Text Study for John 17:6-19 (Pt. 2); 7 Easter B 2021

2. Speaking of God, or What’s in a Name?

“We believe that God is one of a kind, but beyond that we can’t name what or who God is exactly,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in Native. “Mystery. Other. Sometimes Father, sometimes Mother, and sometimes Neither. Sometimes Friend, sometimes Challenger. When we begin to name God,” Curtice reminds us, “we find that God has suddenly become an image of us, our own cultural understandings” (page 23). We could use more of that theological, epistemological, and spiritual humility in our current discourse in America.

The writer of John’s gospel understands that as soon as we talk about God in any specifics, we are bound to be in error. Human language, concepts, and thinking simply cannot encompass or comprehend the Divine in anything approaching a full sense. So, John’s gospel uses repetition, images, figures of speech, and multiple frames of reference to begin to approximate what we mean when we talk about the God who is revealed in Jesus. John’s gospel is filled with overlapping, interlocking, and even inconsistent language about God in order to make this approximation.

Photo by Miriam Espacio on Pexels.com

That is true, for example, in how John’s gospel uses the tenses of verbs to describe what God is up to in Jesus by the power of the Spirit. You can find verbs in the present tense, the simple past tense, and the past tense continuing in the present – often in the same verse! Is John’s gospel talking about the past, the present, or the future in these descriptions of Jesus?

The real answer is “Yes – all of the above.” John’s gospel describes what has happened for the benefit of listeners in his present time who will convey their witness to future believers. Therefore, all of time meets in Jesus as he is glorified.

“Jesus’ words address his disciples’ concerns, but also speak to the future experience of the reader,” O’Day and Hylen suggest. “One of the key marks of this multilayered address is the fluidity of verb tenses. Jesus declares the fulfillment of the events of his hour in the past, present, and future tenses” (Kindle Location 2964). Jesus’ prayer is for them, and it is for us as well. “The past, present, and future all exist within the moment of Jesus’ hour,” they write. “The words of encouragement and instruction that Jesus speaks are directed to future as well as present disciples” (Kindle Location 2969).

I think we can see this in one of the primary ways Jesus describes himself in John’s gospel – the “I am” statements. It’s not surprising that these statements connect Jesus to the God of Israel, who self-identifies as “I am.” You may recall Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3. When Moses asks for God’s real name, what he gets is a linguistic riddle. The name really means, “I am what I am; I was what I was; I will be what I will be.” All of time comes to…intersection?…completion?…union?…in this name.

Does the fluid use of verb tenses in John’s gospel reflect this understanding of God’s relationship to time? Is Jesus portrayed in the gospel as Lord of all time – past, present, and future – in this grammatical fashion? I think so. After all, this is the gospel that portrays Jesus as declaring, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). More to the point, however, is that this fluidity of tense is just one way to show that Jesus makes known God’s “name.”

“I have made known your name to the persons whom you gave me from the cosmos,” Jesus prays in John 17:6. “They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have been keeping your Word” (my translation). What is this “name” that Jesus has made known to the disciples? It can be none other than “I am.”

This is Jesus’ most common self-description in John’s gospel. On the one hand, we can find the “absolute” construction with “I am,” as noted in John 8:58 above. “The absolute ‘I AM’ statements are meant to be direct claims of who Jesus really is,” Lewis notes, “the Word was God, the Word made flesh, God incarnated, God revealing God’s self, as God did to Moses (Exod. 3:14), but now in a new and unique way” (page 62).

The other “I am” statements in John’s gospel are “predicate nominative” statements, such as “I am the true vine” in John 15. These predicate nominative statements are “not only unique to John; they are an essential aspect of the primary theological assumption of this Gospel,” Lewis writes, “’and the Word became flesh.’ The fourth evangelist undergirds a theology of incarnation,” she suggests, “by locating a description of Jesus in physical, material, and tangible realities” (page 63).

