- Theological Education
John 17:20-26 Reflection by Matthew L. Skinner
How do we encounter God? Some assume it comes from adhering to tried and true practices and traditions. But sometimes we experience God through opening ourselves to what or to who is different. This has particular relevance for our time, as the United States struggles to figure out what makes for “homeland security.”
Consider the challenges posed by terrorism and its ability to etch fear and insecurity into our collective psyche. Terrorists make weapons out of common items — backpacks, parcels, airplanes, and even human beings walking in crowded spaces — pushing us to distrust the stuff we must rely upon daily. It chips away at assumptions about the sites where we gather to work, socialize, and celebrate, that these can be trustworthy places. We regard more and more strangers as potential threats.
As each attack erodes trust, many kinds of negative consequences follow: economic, psychological, political, and social. We also find ourselves paying a spiritual price. How so? Because encountering God often requires us to connect with others, including strangers, with generous openness.
Union with God, Founded On Love
In John 17:20-26, we find insight into the spiritual aspects of trust and openness. We listen in on Jesus praying for his followers. The prayer sounds, at times, jumbled or confused; Jesus draws very close connections between himself and God (whom he repeatedly addresses as “Father”), and also draws connections with those who believe, who acknowledge Jesus as the one who reveals God. He interweaves the various connections while reassuring his loved ones that he will remain with them even in his absence.
Without using the word, this segment of the prayer makes much of unity. Jesus prays that those who believe “may all be one” and “may become completely one.” Some people often trot this passage out in appeals for Christians to behave better or to cooperate with one another, as if Jesus gets embarrassed when his family members air their internal disagreements in front of outsiders.
Harmonious relationships are a good thing, but the prayer really touches a more foundational issue. The oneness Jesus seeks for his followers expresses a more primary goal:
The goal is union with God.
That’s right, just when you were starting to think that Christianity was about consenting to a list of doctrines, endorsing a particular social program, or eating nothing but quinoa during Lent, Jesus holds out a stunning promise: We can unite and participate with God. He declares his own unity with God, and he prays that his followers (and, by extension, us) experience the same.
The possibility of our union with God is no minor theme for the Gospel of John; it’s what the book is about. As Roman Catholic biblical scholar Sandra M. Schneiders puts it, John’s overall message is that Jesus can “plunge” us “into the depths of God’s very life” found on page 15 of Written That You May Believe.
How indeed might we find ourselves gaining access to God’s own self? Jesus speaks of the glory and love he has received from God, and also that he knows God. By this, he refers not to knowledge about God but to his relationship with God, what they share. His description of the relationship radiates mutuality, a sharing of all things. This mutual commitment is expressed as love, and thus it is through love that Jesus becomes present among his followers, drawing them into the same intimate relationship he enjoys with God.
Love provides the key to the oneness Jesus seeks. Love’s secure bonds reflect what unity is about, even as its generosity creates the space for unity to occur. Love most clearly manifests who God is and what God desires, and so it opens the way into participating in the life of God. Love requires relationships in which power over others is not exercised for its own advantage. It requires my openness to encountering something beautiful, something important, or something valuable outside of myself. It requires giving, even sometimes when reciprocity will not follow.
We express love and benefit from it in many ways, including service, solidarity, passion, and commitment. All of these extend from trust and openness.
Trusting, Despite the Risks
And so we return to the benefits of connecting with others, and the dangers of allowing society to drift into one in which we count it too dangerous to trust.
Jesus’ prayer affirms this: I need other people. I do, if I want the chance to experience union with God and plunge into the heart of what God is about. And I don’t need only other people who are like me; love requires me to attend to a wider group. When I’m very different from someone else and yet we manage to live into an authentic unity supported by trust, we may gain a glimpse into God’s own wideness, perhaps discovering God to be more than we predicted.
For Jesus does not limit the venues for encountering God to churches and to groups of familiar people. What keeps it from being possible in public life, as well? It must be possible to encounter God there, given the world’s need to know God (verse 25) and God’s love for the world.
Embracing immigration and immigrants represents one way this country has tried to promote mutual respect and trust. In light of John 17:20-26, this aspect of our public life might also offer ways for us to think about what we gain spiritually by promoting a more open attitude toward immigration and its companion, diversity. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, several politicians have nevertheless tried to reduce the energy behind creating more open immigration policies. An element of trust lies implicit in any immigration policy, a trust that immigrant communities and religious communities know is easily rattled when one of their members violates it.
Even so, there remain compelling religious reasons to work for a society that is open, trusting, and willing to welcome strangers and newcomers. As we recognize that we cannot fully control each other and erase all risk, potentially greater threats to our well-being result from isolating ourselves. To arm ourselves to the teeth and make self-protection our greatest value makes it harder to love, at least to love those most different from us. The result could be our inability to be swept into the breadth and fullness of love residing in the heart of God.
For Further Reading:
Jim Avila and Serena Marshall, “Sens. McCain, Graham Say New Immigration Law Would Hinder Terrorism,” The Note (ABC News Blog), 26 April 2013.
Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (second edition; Herder & Herder, 1999).
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