In the Lectionary

May 13, Easter 7B (John 17:6-19)

Christian theology is a love story.

This is a luscious scene. For chapter after chapter (John 13–17) Jesus gushes with love, beginning when he confesses his devotion to his friends by washing their feet. “I have loved you,” he says three times (13:34, 15:9, 15:21), repeating himself like a lover who doesn’t want the night to end—another “I love you” so as to postpone the inevitable “good night.” As he pours out his heart on this last evening on earth, his beloved rests his head on Jesus’ chest: “One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining on his bosom” (13:23). The narrator repeats this detail a couple of verses later, to return us to the intimacy (13:25). Perhaps he lies there on Jesus for the rest of the discourse, as dusk turns to night and tragedy looms in the dawn, as Jesus floods their souls with his hope: “You in me, and I in you” (14:20)—his dream for their communion of divine love. “Abide in my love,” says Jesus (John 15:9). Finally, in chapter 17, he concludes with a prayer as he agonizes about the imminent separation from his loved ones: “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am” (17:24).

In the passage for this Sunday, we hear desperation as Jesus looks to the heavens, praying for his friends. Surrounded by his loved ones, Jesus begs God to watch out for his friends while he’s gone. “I am asking on their behalf” Jesus says as he offers his supplication. “Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.” He pleads for God to “protect them in your name.” With both crucifixion and ascension on the horizon, the agony of his departure gnaws at his soul; the absence from them torments his thoughts. “While I was with them, I protected them,” he cries to the stars, “I guarded them.” For the third time in our short passage, Jesus pleads for God’s protection—Jesus again repeating himself, using the same word again and again as if fevered with anguished love.

He has lived his life for them—“for their sakes”—and now glimpses a future without them, without his beloved resting on his chest. His spirit is in a panic because he can’t imagine the agony of his severance from them. His mind is frantic because his body is eternally bound to theirs—“you in me, and I in you.” All of this is an unbearable travail.