Jesus has made his name known, in John’s gospel, both through the absolute and unconditional application of God’s proper name to himself, and by using that name along with figures of speech to give depth and meaning to the name.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ opponents are quite clear about the meaning of that name. In the incident noted above in John 8, Jesus makes the “absolute” identification between God and himself. “The response of the Jews is to pick up stones to throw at him (v. 59),” O’Day and Hylen note, “the punishment prescribed for blasphemy in the Old Testament (Lev. 24:13–16; see John 10:31).

“The accusation of blasphemy, first seen in chapter 5, again comes to the fore as a reason to execute Jesus,” they continue. “Yet the attempt at stoning also indicates that Jesus’ audience recognize the import of the ‘I AM’ saying. They do not attack him because they misunderstand his words,” the authors conclude, “but because they do understand” (Kindle Location 2051).

When Jesus makes known God’s “name,” what he conveys is, in fact, God’s identity for the world. This takes us back to John 1:18 – “No one has ever seen God; the Only-Begotten God, the one who leans into the bosom of the Father –that one has made [the Father] known” (my translation). In John 1:18, the Only-Begotten God “exegetes” the Father – reveals the Father by interpretation and explanation. In John 17:6, Jesus notes that he has made the name of the Father “appear” to the persons placed in his care. He has embodied that name for them.

This knowing is more than information. It is relationship at the deepest level. In fact, this “knowing” is the definition of “eternal life” in John’s gospel. “Now this is eternal life: that they shall know you, the one true God,” Jesus declares in John 17:3, “and Jesus, the Messiah, whom you sent” (my translation and emphasis). Eternal life in John’s gospel is far more than a heavenly insurance policy for the select few. It is knowing God and being known by God in and through Jesus by the power of the Spirit in the here and now.

“Reading verses 1–4 primarily as a reference to believers’ future place in heaven limits what Jesus is saying here,” O’Day and Hylen remind us. “Jesus’ hour creates new possibilities for relationship with God in the present life of the believer” (Kindle Location 3017). Rather than being Christians who are so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good, in John’s gospel, disciples are fed and formed by knowing God in Jesus right here and right now.

That will preach in a time when we need all the help in the here and now we can get.

Of course, we are taken back to John 3:16 and the purpose of God’s sending of the Son into the world – so that all might have eternal life. Jesus reminds us in John 10:10 that he came so that we might have abundant life. In his Farewell Prayer, Jesus declares that he has accomplished – completed – this life-giving work by making God’s being known among the disciples.

“While there is certain promise of life beyond death that is imagined as being at the bosom of the Father at the ascension,” Karoline Lewis notes, “to know abundant life means that abundance is not capable of being delayed. As a result, salvation is present, an eschatological promise that is in the moment as well as in the future. Preaching the meaning of salvation from the particular witness of this moment in John,” she suggests, “will invite a different and perhaps more robust soteriology than what preaching tends to proclaim” (pages 68-69).

Lewis suggests that this proclamation of eternal life will provide a helpful balance to the “escape hatch theology” which encapsulates so much American Christian piety. This description is more mine than Karoline’s, but I think it captures some of her concern. On the seventh Sunday of Easter, we can rejuvenate our cries of “Christ is risen!” by declaring that this life is available and impactful in the here and now – a useful reminder as it seems we are destined for more of the same old stuff.

It is also a welcome boost as we move into the long, green season ahead. “All too often,” Lewis notes, “the resurrection is preached as a culmination rather than an inauguration, the believer’s ultimate reality rather than the penultimate promise, especially for the Gospel of John. A primary theological assumption throughout the Farewell Discourse,” she writes, “is that there is more to being a child of God than being raised from the dead” (page 193).

There’s an interesting sermon theme for this Sunday – life is more than not being dead!

Next time, we look at “glorification” as the further description of this abundant life.

References and Resources

Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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.

Text Study for John 17:6-19; 7 Easter B 2021

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.

Photo by Altaf Shah on Pexels.com

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.