Spirit of Witness (May 30 – June 5)

Sunday, June 5
Seventh Sunday of Easter

Weekly Theme
Spirit of Witness

Weekly Prayer
O God of glory, your son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other, in suffering and in joy, that all your children may be drawn into your bountiful dwelling. Amen.

Weekly Reading
John 17:1-11

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, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 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. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 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. 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. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 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.”

All readings for the Week
Acts 1:6-14
Ps 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Pet 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Focus Questions

1. Would it change the way you see yourself, and others, if you thought of us as belonging to God?

2. What do your prayers reveal about your beliefs?

3. How would you describe “the already but not-yet” of your own life?

4. How does Jesus’ prayer illustrate the need for a community of faith?

5. How would you describe “eternal life”?

by Kate Huey

There are subtle shifts here at the beginning of the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel: Jesus’ farewell speech, now more than four chapters long, becomes a closing prayer, a move that would have been familiar to the first-century Christian hearers of the story. That’s what farewell speeches did in those days: it was as familiar to them as, for example, the prayer before the sermon is to many in the church today. It would have sounded “right” to John’s audience, and they listened in on the prayer just as the disciples did that night, and just as we listen in today. It’s true that the gospel is something we “overhear.”

Another change is the very different picture Jesus’ words paint of his disciples, not as their usual clueless selves (as they seemed, earlier in the evening). Charles Cousar writes that Jesus describes them instead “as God’s possession, given to Jesus, people who have kept the word taught them and have understood that Jesus has come from God.” This hushed little group gathered at table are precious in Jesus’ eyes, and he entrusts them to God, Cousar says: “They belong to God, and God is enjoined to protect them as they live out their calling in the world, to enable them to maintain their unity. Jesus’ stance toward his followers is not one of condescension or pity. He describes them as they are seen by God.”

There is much to be said for seeing Christ in each other; there is also something to be said for seeing ourselves as God sees us, with steadfast love and compassion, but with hope, too, for what is yet to be. The disciples that night are a band with great promise, and Jesus sees that promise within them, but he also knows that they will carry the gospel, embody its message, in a hostile and curiously unwelcoming world (a world that doesn’t seem to know what it needs most–then, or now!). In such a world full of challenges to people of faith, “it is critical that the church remind itself that it is the recipient of Jesus’ prayer…that God will be present in the life and mission of the faith community,” Gail R. O’Day writes. O’Day wonders, then, how the church’s “self-definition would be changed if it took as its beginning point, ‘We are a community for whom Jesus prays.'” How would such an understanding affect the way your church sees itself, its strength, its possibilities, and its mission in the world?

The prayer itself is beautiful, Lois Malcolm writes,”with an elegance surpassed in John only by its prologue.” Like the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ farewell words inspire us to reflect on prayer itself. According to John J. Pilch, “Prayer is a socially meaningful act of communication directed to persons perceived to be in control of the life situation of the one praying and performed for the purpose of getting results.” As we overhear Jesus’ prayer, we understand several things a little better: “The message of the prayer,” Pilch writes, “reveals how the persons praying perceive themselves and God…that is, how and what we pray reveal what we believe about the one to whom we pray.” If you listen carefully to your prayers, what sort of things do they reveal about your beliefs about God? About your sense of the relationship you have with God?

Interestingly, Pilch observes that Jesus is praying, in a sense, publicly, not “in secret” as he instructed them in the Gospel of Matthew (6:5-6). But Pilch places the prayer in the context of Mediterranean culture, which held honor as a core value,”a claim to worth and a public acknowledgement of that claim.” We might compare and contrast this prayer of Jesus with the way we pray today: Pilch wonders if our prayers today “are composed with greater concern to impress or edify the human listeners than to stir God to action.” Can we imagine a God who is “stirred to action” by our prayers? Would that enliven our worship together as well as our quiet times of personal prayer? “Westerners,” Pilch writes, “are convinced that they are masters of their own destiny and are expected to look out for themselves. No one else will. Our Middle Eastern ancestors in the faith believed that they had no control over their lives. Only God did, and public prayer stirred God to act because it put God’s honor on the line.” Do we ever think that God’s “honor” is at stake when we pray?

The New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels draws a parallel between this prayer and the first three petitions in the Our Father: both call God “Father,” each one an intimate and “affectionate prayer of Son to Father.” While John doesn’t use “kingdom of God” language found in the other Gospels, he does speak of “the eternal life which Jesus came to bring,” eternal life not equated with heaven after death but with the knowledge of God, as Jesus prays, and “such knowledge transforms both the disciples and the world.” Finally, the theme of “Thy will be done” runs through this prayer, because the hour has come for Jesus to fulfill God’s will, and he does so, obediently.  

