The Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, on the morning of his execution, was led from his dungeon out to Tower Green. The cortège paused for a moment at the door of the Tower, so that responsibility for the prisoner could be handed over from the governor to the sheriff. Fisher produced his pocket bible and read from John 17:3: ‘This is eternal life, that they should know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ He put the book away and said most profoundly, ‘This contains enough doctrine to last me for the rest of my life.’
This verse from today’s Gospel text defines what eternal life means and it tells us that it is principally about coming to greater knowledge of God and his Son, Jesus. People talk about life in heaven and tell us that we will be sitting on clouds plucking harps, but Jesus tells us differently. He tells us that heaven is about knowing God. This has a number of aspects. First of all it is not to be confused with the early Gnostic heresy which believed that you needed some special esoteric knowledge to be saved.
Rather it is more in the line of the Hebrew concept of knowledge which implies a close intimacy with the one who is known. We come to know God as we would a close personal friend. And there flows from this a deep loyalty and acquaintance with God. Also it implies that we have come to a correct appreciation of God and Christ. This means that we have a true understanding of God and have come to this knowledge by means of what has been revealed to us by Jesus. This emphasises that he is a God who is known through his Son.
We therefore look forward to a heaven in which the most important element is our coming to know God in the very deepest possible way which can be best described by that word intimacy. And intimacy implies a particularly deep love and affection. So heaven for us means living forever in a close and profound relationship with our God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.
We are told by scholars that this phrase, ‘This is eternal life, that they should know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ is actually a sort of parenthesis in the text or in other words a sort of bracketed explanatory few words. The rest of the text is a prayer said by Jesus to the Father. This prayer is quite long and we get the rest of it on the Seventh Sunday of Easter in Years B and C.
What we have today is in two parts, firstly there is the request of Jesus to the Father to glorify him. Now you might think that Jesus has plenty of glory already and so might wonder why he asking for more. But you will recall that at the Marriage Feast of Cana it says that ‘he let his glory be seen and his disciples believed in him.’ He also revealed his glory on the occasion of the Transfiguration. On those occasions though we only get a glimpse of his glory.
What is happening in this prayer is that Jesus is asking for the whole Pascal Mystery to come to its fulfilment so that his glory can be definitively revealed to the whole human race. It is a prayer of longing for the whole mystery of salvation to come to its fulfilment.
The second part of the prayer presented to us today is the prayer for his followers who will remain behind him in the world. He prays for them because it is through their work that his glory will become known to the world. When in this prayer Jesus says, ‘I am not praying for the world but for those you have given me’ do not think he is dismissing the world but only that at this crucial moment before the fulfilment of the Pascal Mystery he feels the need to focus on prayer specifically for the Apostles who are gathered with him in the Upper Room.
They are going to be commissioned to spread his Good News to the ends of the earth and they need to know that they are the special concern of Jesus. As they overhear his prayer, he reminds them that they are entrusted with the task of making Jesus known in the world and enabling his glory to be appreciated by all of mankind. ‘All I have is yours and all you have is mine.’ These beautiful words let the Apostles know how close they are already to Jesus and how that when he returns to the Father they will be given the task to continue his mission in the world.
This wonderful and complex prayer recounted in this chapter of John’s Gospel deserves deep study and meditation. It reveals to us the profound closeness between the Son and the Father but also between them and the first Apostles, and, of course, then by extension with us.
This passage and the ones that immediately follow it have been known since earliest times as the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus because, as with the High Priest in the Temple, Jesus intercedes both for himself and for his followers immediately before making the sacrifice of his life. These are the two functions of a priest: to intercede and to make sacrifice. And this is precisely what Jesus does at this crucial moment in his life on earth.
I’d just like to make a little comment on the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles because it links with the place of this Sunday in the liturgical calendar coming as it does between Ascension and Pentecost. The Disciples came down from the Mount of Olives and returned to the Upper Room where they joined in continuous prayer together with several women including Mary the Mother of Jesus.
This marks the interlude between Ascension and Pentecost; a quiet week spent together in seclusion by the immediate followers of Jesus. They are united in prayer and with hindsight we know they are waiting for Pentecost but, of course, it was not apparent to them what they were waiting for. It is as if they were having a nine day retreat in preparation for a momentous event even though they don’t know what it is going to be. This surely was a time during which they reflected on all that had happened and tried to make sense of it and to gather their energies for the coming of the Spirit just as Jesus had promised.
We too need such moments of withdrawal and prayer; we too need time apart from the world to make sense of all that we have experienced. Our lives are often fragmented like an unmade jigsaw puzzle, full of confusion and disorder. Like them we need to take time occasionally to stand aside from the hurly burly of everyday life so that we can make sense of it all and to come to terms with our role in the world.
We ought to take this same opportunity at this turning point in the liturgical cycle to imitate those disciples and to reflect on where we are in life and what challenges we face in the future. By doing this we will come to a greater understanding of the sacred task Christ gives us and a better appreciation of just how close he is to us as we carry it out.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket