Acts 16.16-34 or Ezekiel 36.24-28; Psalm 97; Revelation 22.12-14; 16-17, 20-end; John 17.20-end
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: we beseech you, leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
JESUS’s extended prayer for his disciples (John 17) is fascinating for several reasons. Its setting makes it clear that the disciples are still present, and yet it has the character of a soliloquy.
Although its style is full and dignified, it would not take much adjustment to sound like a long extempore prayer in a Charismatic gathering. The repeated use of “Father”, and the circling back on large themes — glory, unity, belief, truth, protection for the disciples, and the making known of God’s name — are techniques familiar in contemporary worship.
Nor does its length go with a leisurely approach to prayer. Instead, repetition expresses urgency and mounting tension, as Jesus asks his Father to extend the vision of glory, and a share in the love that binds the Father and the Son, to those who have learned God’s name through him (John 17.20, 22, 26).
There are no Gospel precedents for this unique composition. Was Jesus for a time so caught up in dialogue with the Father that he was unaware of the physical presence of his friends, even though he refers to them repeatedly? Is the whole episode the Gospel-writer’s rhetorical device for interjecting an essay on the unity of the Father and the Son?
Neither scenario quite fits with John’s extraordinary care over introducing ideas and motifs that are developed later. From his first encounters with the future disciples, the Johannine Jesus has been promising glory: to Nathanael, who recognises him as “the Son of God” (John 1.49-51); and to the friends who were with him at Cana, and caught a glimpse of the glory in his first “sign” (John 2.11-12).
Soon after the wedding, and also just before Passover, he drives the traders out of the Temple, and offers a sign to justify this, which sounded preposterous to his outraged challengers: the rebuilding of the Temple after three days. It sounded preposterous to his followers, too; but later they would understand and believe (John 2.18-22).
The signs that reveal Jesus’s identity and future glory are enormously important, but they always point beyond themselves, and there is criticism for anyone content with their superficial meaning. The hungry multitudes at the lakeside are a conspicuous example (John 6.25-27).
By the time he utters his great prayer, the system of signs has changed, and, from this point, the disciples, who are growing into a mature belief in Jesus, must be living signs for “those who will believe in [him] through their word” (John 17.20). The evidence will not be in miracles (although these will come), but in unity (John 17.21).
It is an extraordinary expression of faith in people who have not yet proved themselves as evangelists, or even as comrades. One of them has already left to betray him (John 13.30-31). That faith is vindicated in the faith of new believers, like the jailer responsible for holding Paul and Silas.
This third miraculous release from prison in Acts has puzzling elements (Acts 5.19-21, 12.6-11). Only the jailer believes. His household is baptised with him, and rejoices in his new-found faith; but the narrator is, at best, ambiguous about whether they share it. There are no promises that the transformed life of the head of the household will eventually bring others to believe in the Christ preached by Paul and Silas (Acts 16.33-34).
It all seems rather risky, and, for that reason, more authentic in the light of Jesus’s own risk. His prayer to the Father dramatises the way in which his followers are to be caught up in something that is nothing less than the perfect communication between the Father and the Son. Their own unity within that unity has still to be achieved, and the only way they will find it will be to enter a conversation that they do not understand, in order to travel to an unknown destination.
In a different context, the liturgical scholar Paul Bradshaw has written of a process where Christians may find themselves joining with others in something that is not yet fully within their grasp. His subject is the challenge raised by the wide range of choice which is now the reality of Anglican worship, formerly defined by uniformity.
Choice makes more people more comfortable, but also allows us to avoid what makes us uncomfortable. His question illuminates the adventure of growing into faith: “If we only ever express in worship those things that we already believe, how will we ever be led to those things that we do not yet believe?” (“Liturgical Development” in Comfortable Words, edited by Stephen Platten and Christopher Woods, SCM Press, 2012).
The Sunday’s readings columns by Rosalind Brown from the previous three-year lectionary cycle have now been published in a single volume, Fresh from the Word: A preaching companion for Sundays, holy days and festivals, years A, B & C (Canterbury Press, £19.99 (Church Times special offer: £15.99 when ordered from www.chbookshop.co.uk, using voucher code WORD416); 978-1-84825-853-2).