1. Praying John’s Labyrinth
Reading John’s gospel is analogous to walking a labyrinth. A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is intended to get the walker lost or at least to give the walker the illusion of being lost. A labyrinth does not deal in multiple paths and doorways. Instead, the labyrinth carefully and gradually leads the walker to the center of the structure and then back out to the exit.
Walking a labyrinth can produce a different sort of anxiety than a maze. Why do I keep returning to almost the same spot over and over? Why do I make it nearly to the center of the ring only to be returned to the outer limits for more walking? Why do I travel the same path both entering and exiting the labyrinth? Walking a labyrinth requires patience, presence, and perspective in order to appreciate the experience. And it rewards repeated trips.
That’s my experience of reading, researching, and reflecting on John’s gospel. It is not a theological circle. Rather, it is more of an upward spiral – often covering the same ground from a new elevation and perspective. On a first read, John can seem to be an exercise in obscure repetition. But with sustained attention, I find that the supposed repetitions in John are not redundant. Rather, they are invitations to go deeper, to go higher, and to go further along the path.
Nowhere in John is this more the case than in chapter 17. The chapter has often been called Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.” It is the prayer that concludes Jesus Farewell Discourse in John 13-17. It appears to be part valedictory address, part last will and testament, and part commission to the Church for future mission and service. Gail O’Day and Susan Hylen encourage us to remember that this chapter is indeed a prayer. “Although interpreters have often read the language of the prayer as instruction to the community, the genre of prayer is important to the meaning of this passage. At the moment of his hour, Jesus entrusts the future of the community to God” (Kindle edition, location 3417).
Before we get into the finer details of the text, it’s helpful to re-position ourselves in John’s account. We know that John begins, in several senses, where the Synoptics end, and we must always keep that reality in mind. John 1:1-18 and John 21 serve as the prologue and epilogue to the account, situating the Gospel both in its cosmic perspective and its intensely personal application.
From John 1:19 through the end of chapter 12, we find ourselves in the “Book of Signs” which prepares us for Jesus’ departure into crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Chapter 12 serves as a kind of bridge to the second part of the Gospel account, the “Book of Glory.” That glorification is fulfilled in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
This second “book” falls into two sections as well – the Farewell Discourse (chapters 13-17) and the Passion account (chapters 18-20). Karoline Lewis reminds us (page 177) that in John’s account, the Book of Signs covers approximately three years. The Book of Glory covers three days plus the Thomas story a week later. The Farewell Discourse fits into one evening. The writer of John’s gospel brings us to the center of the story and invites us to stay there for an extended time to allow us to rest, reflect, and wrestle with what we hear.
Chapter 13 provides the “sign” for this discourse – the Footwashing in the Upper Room. That sign is followed by a dialogue where the disciples understand only in part what is happening. They will understand more later. Jesus spends chapters 15 and 16 unfolding the meaning of the sign in the larger context of God’s work in Jesus. Chapter 17 summarizes not only the Farewell Discourse but in addition the main themes of John’s gospel.
The immediate context of the chapter should strongly influence our reading, reflection, and response. Jesus is going away, and he seeks to help his disciples understand his departure. The Farewell Discourse “is Jesus at his most pastoral,” Lewis writes. “This is Jesus as pastor, friend, mentor, teacher, lover, and speaking to every emotion that accompanies such relationships. Sermons on the Farewell Discourse,” she suggests, “will recognize the spectrum of these emotions and seek to create an experience of them, capturing the affection and compassion” (page 177).
The Gospel of John has been my least favorite gospel account for as long as I have been an adult Christian. I have avoided the intertwining complexities that seemed like a massively redundant word salad for as long as I have been studying and preaching. I have always been far happier with Mark’s “immediately” than with John’s “and…and…and.” That has been my deficiency, and it’s a joy and a challenge to slow down and take the time that John’s account requires and deserves.
Jesus’ farewell prayer may be especially powerful as American congregations begin to emerge from the long months of Covid-tide. Most of us know that we cannot return to the way things were before. Time has marched on, and the residue of various traumas can be acknowledged or suppressed – but that residue will not dissipate on its own. So, we move into a “new” time which is unfamiliar and frightening. If we can slow down and listen to Jesus as he prays for the Church, perhaps we can find some words that will sustain us in our own in-between time.
The immediate context of the Farewell Prayer is also significant for our interpretation and preaching. The end of chapter 16 is the clearest and most direct statement of Jesus’ identity, purpose, and goal. It is also a statement that he has already won the victory which the Gospel proclaims. “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace,” he assures the disciples in John 16:33 (NRSV). “In the world you face persecution. But take courage,” he urges them, “I have conquered the world!”
The Farewell Prayer is the bridge between this declaration of triumph and Jesus’ confrontation with the rulers of this world in the person of Pilate. Pilate represents the Emperor, the one who claims to have conquered the whole world. Caesar can back up those claims with land and wealth, with armies and bureaucrats, with maps and treaties – and ultimately with the cross for those who are not yet convinced.
Jesus proclaims that he is the true “conqueror.” John’s gospel uses the verb from which we get the English commercial label, “Nike.” In fact, Nike was a goddess in the Roman pantheon – the goddess of conquest. Often, this goddess was conflated with the goddess, Roma, the personification of the Empire. Thus, the verb we read in John 16:33 is worth a bit of attention. “The verb tense (perfect) is significant because it indicates that the act of conquering has already happened,” Lewis writes, “with the effects of that happening ongoing in the present” (page 208).
Jesus prepares the disciples for the trials and tribulations, the pain and persecutions, that will accompany their apostolic mission. He also assures them that the final outcome has already been decided, even before the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
When did this conquest take place? Lewis asks on our behalf. “Jesus conquered the world at the incarnation,” she tells us, “which by default then assumes the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The last words from Jesus before he prays to the Father are a reminder to his disciples,” she concludes, “that his life, his ministry, and the grace upon grace it revealed, is that which has overcome the resistance of the world, particularly the resistance of the world to relationship with God” (page 208).
The disciples are quite brave in their words at this moment, but Jesus tells them they will fall away temporarily. That will not be the end of the relationship with Jesus, nor will their abandonment signal that Jesus is abandoned by the Father. Instead, Jesus will remain faithful to them even when they falter. These are good words for us in a time when faltering may seem like the order of the day.
“Jesus heads to his death with the announcement that his victory over the powers of the world has already been won (see 12:31; 14:30–31),” write O’Day and Hylen. “Love defeats the power of death” (Kindle, Location 3383). Here at the end of the Easter season – and at the end of one time of trial and tribulation – we can benefit from this announcement and the confident prayer for us that follows. While I don’t think it’s necessary to read these verses along with the appointed gospel reading, I think it may be a missed opportunity to fail to mention this context.
Next, we begin to look at the Farewell Prayer in more detail.
References and Resources
Laskey, Dennis A., “Luther’s Exposition of John 17,” Currents in Theology and Mission, 1991. https://www.richardmburgess.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/jn_17_Laskey_-_Luthers_exposition_of_John_17.115152032.pdf.
Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.