“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is John 17:1–11:
Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that your son may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.
“I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them. And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.”
We shift scenes this weekend between the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20 and this passage from the night of the Last Supper from John. The two passages are closely related, although the two events are separated by the Passion and Resurrection. Here, Jesus prays that the Father will lift the disciples up in strength to prepare to make disciples of all nations, in spite of the failures Jesus well knows will follow in the days ahead — and the betrayal that has already begun to unfold. This is the beginning of the Prayer of the Hour of Jesus, the “priestly prayer” that prepares Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the foundation of the church — which received the Great Commission at the Ascension.
In the earlier set of readings (some parishes may have heard this yesterday), Luke begins the Acts of the Apostles to set the scene for the Great Commission. Just prior to the Ascension, the apostles still seem confused about the nature of salvation and their mission in the world. They ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They still are looking at the old model of Israel from the Davidic era of a nation of priests that would call all other nations to Zion to learn the Word of God. Instead, Jesus tells them: “[Y]ou will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
This, then, is the mission of the church. It reverses the old order, the old model, and makes us evangelists. The old model failed because, as the Old Testament teaches repeatedly, the kings of Israel grew more enchanted with worldly power and began to adopt the idol worship of its neighbors. Instead of being a beacon of light to the world, it settled for being one nation among many.
The church established by Jesus in the Great Commission exists to go out into the world to carry the Word of God to all nations. This is done by witness rather than power — in other words, through evangelization. In today’s Gospel from John, Jesus prays to the Father to strengthen not just those disciples (soon to be Apostles, which roughly means “those who are sent”), but also later in the same prayer for those whom the Apostles evangelize. “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
In this Prayer of the Hour of Jesus, which is the entirety of John 17, Jesus makes it clear that His Church will be a pilgrim church, one that evangelizes and spreads the word of the Holy Spirit. He says in this prayer just before He goes to the garden of Gethsemane that “As you have sent me into the world so I have sent them into the world.” That moment, though, comes at the Ascension, punctuated by the two angels who appear immediately afterward in Acts 1:1-11, who question why they are still “standing there looking at the sky.” It was time to go into the world and make disciples of all nations.
This applies to us as well, the descendants of the Apostles and the baptized members of the Church founded for the purpose of evangelization. In Acts, the evangelical fervor of the converted was hardly limited to the Apostles, but also to those converted as well. Stephen, who was among the first ordained deacons of the Church, became also the first martyr of the Church for his insistent profession of the faith. We are no less called to this Great Commission than the apostles who received it.
If that sounds like a tough act to follow, well … it is. None of us feel worthy to carry this mission on our own merits. That is why we return to John 17, where Jesus prayed not just for the disciples present at the Last Supper, but also for us — you, me, and the people on each side of you in the pews today. Throughout the Prayer of the Hour of Jesus, He repeatedly asks that He can glorify the Father through his perfect sacrifice, and that this will allow us to glorify the name of Jesus through our own imperfect sacrifices, and thus also glorify the Father. Even for “those who believe in me through their word,” Jesus prays that we may glorify the Trinity and so be added to the Trinitarian life. This prayer, this sacrifice ties us to the Great Commission through the explicit inclusion given by Jesus Christ himself.
Not all of us can be Stephen, or John, or Paul or Peter, of course. We all have different vocations within this Great Commission that are uniquely ours if we freely choose to take them up. For many of us, evangelization means teaching our children the faith and forming them properly in the Word so that they may do the same with their children. Others may be called to more formal vocations within the Church, such as the ordained or religious life, or perhaps to ministry in formation or service to the poor and infirm. We must individually discern through prayer and study what our vocation might be, and humbly accept the answers we find, and trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us in truth.
But make no mistake — we are all responsible for this Great Commission and the mission of the Church to make disciples of all nations. We are sent to glorify the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on Earth to accomplish this task. Thankfully, we have this prayer of Jesus Christ to lift us up, and to fulfill His joy within us as we proceed.
The image is of The Ascension by Giotto di Bondone, 14th century.