Commentary on John 17:6-19
The hour approaches and along with it the glory of both the Father and the Son as Jesus prays on behalf of those to whom the Father has authorized him to “give eternal life.”
Consistent with this major Johannine theme (cf. John 3:16) this eternal life is that all those who have been entrusted to the Son should know the Father as the “only true God” and Jesus Christ as the one whom God has sent into the world (17:3)
These words introduce the lengthy prayer of John chapter 17 in which Jesus continues his address to his disciples, encouraging them to confidence and hope in the face of his imminent “departure” from them because of his suffering and death on the cross. Now both they and the faithful hearers of John’s gospel, both ancient and modern, “listen in” on his words as he prays to the Father on behalf of those who are left in the world.
As noted in the comments on the gospel lessons for Easter 5 and 6, the lengthy address of Jesus to his disciples in John 13-17, though in the narrative ostensibly set prior to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death on the cross, is transparent in its presentation as the words of an already resurrected Lord who now encourages a company of disciples, including us in light of the resurrection promise. As Easter people, we are encouraged not to dwell in feelings of abandonment or despair, but to hope in the assurance of Jesus’ continuing presence, now that the work for which he was sent has been accomplished. “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do” (17:4).
Today’s reading (6-19) comprises a central section of Jesus’ prayer and so offers some of the major themes of Jesus’ prayer which encompasses the whole of chapter 17.
Perhaps the most significant of the themes is in the prominent language of “giving” which in nine occurrences runs throughout and characterizes the theology of this passage (as in the 75 times in the gospel as a whole) in terms of a mutual extravaganza of giving. Both the Father and the Son are “givers” and their mutual giving constitutes the grace which those who belong to Jesus have inherited and in which they are now seen to live. Once again, precisely in the action of “giving” the Father and Son are joined as one. Their mutual giving reveals once again the oneness expressed in John’s prevalent “just as” theology. As the Father does, so does the Son. As the Father is a giver, so the Son imitates the Father in his giving.
Knowing That We Belong
Significant then are those things which are “given” by the Son and the Father. Most important and immediate we hear that the followers of Jesus know themselves as belonging to Jesus. To know oneself as belonging to Jesus is to know this as integral to the Father’s and the Son’s essential nature and purpose. Twice in the opening verse we hear of this essential giving. If we ask who are these ones about whom Jesus prays so earnestly just prior to his passion, it is about “those whom you gave me from the world” (17:6). If we ask why it is that we have come to know Jesus as resurrected Lord and Savior, it is because “they were yours, and you gave them to me.”
Knowing the Father’s Name
The second thing that has been given, Jesus says, is the knowledge of God’s “name” (6, 11, 12). If these ones whom the Father has given to Jesus now belong to Jesus, then what these believers have been given is to “know the name” (6), the character of the One who is the source of the eternal life which they have come to know in Jesus. God’s “name” stands for all that God is and has done, most importantly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To know that name is to have one’s life constituted and sustained in the power of that name — to be protected and guarded in that name (11,12).
Knowing the Word
Thirdly, we hear that these followers have been given the “word.” They are protected in the “name” precisely because they have been given and have guarded the “word.” Of course in the context of John’s witness to the “Word become flesh” (1:14) we are meant to understand that “word” in its double sense. Verse 8 rehearses the drama of the Christian life as it unfolds in the reception of that word in its multiple senses.
1) Jesus has given to them only those words which he has first received from the Father;
2) They have received or accepted those words (and so have been given power to become God’s children, (see 1:12);
3) As ones who have received him they know the truth that Jesus as the word made flesh has come from God; and 4) they have then believed in this One whom God has sent.
To respond in such a way to the “word” which has been given in Jesus is to know ourselves in the intimate bonds of belonging to him. Similar to Paul’s assertion that there is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38), so the very glory of Jesus in his cross and resurrection is focused in this community of believers who now belong to him. Jesus’ prayer claims an intimate oneness in the sharing of concern for these who are the objects of the Father’s giving love through the Son: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I have been glorified in them” (17:10).
One could do well to ponder in some way the implications of these words, that the very glory of Jesus, all the love that was poured into the passion and death of Jesus on the cross has its object and focus in those whom the Father has given the Son to love. What wonder to imagine that we who believe in his name and who so belong to him are indeed the very glory of Jesus.
Sent Into the World
Because of the Father’s name — because of who the Father is and what the Father has “given” in love to the Son — we can know ourselves as made holy and kept holy in the truth of the word (17:17). But that holiness is not a one of separation from, but precisely for immersion in the world. Again we hear John’s “just as” theology of the sending of the Son. “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18). Our oneness with the Son and Father will imply a rejection by or distance from the world as enemy of the Father. Just as the world rejected Jesus in his suffering and death, so the world will also reject the disciples. Disciples will thus need the Father’s and Son’s protection in the world, “because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (14, 16).
Still in spite of the risk, and precisely because of the Father’s love, this community of disciples are sent into the world, just as the Father’s love has sent the Son into the world. We thus are again reminded of the two-fold significance of “world” for John. The world is both that which does not know and rejects the Word (1:10) and those who belong to him (17:14), but the world is also the object of the Father’s love and of his and the disciples’ ongoing love and mission.
As such disciples, too, are sent into the world armed with the word in its two fold sense — the Father’s Word now become flesh, and the words of that Word. Guarded and sustained in that word we can know ourselves as disciple community constituted in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection and in the promise of his presence in the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Counselor and Comforter. About which we will hear more in next Sunday’s lesson for Pentecost Sunday.