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7th Sunday of Easter

03 May 2024

12 May, Acts 1.15-17, 21-end; Psalm 1; 1 John 5.9-13; John 17.6-19

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TWO verses in this Gospel catch my attention, although every sentence would repay investigation. If if I were marking John 17.6-19 as a piece of argument, however (like, say, a student’s essay), it would not score especially highly. Scholarship ought to take readers on a journey, in a clear direction, to a well-defined goal: if not from A to Z, then from A to at least D or E. The Good News is more of a peripatetic expedition.

John’s Gospel has intellectual as well as emotional and spiritual stature. It impresses with its distinctive structure, and with symbolic elements in its narrative. These are signs that an intelligent, diligent person has devised, written, and/or edited the book that we know. All the same, there are also marks of a method of composition to which modern readers are less sympathetic. For the Gospel is designed to be heard rather than read. Like a good sermon, or a sewing machine reinforcing a mend, it goes repeatedly backwards and forwards over the same area. By tweaking length and direction slightly, with repetitions, digressions, and then returns, the text can be imprinted on the hearer’s mind more strongly than by a step-by-step account.

John returns repeatedly to that sensitive term “the world” (kosmos). “The world” is opposed to the Father; for he is eternal, while it is ephemeral. It is opposed to the Son; for he is the Saviour, and it has yet to be redeemed. And it is opposed to Jesus’s followers; for they have rejected it.

Jesus’s words here show later generations that there was never the slightest danger of his leaving his disciples in the lurch. Even from the cross, he takes steps for their protection (John 19.26). His followers (including us) have been given by the Father to the Son. They have since learned the Father’s name from the Son. They have guarded the Father’s Word. They have received the Father’s words. In short, they have known, believed, belonged. Yet now they are trapped in a kosmos of temporality and transition, no longer safely shielded by the Beautiful Shepherd. Hence my first noteworthy verse: “Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world” (John 17.11).

Unlike the first disciples, we — their successors — have never known our Lord in his incarnate form. That must make a difference to how we experience the transition phase between Ascension and Pentecost, which is difficult both theologically (where is he?) and spiritually (is this celebration, or sadness?). After all, our first knowledge of Jesus was not, like that of the first disciples, the result of an encounter with the latest celebrity influencer of the time. For us, Jesus has always been a person of uniqueness and power, even if there was once a time when we personally did not accept these aspects of his being.

After the Ascension, our situation has, in one sense, returned to that which prevailed before our Lord’s incarnation. Now, we have an opportunity to renew our bond with the Father and Son/Word/Christ, who are once more as they were in the beginning: wholly one. If it were not for our trust in the “shepherd and guardian of our souls” (1 Peter 2.25), though, this would surely be a time of terror rather than expectation.

The overall emphasis of this part of the farewell discourse is still one of reassurance: reassurance that all the pain, injustice, betrayal, and abandonment are in fact the “working together for good” which Paul would later come to celebrate in Romans (8.28).

My second stand-out verse (15), unlike the first, is not a statement. Instead, it is a prayer within a prayer, as Jesus, within the farewell discourse as a whole, makes a specific request for something to God his Father. And, because he asks in perfect faith (John 15.7, 16), we can be confident of his receiving what he asks for: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”

In other words, he does not ask that God remove us from danger (which would leave us still ignorant of reality). Rather, he prays for us to be protected while we face reality and danger, learning to understand them. God knows that we can only really learn good from evil when we learn it for ourselves.

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