Seventh Sunday in Eastertide – June 5, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen
In St. John’s Gospel, four chapters (14-17) are entirely devoted to the last words of Jesus before he enters upon his passion. After giving his last instruction and exhortations to the apostles, in Chapter 17 Jesus turns from them to his Father and prays what is called his “high-priestly prayer.” Today we have heard the first part of this prayer. It is not offered to us simply as an historical memory, but rather as representing the prayer that Jesus continues to pray for his Church, for us. It should be of immense comfort to know that Jesus himself prays for us.
The prayer begins with his description of his mission: “You have given him authority over all flesh that he may bestow eternal life on those you gave him.” This, of course, is a major theme of this fourth Gospel. We have already heard him say that he has come that we may have life and have it more abundantly (Jn 10:10). The Gospel originally ended with John the Evangelist saying that he had written it so that people might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith they might have life in his name (Jn 21:31). Jesus came so that we might live, and live abundantly and eternally.
And in this prayer Jesus tells us what he means by “life”: “This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.” Eternal life consists in the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ. Christ here identifies the life he came to give abundantly with the fulfilment of our highest faculty, our reason, that which lifts us above all other animals and gives us a share in the brilliant light that is God’s own life. By this knowledge Jesus does not, of course, mean simply an abstract, highly intellectualized knowledge; he means the sort of knowledge that immediately passes into love of what is known. He means the kind of knowledge that friends and lovers and spouses can have of one another, where knowledge and love mediate one another: where each loves the other because each knows the other, and each knows the other because each loves the other. St. Augustine wrote: “Nothing good can be perfectly known unless it is perfectly loved.”
It is worth pausing over this loving knowledge that we have already been given to share by our faith in God and in Christ. It is no small thing to know that there is a God, that this physical universe is his free work of art, that he has loved us into existence, that our lives are sustained and guided by his care, that the grave does not mark the limit of our lives. It is no small thing to know the one whom this God has sent us, Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own Son, and our Redeemer. It is no small thing to be able to learn from his teachings and by his example. It is no small thing to know how utterly he has shared our human existence, down to its deepest depths, so that we might share in his existence, at the heights of God’s own life. To measure how important is the loving knowledge we share by faith, just consider for a moment what the world would look like, would feel like, or what you yourselves would look and feel like, if you did not now believe in God and in Jesus Christ.
This knowledge, of course, is not full knowledge yet, and there remains much mystery, much that we cannot comprehend. We walk by faith and not by sight, St. Paul said, and we see very indistinctly now, and we await the day when we will see God face-to-face, when we shall know even as we are known (1 Cor 13:12). But imperfect knowledge as it is, faith is already an anticipation of that day’s bright awareness and communion, and this prayer teaches us to be grateful that we believe.
Meanwhile, we are comforted to know that Jesus himself is praying for us, praying, as we hear in the last half of this great prayer, that we may be kept from the evil one, that we may be consecrated in God’s truth, that we may all be one, that God’s love for Christ may be in us, that because of this love the world may come to believe in God and in Christ himself. Christ’s love for us on earth continues in this prayer for us in heaven. It is now up to us to prove worthy of his prayer, because his prayer is heard and answereed only when we, too, love as he loved us.