Summary: Passing through the darkened streets of Jerusalem toward Gethsemane, Jesus prays for his disciples, a prayer that only John records. Everything we know as the gospel flows from the answers to that prayer.
Sunday after Ascension
One of the more guilty pleasures one can encounter from time to time is to find oneself overhearing a conversation in which you are not a party. When I was a boy, this was a fairly easy thing to do. Our telephone system in those days was considerably more primitive than today, and we had what was known then as a party line. In our case, there were four other houses on the block, and all the phones in those houses were more or less like extensions of one another. If you picked up the receiver and one of your neighbors was already talking to someone else, you could overhear the entire conversation. You can imagine how really nosey people learned how to lift the receiver VERY CAREFULLY, hoping to harvest some juicy piece of gossip.
That kind of thing can still happen, of course. Not with telephones so often, perhaps. But, sometimes in restaurants, or airports on or airplanes, or other public places, you may find your attention snared by a conversation you can’t help but hear.
If there’s anything more arresting than getting to be something like a fly on the wall, it’s being a fly on the wall you are the subject of conversation. That is something very like what we have in the gospel for today.
In John 17, the apostle John preserves for us the longest recorded prayer our Lord prayed. It is astounding to me that only John preserves it. Remember, they were moving as a group, after the conclusion of the Passover meal, on their way to the Mount of Olives. Some of what John records in chapters 15-18 of his gospel must have been teaching which Jesus did as they were moving along the route to their destination.
It’s only my speculation, but I wonder if, perhaps, this prayer is recorded only by John because John alone was close enough to Jesus – close enough physically, that is – to have overheard it.
At any rate, we know for sure that John heard it, and he found himself overhearing Jesus’ prayer to God the Father, when the subject of the prayer was this disciples themselves.
In the gospel lesson we read a moment ago, Jesus is praying for two things. He prays for himself, and he prays for his disciples. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The most remarkable thing about Jesus’ prayer for himself is how anticipatory it is. Later, in Gethsemane, Jesus will pour out his soul in anguish as the horror of his impending passion presses down on him. But, here, he is already looking beyond that passion to the results that flow from it. And his request is that God would glorify him, so that He could subsequently glorify the Father.
And, how would that glorification of the Father be accomplished? Jesus says how it will happen: “As you have given Him authority over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as 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.”
Yes, Jesus’ prayer for himself is for the glory on the other side of the passion. And, though the passion still lies ahead of him in the next 24 hours, he speaks of it as if it were already in the past. “I have finished the work which You have given Me to do,” Jesus prays. “And, now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.”
The author of Hebrews in chapter 12 notes that it was for the joy set before Him that Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame. And we see that here – in the prayer he prayed for his glorification, for the capacity to glorify His father, and for a return to the glory which he had formerly known with his father in heaven.
Jesus then prayed for his disciples, and he asked two things for them.
First of all, Jesus prayed for their preservation. He noted that the Father had already preserved them up to that time. “I have manifested Your name to the men whom you have given Me out of the world. They were Yours, and you gave them to me.” They were gifts from the Father to the Son.
“While I was with them in the world, I kept them in your name,” Jesus says. But, now he is going to depart the world. And this prompts his prayer that even as he had preserved them safe from the world, so God the Father would continue to preserve them once Jesus has left this world.