John in July: Prayer and Unity in the Holy of Holies (Jn 17)

Screenshot 2014-07-27 23.46.32

The Gospel of John emphasizes a realized eschatology more than the Synoptic Gospels, which describe more of a future eschatology. In other words, eternal life (ἡ αἰώνιος ζωή) in the Fourth Gospel is not just something we enter into when we die, but something we begin to enjoy as we come to know the only true God (17:3). We begin to experience aionios zoe when we abide in the true God who is the Advocate and Victim as opposed to the false god who is the ruler of the world and the Accuser. James Alison argues that death becomes the driving force for those who are ruled by the Accuser while death becomes a mere transition into another expression of life with God for those already enjoying aionios zoe.

It seems a little strange that Jesus refers to himself in the third person in this prayer (although the Johannine Jesus is known to sound a little stranger sometimes). N.T. Wright suggests, “Perhaps here, and maybe elsewhere too, John the praying teacher [the author], in order to make the prayer his own and pass it on to his own followers, has turned phrases round so that they become (so to speak) prayable by the continuing community” (Wright, John for Everyone, 92).

Wright also highlights the significance of this chapter when he highlights the sublimity of what might seem obvious: “Jesus is praying!” (Wright, 91). After concluding the final Passover Discourse (or Upper Room Discourse), Jesus “lifted up his eyes to heaven…” (17:1).

“Of course, we know that Jesus prayed. The gospels tell us that frequently. But they hardly ever tell us what he prayed or how he prayed. A few sentences at most come down to us, such as that wonderful passage in Matthew (11:25-27), and the burst of praise at the tomb of Lazaraus (John 11:41-42)” (Wright, 91).

And is not that the way that one comes to know and abide in the only true God? Through prayer?

There are numerous ways to outline the literary structure of the Fourth Gospel also multiple ways to outline the Farewell Discourse. In The Literary Development of John 13-17: A Chiastic Reading, Wayne Brouwer offers the following outline:

A. Gathering scene (footwashing, meal and mandatum) 13:1-35

B. Prediction of the disciple’s denial  13: 36-38

C. Jesus’ departure tempered by assurance of Father’s power 14:1-14

D. Promise of the Paraclete (Advocate) 14:15-26

E. Troubling encounter with the world 14:27-3

X. I am the Vine: Abide in me! 15:1-17

E. Troubling encounter with the world 15:18-16:4a

D. Promise of the Paraclete (Advocate) 16:4b – 15

C.   Jesus’ departure tempered by assurance of Father’s power   16:16-28

B. Prediction of the disciple’s denial  16:29-33

A. Departing prayer (High Priestly Prayer) 17:1-26

What I appreciate about the chiasmus that Brouwer sees in John is the central position of the invitation to “abide,” which I see as ultimately an invitation to pray.

Today is the feast day of William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who prayed and worked for the unity of the Anglican Communion. I imagine him praying prayers for unity similar to Jesus’ prayer in John 17. It is little wonder that the Gospel appointed for his feast day is John 17: 20-26. He is perhaps best known for offering four points upon which all Anglicans could agree, whether they were low-church Evangelicals or high-church Anglo-Catholics. When the House of Bishops met in Chicago in 1886, they expressed their “earnest desire” to “speedily fulfill” Jesus’ prayer “that we all may be one” and chose to uphold Huntington’s four points as essential for Anglican identity and as a catalyst for Anglican unity. At the Lambeth conference in 1888, the bishops of the Anglican Communion decided that the four points should, in the words of Huntington himself, “supply a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made towards Home Reunion.” The four points of what came to be known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral are 1) The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures contain all thing necessary to salvation” and serve as the ultimate standard of the faith. 2) The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed are sufficient statements of the faith. 3) The major sacraments of the Church are Baptism and Eucharist as ordained by Christ. 4) “The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God in the Unity of His Church.”

Although he couldn’t keep Bishop George David Cummins from breaking off and forming the Reformed Episcopal Church, Huntington was successful in keeping thousands of Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics within the same fold. His Quadrilateral has served as a helpful touchstone for ecumenical dialogue, even though Pope Leo XIII responded early on by issuing the Apostolicae Curae in 1896, stating that Anglican ordinations were “absolutely null and utterly void.” I’m sure Pope Leo XIII had his reasons, but it’s hard to imagine him praying John 17 while issuing that bull…

In terms of shared doctrine, I find the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral helpful. However, Jesus exemplifies another commonality shared among Christians: prayer.

Episcopalians love to point to the Book of Common Prayer as their great ecumenical tool because a church that prays together stays together, prayer shapes belief, lex orandi lex credendi and, in the words of the great Evagrius Ponticus, “a theologian is one who prays.”

Jesus, John and William Huntington Reed invite me to pray because it is through praying that I connect deeply with everyone who calls and who has ever called God Father. In this way, prayer becomes a contact point not only among Christian denominations but also across faith traditions.

This chapter in John has been called the Holy of Holies of Scripture because it is the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. Just as the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies once a year on Yom Kippur to pray for the people so now Jesus enters the Holy of Holies through prayer and asks the Father to protect his followers (including us) from the snares of the Accuser. The high priest would smear the blood of the unblemished lamb on the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies and then sprinkle the remaining blood of the lamb on the people outside (Leviticus 16). This was done not because God was bloodthirsty but because God chose to identify himself with the blood of the innocent victim and wanted his chosen people to identify with the blood of the innocent victim as well. God wanted his chosen people to see their God not as the Accuser but as the God of victims and the divine Advocate for victims. God identified with the slaughtered lamb. And God identified with the scapegoat (Azazel). Jesus came to make this abundantly clear.

Jesus came to reveal God as the Victim and thus the Advocate for victims so that God’s people would be unified not by scapegoating, excluding, fighting and other bullshit. God wanted his people to be “holy” and “set apart” from the other nations, which found their unity through scapegoating, excluding, fighting etc. God wanted and still wants his people to be “winnowed” and “pruned” of this violent way of forming community and unity.

Jesus prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one. The oneness of the Father and the Son is not a oneness that excludes but a centrifugal oneness that is always seeking to expand and include.

When individual Christian denominations find their unity over and against other Christian denominations they fall prey to the snares of the Accuser, who forms community through exclusion. When Christian denominations reach out across boundaries and trivialize categories of exclusion, they are being moved by the one true God. William Reed Huntington was moved by God when he trivialized categories of exclusion saying, “If you map out four distinct parties [in the Church], and name them ritualistic, high, low, and broad, I am a good deal in doubt where I properly belong.” Huntington was moved by God because he prayed. He prayed the same prayer that Jesus prayed, the High Priestly prayer, which invites us into a unity no longer dependent upon victims because God has forever satisfied the human need for victims by becoming the victim himself. The witness of Huntington invites us into this unity, which we move into through prayer. And prayer is our access to the Holy of Holies, where God offers himself eternally to us as the loving Father, eager to provide for our every need, including our need to blame.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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