For the Love of the World: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 7 and Ascension Sunday
Easter 7 (Year C): John 17:20-26 and Acts 1:1-11
1) This is the seventh of the seven weeks of Eastertide (poetically one more week than the six weeks of Lent), and the fourth of four weeks exploring Jesus’ teachings about faith, discipleship, and living in intimacy with God. This Sunday is sometimes celebrated as “Ascension Sunday,” marking the risen Jesus’ departure after 40 days of dwelling with the community of disciples. Next week is Pentecost, the birth of the church!
2) John 17 is Jesus’ prayer that concludes his “farewell discourses” (John 13-17), the urgent pastoral care with which he assures his distraught disciples that his departure does not mean abandonment (as we saw last week). The prayer continues and culminates this reassurance: Jesus simply and seamlessly pivots from addressing his companions to addressing God, and so as he prays for the protection and sanctification of his disciples, his petitions are simultaneously words of encouragement for them.
3) And for us! In verses 20-21 (the opening of this week’s reading), Jesus expands the prayer to include not only the disciples present with him, but all those “who will believe in me through their word” - which is to say, the cascading generations of disciples all the way down to today's church.
4) In a sense, this is John’s version of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, his last prayer before the passion begins in earnest - and the contrast is striking! Rather than an anguished plea to “let this cup pass,” here Jesus is poised and compassionate; he prays not for himself, but for his friends. There’s no way to know if John was consciously rejecting the Gethsemane tradition (John was likely the last of the four gospels to be written), but in any case John paints a very different picture. Compare Jesus’ almost sarcastic remark a few chapters earlier, almost diametrically opposed to the "let this cup pass" in Gethsemane: “And what shall I say? God, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (John 12:27). This kind of contrast between the gospels, so far from discrediting them, instead underlines how they epitomize - and encourage! - a vibrant, searching debate about Jesus’ life and work.
5) For Luke (the author of Acts), the bookends of Jesus’ ministry are baptism and ascension: “the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:22). Thus the Ascension serves as a key turning point in the overall story: the Book of Acts could be subtitled, “Jesus Ascends, the Holy Spirit Descends, and the Church is Born.” Many in Luke’s audience would have understood the details of Jesus’ ascension to mirror Elijah’s (2 Kings 2) - though here there are no chariots or horses of fire, but rather simply an enveloping cloud, the ancient symbol of divine presence (for example, see Exodus 24:15-18). Elijah’s departure did involve a succession (his protege, Elisha, takes up his mantle), and Jesus follows the same pattern: he bequeaths his mantle to the church. The figures in white robes add to the atmosphere of heaven-on-earth, recalling the “two men in dazzling clothes” the women encounter in Jesus’ tomb (Luke 24:4).
1) Jesus is assuring his distraught disciples that he is by no means abandoning them, and his closing prayer brings this point home. The essence of their anxiety is fear of harm: they recognize that the world can be a dangerous place, a wilderness full of wolves, and with Jesus - their “good shepherd” - now leaving them, they are afraid. Jesus’ prayer speaks directly to their sense of vulnerability, calling on God to protect and sanctify them. But this protection and sanctification is not only for the sake of their safety. It's also for the sake of their intimacy with each other and with God (“that they may all be one” (John 17:21; compare 17:11)). And above all, it’s for the sake of what Jesus calls “complete joy” (“so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves [or among themselves]” (John 17:13)). In short, Jesus’ prayer both assures them and refocuses their attention on the new life of loving unity and joy to which he has called them, and to which - through their witness and example - he now calls the whole world.
2) But doesn’t Jesus denigrate “the world” in this prayer? Doesn’t he say, “the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me” (John 17:25; compare 17:9)? Doesn’t this create a crude “us-and-them” division between the followers of Jesus and everybody else, a fault line that can only lead to contempt, or worse? There are at least three reasons to think otherwise. The first is that the word translated “world” in this prayer (Greek kosmos) is the same word found in that most famous verse in John’s gospel, “For God so loved the world [kosmos]...” (John 3:16). God’s fundamental bearing toward the world, the divine motive that sets the entire gospel story in motion, is love. The second reason is that for John, kosmos refers to reality in its brokenness, ignorance, violence, and sin. Jesus comes, John writes, “yet the world [kosmos] did not know him” (John 1:10). Facing Pilate, Jesus says, “If my kingdom were from this world [kosmos], my followers would be fighting” (John 18:36). Put these two reasons together, and the picture that emerges is of a God who loves this broken world - and that leads to the third reason. Just prior to this week’s reading, as his prayer turns the corner toward its conclusion, Jesus says to God, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). God loves this broken world, and so sends Jesus, who in turn sends the church - into the world, for the love of the world!
3) And we do not go alone. In the passage from Acts, even as Jesus ascends into the cloud of divine presence, he promises Pentecost: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” an event Jesus promises will happen “not many days from now,” after which “you will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8,5). Into the world, for the love of the world! The same idea underpins the question the angelic figures ask the disciples as Jesus withdraws: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11). It’s as if they're saying, Get on with it! Jesus will return in due course, but that’s not your concern. Your mission is to receive the Spirit and go into the world proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand, that God’s great Jubilee has begun!
1) Jesus’ prayer in John includes a vision of “the world” (kosmos) that is both tough-minded and tender, realistic and hopeful. The presence of danger and evil - we might think today of sexual assault, racism, or the ravages of war - are all too real, and the world’s brokenness extends into every nook and cranny, including our own hearts and minds. And yet this broken world is the world God loves. God sees through and beyond the world’s distortions to the wholeness and beauty underneath it, the original dignity and goodness we imply when we say something is “broken.” And God seeks to restore that beauty, and so sends Jesus “into the kosmos, for the love of the kosmos” - and likewise, Jesus sends us.
2) As Pentecost approaches, this week and next are a perfect time to reflect on what it means to be “church.” The church is a community that not only “follows” Jesus in the sense of listening to him and learning from him; we also are a community who “follows” Jesus in the sense of succeeding him, of taking up his mantle and carrying on his life and work, all so that his joy and our joy might be complete, not just here and there, but “to the ends of the earth.” As the body of Christ (the Galilean) recedes into a cloud, the Body of Christ (the church) prepares to be born next week, at Pentecost, a golden opportunity for congregations to recommit to their defining mission: Into the world, for the love of the world!
3) The fact that Jesus departs at all is worthy of reflection. Many founders of movements - or companies or political parties - stay around as long as they can (often staying too long!), and according to the gospels, the risen Jesus is presumably impervious to death, and so could have remained indefinitely. From this angle, the fact that he leaves reveals what sort of movement he has in mind: a community not standing around admiring him (“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”), but rather active and present in the world, carrying on his work of healing, justice, and proclaiming the dawn of God’s joyous Jubilee. In the end, the Ascension itself is meant to invite and empower the church to be all the more down-to-earth. Into the world, for the love of the world!
4) Try this as a benediction for this week, a compact theology of what Christian worship is for: “Friends, how good and pleasant it is to be together, encouraging and consoling, provoking and inspiring. But now the service is ended. Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Go in peace - into the world, for the love of the world!”