer concerning glory at the end of the Easter season, but in John's gospel the prayer occurs at the end of the last supper, so that it leads into the passion.
Keeping the literary context in mind is important when preaching this passage. The word "glory" (Greek doxa) can have a fine sense of honor or brightness, yet the key to its role in John's gospel is that it has to do with the way God is made known to human beings.
John's gospel assumes that people were created by God for relationship with God. That is why the prayer can say that eternal life means knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ, whom God has sent (John 17:3). According to John's gospel, eternal life comes from a relationship with the eternal God. It begins now in faith, as people come to know the love of the God who made them. And such life has a future through the promise of resurrection. Yet the gospel also recognizes that "No one has ever seen God" (1:18). God's presence is hidden until God chooses to reveal it. The theme of glory has to do with the way revelation takes place.
First, Jesus glorified God on earth by finishing the work God gave him to do (17:4). In a basic sense this means he honored God through his obedience to God's commands. During his public ministry Jesus taught what God wanted him to teach, and performed the healings and other works that God wanted him to perform. Such faithfulness honors God (8:49). In another sense, however, Jesus glorified God by revealing God's power.
Biblical writers sometimes use the term doxa or "glory" for the way the power of God is brought within the realm of human experience. According to John's gospel, Jesus made divine power visible by the miraculous signs he performed. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus manifested his glory by turning water into wine at Cana (2:11); and at the end of his ministry he revealed the glory of God by calling the dead man Lazarus back to life (11:40). By other miraculous acts, Jesus revealed divine glory by revealing divine power.
A second element in Jesus' prayer concerns the glory he will resume in heaven once his ministry on earth is over. This heavenly glory is something that the Son of God enjoyed before the world existed. To share in such glory is to share in divine honor, divine majesty, and divine power. It was out of love that the Father gave the Son such glory before the foundation of the world, so that sharing in God's glory means sharing in God's love.
By means of his passion Jesus will return to the Father and enter a heavenly glory that his followers on earth cannot fully perceive, but can hope to see in the future. Therefore, Jesus concludes his prayer by asking that those whom God has given him may one day be with him in God's presence, to see the fullness of the glory that God gave to him in love (17:24).
The prayer traces a movement from glory on earth to glory in heaven, and given only the lines we have considered thus far it would be easy to bypass the cross without comment. Yet the prayer--like the rest of John's gospel--connects glory to the crucifixion itself. When Jesus enters Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, he says, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified," and he compares himself to a seed that must fall into the earth and die (12:23-24). When Judas leaves to carry out the betrayal, Jesus says, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him" (13:31).
The gospel links glorification to the process that culminates in the crucifixion. And this brings us back to John 17, where Jesus says that he has glorified God on earth by finishing the works that God gave him to do. The Greek word for "finish" is teleioō, the word Jesus will utter at the time of his death when he says tetelestai, "it is finished." If Jesus glorifies God on earth by accomplishing God's works, then he glorifies God by the crucifixion that completes these works. The question is how he does this.
Given the way Jesus manifested divine glory by miraculous acts of power during his ministry, we might expect a battery of miracles to occur during his crucifixion. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the crucifixion is framed with displays of divine power. The eerie pall of darkness is a visible sign of supernatural force, and the dramatic tearing of the temple curtain reveals the hand of God. God's glory seems palpable in Matthew's account of the earth quaking and the saints rising on Good Friday (Matthew 27:45-54; Mark 15:33-38; Luke 23:44-45). The irony is that these signs of divine power are missing from John's gospel. If readers are to see glory in the crucifixion, they must see it in another way.
Put briefly, if the signs reveal God's glory by displaying divine power, the crucifixion reveals God's glory by conveying divine love. The crucifixion completes Jesus' work of glorifying God on earth, for by laying down his life he gives himself completely so that the world may know of Jesus' love for God and God's love for the world (John 3:16; 14:31).
By his resurrection and ascension Jesus returns to the heavenly glory that God prepared for him in love, and Jesus prays that his followers will one day join him in the Father's presence to share in this glory and love (17:5, 24-26). To the eye of faith, however, the glory of the exalted Lord is already present in the crucified body of Jesus. If glory defines what the crucifixion is, the crucifixion defines what glory is. The crucifixion manifests the scope of divine power by disclosing the depth of divine love.