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7th Sunday of Easter (Sunday after Ascension Day) 

19 May 2022

29 May, Acts 16.16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22.12-14, 16,17,20-end; John 17.20-end

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A SLAVE girl makes money for her owners by her “spirit of divination”. Joseph Fitzmyer’s superb commentary on Acts (in the Anchor Bible series) translates this as a “spirit of clairvoyance”: her value lies in her ability to see into the future. He also gives a literal rendering of the Greek: a “python spirit” — not because it was a snake, or a comedy classic, but in allusion to the mythical creature, Python, that guarded the oracle at Delphi.

If the girl or her owners are faking clairvoyance, then Paul’s word of command to the python spirit will have no effect. But she must really have had the power to tell the future, because Paul’s words rob her of it. Her trade and, with it, her value evaporated. I wonder what became of her.

The unknown future is a thread running through today’s readings. When Paul and Silas are miraculously freed from their bonds in prison, their jailer is so terrified for his own future that he contemplates suicide. Perhaps here is early evidence for the Christian ethical perspective on suicide, running counter to Roman belief that it could be a noble act.

With Paul’s reassurance, the jailer realises that the future may be unknown in its details, but that its direction is up to him: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The answer comes in a slightly odd form, but it is not a typo: “on” (epi in Greek), instead of “in”. He must believe “on” the Lord Jesus. This was the AV rendering. RSV changed it to “in”; NRSV changed it back again to “on”. This hints that believing “on” is unlikely to mean exactly the same as believing “in” (Fitzmyer opts, alas, for “in”).

Not being an expert in ultrafine nuances of New Testament Greek, I feel free to think of believing “on” Christ as a state in which we can place ourselves rather than a theological formula that we can sign up to. Christ is our cornerstone, our “sure foundation”: to believe “on Christ” is to stand on a place of blessed assurance.

In the Gospel, Jesus, too, is looking to a future whose short-term details are unclear. We should not conclude that, as he prays, he already knows it all; for what, then, would be the meaning of praying at all? The verb helps us. It is subjunctive: the form in which we express what is potential or conditional. He prays “that they may be one”. This is not a statement; it is a prayer. It may happen. But it may not.

As in our intercessions, so in our Lord’s: there is a commitment of trust to an unknown future by having faith in the God we know. Our prayers are real prayers. We pray that God “may” do something, because we accept that he is sovereign and that we are mortal, and our vision is restricted, while his gaze is infinite.

Jesus’s prayer reminds us, by its use of the subjunctive, that God will not force us to be one. We have a choice, and (so far in the history of Christianity) we have chosen not to be one. Verbal subterfuges, such as redefining the faith to exclude those we disagree with, are mere sophistry.

In the words of the prayer, Jesus has already given his disciples the glory which his Father has given to him. But when? It is hard to see the bestowing of this glory in anything that has preceded this point in the Gospel. The disciples have certainly beheld glory, but they have not yet received it. If we look back to John 17.1, it confirms that the glory is in the future, whereas, in this passage, it has already been given. It is as if the prayer is collapsing time into eternity — in which “past”, “present”, and “future” are terms whose meaning is redundant.

It may seem trivial to be talking about details of grammar in Jesus’s great prayer, but only when we do so can one supreme, sublime moment come into focus. Besides praying to his Father for things that “may” come to be, he switches to a definite statement: “I want” rather than “I would like”. “I want my disciples to be where I am, to see my glory.” Truly, we can answer with John of Patmos, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

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