Sunday reflection: John 17:20–26

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 17:20–26:

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed, saying:

“Holy Father, I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me. Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me. I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers the Great Prayer for the church — not just the apostles themselves, but for all who would come to believe through their testimony. This takes place just before Jesus gives himself up to those who would arrest Him, and to the Passion that would conquer death and provide salvation for us all. Jesus calls on the Father to “glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you,” and to thank the Father for giving Jesus “the men whom you gave me out of the world.”

In John 17:9-11, though, Jesus makes his prayer very specific to the church itself, in the present and the future, and that passage relates to our Gospel today.

9I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours; 10all mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.

I am not praying for the world, but for those whom you have given me. Why not pray for the world? Jesus answers this in verse 25: The world also does not know you … Much of the world not only didn’t know the Father, but didn’t have any interest in coming to know Him. As today, the world busied itself in knowing about power, ambition, and material pleasures more than understanding the nature of God. In those days, men erected idols to reflect their own passions and desires, worshipping their own works rather than those of the Lord. And in these days, the world isn’t that much different.

Still, Jesus does not discard the world with this prayer, but offers it instead to strengthen those who will soon be commissioned to bring salvation to the world. Jesus asks the Father to bless the church, Jesus’ instrument to ensuring that “the world may know you sent me,” before it goes through the trial of the Passion, in which the world — both secular and religious — conspire to reject Him and put Him to death. In a world where others worship the works of their own hands and find validation in material success, the humiliating death of Jesus would normally be a sign of utter failure, a contradiction that offers an obvious refutation of everything Jesus taught. For those who wanted Jesus put to death most, that was obviously the intent. Jesus prays today that the church remains strong, so that others “will believe in my through their word.”

That is not the only time that such a trial will be before the church.  In our first reading today from Acts 7, the first of the church’s martyrs is stoned to death even while giving testimony of Christ. Stephen, one of the first deacons in the church, dies while praying that the Lord will not hold this sin against those involved in his execution, including “a young man named Saul.” Saul would convert later from a notorious persecutor of the church to Paul, the most noted of its evangelists and apostles, converted by a vision of Christ Himself. Saul was hardly the only persecutor of the church, in those times and others, and martyrdom was more the norm for centuries as the world attempted to discredit followers of Christ through brutal and sometimes bizarre methods of humiliating and excruciating death.

This was the world into which Christ commissioned His church. In some ways, it remains the same world, even if the forms of rejection and humiliation may have changed. We still seek the material at the expense of the spiritual, and we celebrate and worship those who have acquired the former more than the latter. We find no lack of those who seek to contradict and refute the faith, and who seek to ignore or reject the very idea of the Father so as to alleviate the impulse to know Him. Given the comfortable standard of living enjoyed by many in the world, perhaps that kind of separation from God — sin, in other words — becomes even more attractive.

And yet, Christ’s prayer for the church calls us back to Him, not just as the church but to each of us as God’s children individually. He does not call us to occupy a special place in the world, but to live in the love shared between the Father and the Son. “I wish that where I am they also may be with me,” Jesus says, and that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.” It is that love that these disciples, soon to become apostles, will proclaim to the world to gather the flocks to Jesus and the Father. It is not “the world” which will be redeemed as such, but those who choose to walk a different path than that which the world values: the path of materialism, power, and exploitation. That path is open to all in the world, and the commission of the church will be to proclaim it to all corners of the world, but not all will open their hearts to the Holy Spirit and yearn to live in the love of the Father. The seductions of the world will not cease, but Christ’s prayer sustains us and reminds us of our true path, our true destiny, as children of God.

Stephen understood this, as did the other martyrs of the church. They remained faithful to that true destiny, even giving up their lives for the Lord in order to proclaim His truth. We may not all be Stephens, and we may often stumble along the paths, getting confused and lost in temptations and seductions. But recalling the Great Prayer and the knowledge that Christ prays for each of us should remind us of the love of the Father, and of Christ who defeated death and material worship in order to light the way to salvation.

The front-page image is “Jesus Sends Forth Apostles,” Duccio di Buoninsegna, late 13th-early 14th century.

“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.