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.
LIKE most human beings, the disciples liked answers that gave a tidier appearance to the world. The danger in that lies in assuming that questions are simpler than they really are, and consequently ignoring intermediary steps.
In their eager response to Jesus, as he tells them that he will soon stop talking to them “in figures of speech” (John 16.25), they leap forward to a profound commitment: “By this we believe that you came from God” (John 16.30). Jesus knows them all too well. Already Peter has had to be reminded that the most serious promises can be undermined by circumstances (John 13.36-38). Now, all of them are challenged.
Of course, they think that they believe, but things are about to change. The time has come when they will be scattered, leaving Jesus alone (John 16.32).
Anger and disillusionment on Jesus’s part would have been understandable. Instead, his answer is loving reassurance. Extraordinarily, he believes in the disciples as future missionaries and evangelists (John 17.20). He is thus set free to make a series of petitions: for his glorification in God’s presence (John 17.5); for the unity of the disciples that God has given him, and for their protection (John 17.6-19); and for those who will learn the good news from them, and through them glimpse his glory (John 17.20-24).
The first of these prayers is the most perplexing. It refers to glory that belonged to the Son “before the world existed”, and to the glory that will be restored (John 17.1, 5). Yet between them is the uneasiness of the present, and the imminence of a death that will look to the world like the antithesis of glory.
John’s presentation of this last scene before Jesus’s arrest refuses the world’s interpretation. His Jesus has already overcome the world that has rejected him and will persecute his followers, nor will his unity with the Father allow him to be alone (John 16.32b-33). He chooses to surrender his life, in what Brendan Byrne calls “free obedience to the mission received from the Father”, having finished the work assigned to him (Life Abounding, Liturgical Press, 2014; John 17.4).
The prayer for the disciples, though more direct, moves beyond what Jesus can achieve by his own will. Their fragile unity must grow out of what he has taught his friends about the bond between him and the Father.
It is by no means fully developed (John 17.11, 22-23), however, and, in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion, it is constituted in fear rather than in any strong sense of a common purpose in proclamation (John 20.19).
Luke paints a different and confident picture of the small body of people who, having witnessed Jesus ascending, prepared themselves with complete concentration for the gift of the Spirit (Acts 1.6-14). Luke Timothy Johnson translates Acts 1.14 to describe the gathering in the upper room as “united as they continued in prayer”, which gives a rather different emphasis from the NRSV’s “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (The Acts of the Apostles, Liturgical Press, 1992).
This unity is the preparation for mission and evangelism which will burst into life at Pentecost (Acts 2), and it is made more remarkable by the presence of Jesus’s mother and brothers. Here are two sets of people who might have asserted independent claims as interpreters of Jesus, waiting faithfully for the inspiration that will empower them to tell one story, capable of reaching an audience of many nations and languages (Acts 2.5-11).
Johnson offers a particular insight into Mary’s presence: as she was “overshadowed” by the Spirit at the incarnation, so now she will receive the Spirit of prophecy as a “daughter of Jerusalem” (Acts 2.17; Joel 2.17-21).
The First Letter of Peter moves towards its close with advice on how to preserve unity under threat. The communities that received the letter were probably suffering verbal rather than physical abuse, but the damage of such assaults over a period of time can be significant in a way that may not be obvious when we hear, in one of the readings for compline, of the “adversary” who prowls “like a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5.8-9).
The promise of a share in the “eternal glory” of God for those who stand firm is now beautifully incorporated in a blessing used at the end of the Common Worship rite of Confirmation (1 Peter 5.10). It implies a responsibility: what might we do to extend that promise to embrace the world rather than fleeing from the world? In the days between the Ascension and Pentecost, we are challenged to unite in making that the focus of prayer (https://thykingdomcome.global).