In his books “The town Beyond the Wall” and “A Beggar in Jerusalem”, the Jewish author Elie Wiesel demonstrates in a quite remarkable way, the sustaining power of friendship. In both books it comes not simply from a friend, but from the memory of a friend. In the former novel, it’s Michael who lives through torture, but avoids madness because Pedro, his absent friend, lives in his memory and so sustains him in the midst of his agony. And in the latter, it’s David who’s sustained in his struggles by the memory of his friend Katriel, killed during Israel’s six day war. In his novels, Wiesel expresses the profound truth that memory not only connects us with our past, but also keeps us alive in the present.
In his Gospel John spends quite a long time (four chapters in fact) describing exactly what happened on the last night that Jesus spent with His disciples; that night of the Last Supper. Of course they didn’t know it was their last night with Him, but Jesus knew and John tells us how He set about preparing them to continue what he had begun.
The first thing that Jesus did was to demonstrate how they should behave towards one another – he got up from the table, took water and a towel and washed their feet in an act of humble service. We see this in our Maundy Thursday service.
Then Jesus began to talk to them, to explain what was going to happen and about the relationship that he had with His Father and how they could share in that relationship too. He gave them as much information as he could about what was going to happen and how he would provide for them in the future.
Finally in Chapter 17 Jesus turns to prayer and our passage this morning is a part of that. The whole chapter is prayer of intercession for the disciples, both present and future. And when Jesus prays his long prayer of intercession for them, the disciples are actually within earshot.
In reading and understanding today’s Gospel, we need to know that Jesus isn’t offering instructions to the disciples or to the church they will lead. So when Jesus tells his Father that he’s asking
“not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word“,John 17:20
he’s not urging the church to participate in evangelism, important though that may be. When Jesus asks that those who believe and those who do not yet believe “may be one“, He’s not urging involvement in ecumenical dialogue, important though that may be. Jesus is not exhorting the church, He’s not instructing, He’s not preaching, teaching, or rallying the troops. Jesus is praying to His Father.
So that’s how Jesus spent His last evening with His disciples, teaching through deed and word and in prayer, preparing them for the change from Jesus physically present, to Jesus physically absent.
During my training, I did one of my placements in a very evangelical church in Ayrshire, a church whose tradition is for one individual to pray out loud for another, openly and naturally. Now I don’t know how you feel when someone prays out loud for you in your presence, but initially I found it rather embarrassing? But after a short while, I found it comforting, supporting and helpful; I felt, grateful, appreciative and humbled by it.
Maybe one of the reasons that many people read John 17 as a ‘to do’ list for the church is that such a list is easier to cope with than the intimacy of being the subject of another person’s prayer – they, not we, are the ones doing the asking, and God, not we, is the one answering the prayer.
If Jesus were exhorting his disciples, and by extension us, we could strive to meet his expectations. If he were exhorting us, we’d have a mission, namely, not to disappoint him. Instead, we overhear a prayer on our behalf and aren’t called to action but to be grateful, appreciative and humbled that the Father and the Son spend their time discussing the likes of us and our little community of faith.
The content of that prayer is equally humbling. At the centre of the prayer is the relationship that the Father and Son share and the work of the Son to draw everyone into that relationship. Jesus prays:
“As you Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”John 17:21
“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”John 17:24
Jesus prays that those who follow him may be drawn into the life of the Holy Trinity. The Father sends the Son to humanity precisely so that the Son may draw all humanity into the relationship that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the Trinity.
This isn’t the only place where we hear of people being drawn into relationship with God. In the prologue of John’s Gospel is the news that,
“to those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God“.John 1:12
When the risen Jesus meets Mary Magdalene near what had been his tomb, he tells her to,
“Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”John 20:17
My Father and your Father…. In the resurrection, the relationship that the Son and Father have is extended to those for whom he prayed before his death. And that includes you and me.
In all this Jesus is preparing the disciples for His absence, he knows that they’ll never really understand until he’s no longer with them. He knows that they’ll not be able to stand on their own two feet until he’s gone. He knows that in His absence a new and more intimate presence becomes possible.
“‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.John 14:15-17
During the pandemic when we weren’t able to be physically present with many of those we love, we all started to understand more about the meaning of presence, through enforced absence and perhaps to value time spent together more.
We live in a culture and social climate which places a great emphasis on presence. Being present is much more highly valued than being absent. But the message of much of the Bible, the message which Elie Wiesel puts in the context of some of the most awful events of the 20th century is that: when everything seems dark, when we’re surrounded by despairing voices, when we don’t see a way out of a mess, we can find salvation in a remembered love, which isn’t simply a wistful recollection of a bygone past but a living force which sustains us in the present.