SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – MAY 24, 1998 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The Fourth Gospel ends its account of the ministry of Jesus with a lengthy discourse that covers no fewer than four chapters. It begins with his washing of the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper and ends with the long prayer whose final verses we have heard this morning. Although it is often called his “farewell discourse,” it really is more about his continued presence with his disciples after his death and resurrection, particularly his presence through the Holy Spirit whom he will send to them, in the lovely words of Cardinal Newman, not to supply for his absence but to assure his presence. The Spirit is the living and powerful presence of the truth and grace of Christ.
With the words we have heard this morning, the prayer of Jesus turns to us. He does not pray, he says, solely for his disciples but also “for those who will believe in me through their word.” We are the latest generation to have come to such belief, and his prayer is for us. The prayer is written in such fashion as to help us recognize that it is not simply the prayer he prayed at the Last Supper, but the prayer he continues to pray for us now, the prayer he, Jesus, is praying for us now. And with that recognition, the bounds of our celebration, of what we are doing here in this place and at this hour, fall away, and we learn that we are not the only actors in this liturgical drama, but that as we pray to the Father “through Christ our Lord in the unity of the Holy Spirit,” he himself prays to the Father for us.
And what is he praying for? He prays for us to be one, one as the Father and he are one, that we may be one in him and he in us, that the Father’s love for him may live in us. It is a prayer for the fulfilment of what he had earlier laid down as his new commandment, that we love one another as he has loved us. The dominant theme of the Gospel and the Epistles of St. John here is central: the theme of love and unity. What John says at the beginning of his First Epistle describes the purpose also of his Gospel: “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you so that you may have communion with us, and our communion is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. And we are writing so that our joy may be complete.”
The prayer of Jesus reveals communion to be the essence and purpose of his mission and the deepest truth of our existence both as individuals and as the Church. We are often tempted to think of the Church simply in terms of its obvious human characteristics, as a group of flesh-and-blood human beings, brought together by institutional and sacramental bonds, and in these respects similar to other communities, imperfect, fallible, all-too-human. That, of course, is what we are, and the Church is not some perfect thing, floating off in the sky, half-way between us and God. But what makes us each a Christian and what makes us together the Church has its deepest roots in what God has done in Christ and continues to do in the Holy Spirit, and what God has done and does still is to love us. It is because of God’s communion with us that we are in communion with one another. The Epistle has it right: yes, a horizontal communion is created when the word of a preacher is met by the faith of a believer, but this communion derives from and embodies a vertical communion that God initiates out of love for us.
It is an appropriate theme for our reflection. Too much of our lives is taken up with the practicalities of life, of the thousand details of our ordinary living, our jobs, our careers, our families, our health, our future, and we can be tempted to think that these concerns basically define us, characterize us, decide our success or our failure. Readings like the one we have heard this morning, gatherings like the one in which we take part at this moment, should cause us to reach toward the depth of things, the depth of our own selves, toward the originating and orienting centers of our lives, and to ask whether it is love that lives and breathes there, God’s love for us and our love for God, to ask whether God’s desire for communion with us is being echoed by our desire for communion with him, to ask whether we take joy in that communion and whether, if that joy is to be complete, it must not urge us outward into communion with others.
“Sanctify them in the truth,” Jesus prays to his Father. Love is the truth of things, the truth about God, the truth about ourselves, the truth about the Church. It is for this love in us, among us, that Jesus now prays, and his own joy is not complete until and unless an echoing love defines us.