On the other hand, this prayer is very different from that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Mark tells the story of this night in his Gospel. Lois Malcolm contrasts the “grieved” Jesus who wouldn’t mind “passing” on the cup he was about to drink, with the Jesus who sits at table speaking of glory that he shared with God the Father from the beginning of time. But that’s because John is putting this prayer in the context not just of impending death but of the bigger picture of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, with plenty of glory for the little faith community to tap into. Gail R. O’Day again: “Jesus’ farewell is not the conventional prayer of a dying man…not a death-bed prayer, but the prayer of the One on the verge of willingly laying down his life and thus completing God’s work….not a universal and timeless prayer of Jesus but one decisively grounded in and shaped by Jesus’ hour.” This prayer, then, is for all of us, but it was a one-time experience for Jesus to face this hour and place everything, the events in the coming days and his disciples two thousand years later, in the hands of God. 

The life of Jesus “on display” in us

Several commentators have written eloquently on this passage, translated so beautifully by Eugene Peterson: “Display the bright splendor of your Son so the Son in turn may show your bright splendor. You put him in charge of everything human so he might give real and eternal life to all in his charge….Everything mine is yours, and yours mine, and my life is on display in them” (The Message). This tells us something about our call, our mission today: the life of Jesus is “on display” in us. What a refreshing way to think of the word “witness”!

Charles Cousar describes this moment reassuringly: “The disciples are not to be left with the best of human possibilities, but with the very reality of God. They have a name and a basis for confronting the riddles of human existence, even though they live without the physical companionship of Jesus.” Just as Pilch wonders about our praying, Cousar prompts reflection on our sense of dependence (or not) on God, in a world confident of its progress and power. Is it indeed up to us, or might we “stir God to act” if we realize our limitations? But Cousar also paints a dramatic picture of this moment: “Something earth-shaking, life-changing is at stake in this act of glorifying, this revelation of the Father. It is not merely the datum of another religion, but the giving of life–not just breathing, eating, moving, but the life of the age to come…a change in the aeons, a movement in the world’s clock, the dawning of a new day, so that the life of eternity can be experienced now.”

Living in a liminal time

The day that has dawned, however, is not here in its fullness. Dianne Bergant calls the days since that hushed night “a liminal time, a time ‘in-between’….Time has been radically changed for us. We are now living in God’s time, when future fulfillment has already come to pass….we always live in the tension of the ‘already, but not yet.'” However, our hope lies in the sure knowledge that “‘Already, but not yet’ is the way we live out our lives in God, not the way God lives in us. The tension is ours, not God’s. This tension is at the core of much of our frustration and suffering. We think we have made some progress in reforming our lives only to realize that with each step forward we discover more steps that need to be taken….While in this liminal state we must remember that even if we become frustrated God does not. God is always on our side.” We are a strange mix of over-confidence and anxiety; yet this quiet but powerful prayer of Jesus offers an antidote that both comforts and challenges us.

Bergant claims that we need one another in this liminal time, that we’re not in this on our own: “the radical nature of this in-between living requires the support of a community…not only for help in the ordinary experiences of life…a community of believers with whom we can pray, who will understand our spiritual aspirations, who will support us in our Christian commitment, who will challenge us when we stray from the right path…who are companions with us on our journey through this in-between time, who experience the same struggle to be faithful in a world that does not share our values or our insights. We need a community of believers through whom shines the glory of the exalted Lord.” Where do you find a community to pray with, to understand your spiritual aspirations, to support you in your Christian commitment?

We are not alone

The world is still an often hostile place, and the cross makes no sense to many “optimists,” any more than the resurrection does, but our reassurance rests in the knowledge that Jesus has left us in God’s care. We are not alone. As Fred Craddock puts it: “The Evangelist leaves no one in doubt: the church is not an orphan in the world, an accident of history, a thing dislodged, the frightened child of huddled rumors and superstitions. The pedigree of truth is established and unbroken: from God, to Christ, to the apostles, to the church.”

Finally, O. Wesley Allen, Jr. clarifies again what Jesus means by “eternal life”: “In a day when outside the church people try to attain eternal life with success, possessions, or power and inside the church we focus on achieving a reward in heaven after we die, it is important to hear what John really means by eternal life….Without denying an eschatological aspect to John’s theology, the primary emphasis is eternal life as the quality of current existence…It is not that knowledge of God and Christ leads to eternal life; knowledge of God and Christ is eternal life itself.” In your heart and mind and soul, what is the “eternal life” you long for?

For Further Reflection

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, 20th century
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

John O’Donohue, 20th century
The hunger to belong is not merely a desire to be attached to something. It is rather sensing that great transformation and discovery become possible when belonging is sheltered and true.

Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

4 quotes from Jonathan Edwards, 18th century
The way to heaven is ascending; we must be content to travel uphill, though it be hard and tiresome, and contrary to the natural bias of our flesh.
Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.
Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.
The happiness of the creature consists in rejoicing in God, by which also God is magnified and exalted.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a source for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality Initiative, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.