Commentary on John 17:6-19
The genre of this passage will have a direct bearing on the preacher’s choice of sermonic approaches:
the appointed pericope features approximately the first half of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples just before his crucifixion.
Unlike the synoptic portrayal of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (not present in this Gospel), we have a detailed prayer featuring Jesus as mediator for his disciples.
One option the preacher may wish to explore is offering listeners a preliminary reflection on the nature of prayer generally before addressing this particular prayer. An element to include in such a reflection is acknowledgement of the echoes of the Lord’s Prayer found in verses 11, 15 and 17. Given the many historical layers of this passage, such an overview may prove quite useful whatever the direction of the sermon.
One of the most difficult aspects of this text is the issue of “the world.” Jesus makes several points about the relationship of “the world” which the preacher must keep in mind.
From the perspective of the biblical text, the world signifies the origin of the disciples. They did not come from outside of society but from inside of it, from the everyday people. However, in belonging to Jesus, the disciples have been separated from the world. Still, they must continue to do ministry in it (cf. John 17:18).
But what exactly is “the world?” It should not be defined to mean a place antithetical to the goodness of creation. Rather, it is the persons and forces opposed or indifferent to the things of God embodied in Jesus.
How do today’s preachers speak of “the world” in terms of the Christian faith?
Various aspects of Jesus’ prayer continue to reflect the struggles and hopes of Christ’s disciples today. It may be wise for the preacher to include some information about the historical context and situation in which the listeners to John’s gospel might have found themselves. Then, he/she may move into the way contemporary listeners might hear this passage. Jesus’ petitions to God are still meaningful in terms of being in, but not of, the world in order to function effectively and lovingly as disciples.
H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic work, Christ and Culture (1951) may be of assistance in sorting out the stances Christians take towards ‘the world.” Niebuhr lists five perspectives: Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox; and Christ the transformer of culture.
Obviously, these views have been historically and therefore denominationally conditioned. Yet, the issue of “the world” has not evaporated. Individual Christians and congregations must finally confront the question of what it means to be committed to the Risen Lord, and in doing so, they will need to understand what it means to not be “the world.”
Any sermon on this topic will realistically seek to delineate the ever-present tensions Christians experience between the world and God.
By way of example, a couple of years ago an ELCA bishop visited a seminary. In the process of discussing what it meant to train congregations in stewardship, the bishop sadly and wisely commented: “I don’t know if our people understand the radicality of the Gospel in terms of how counter-cultural it is. I wonder if we are simply too deeply enmeshed in the culture to see how we have departed from the faith — and all without intending to do so.”
As Jesus’ prayer works with the dynamic of ‘the world’, this passage certainly reflects the heightened tension of his farewell to his disciples. Its main elements, which constitute Jesus pleas’ on behalf of his disciples, include what it will take for them to continue functioning as disciples after he leaves them. These elements are:
Verses 1-5 show the stress exhibited in Jesus’ words as he speaks about his self-understanding in terms of his own mission.
Verses 6-9 include the gift of God’s words Jesus has shared with them.
Verses 10-13 include Jesus’ sharing of all that he has with the disciples, his pleas for their protection so their unity is not disrupted, and finally the gift of joy.
Verses 14-19 conclude with the affirmation of the disciples’ placement squarely in the midst of human life and the process of God’s truth working in them a holy life. Verse 17, connecting God’s word to truth and the holy life, may even prompt some historical memories from older listeners as this verse was sometimes the preface to a sermon in some Lutheran Midwestern pulpits.
One possible sermon construct could consist of a sermon introduction on the general nature of prayer and the various types of prayer. The preacher might then move to the outline of this particular prayer of Jesus, particularly in light of its historical context. Next, the preacher can discuss the key and often troublesome concept of ‘the world.’ Finally, the sermon may look at what Jesus’ prayer as our Mediator means today in the context of the particular congregation.
Another possible approach to this text is to look at the reality of mediation. What does it mean to mediate for or on behalf of someone? What is of primary concern to Jesus as he acts, through prayer for his disciples, as a mediator?
Most importantly, the preacher might also tie together the concept of mediator and the tasks and challenges of mediation with the theology of the cross. Certainly given the placement of this prayer prior to the crucifixion, the preacher can point to what makes a difference to God at the foot of the cross in terms of the needs and aspirations of God’s people.
Above all, any sermon must seek to catch the intimate and urgent tone of Jesus’ love and passion for his God and his disciples.
This prayer is many things: leave-taking reflections; summary words; a call to spiritual struggle and commitment; and most of all, a prayer for someone who loves his followers deeply. Can parishioners hear in the sermon that these realities are unchanged?