Jesus’ Last Prayer

WilliamGuestsChurch1The last wishes of a dying person are traditionally considered sacred and binding on that person’s survivors. Although it is the seven recorded words on the cross that are considered the last words of Jesus, the prayer uttered by Jesus in John 17 constitute the last words of Jesus before he was handed over to be crucified. He prays that we disciples “may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn. 17: 21) These words have been systematically disobeyed by those of us who are Jesus’ followers from that day until now.

The trouble with complaining about our disobedience to Jesus’ last prayer is that our complaints fall into accusations of other people who are responsible for the disunity, even if we do include ourselves in the accusations. In accusing others of disunity, we tend to think other people have to come to their senses and make the adjustments to bring about unity. As long as that is the case, we will all be waiting until the end of time.

As if obeying Jesus’ final prayer was not hard enough, the Gospel of John undermines the vision of unity in the high priestly prayer in many ways. It is the most combative of the Gospels with its fierce debates between Jesus and “the Jews.” To take one painful example, Jesus says to “the Jews: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.” (Jn. 8: 44) Even in the high priestly prayer, Jesus refers to “the one destined to be lost.” (Jn. 17: 12) If anyone at all is missing, what kind of unity do we have?

Discouraging as this reflection is, the most amazing thing about John’s Gospel is that it draws our attention to this tension, and refers to the one destined to be lost. Why spoil the party by mentioning anybody who is “lost?” When we go back through the scriptures with the “lost” Judas in mind, we find many other “lost” people such as Achan who was stoned for taking some of the booty after a battle (Josh. 7) or Tamar, Absalom’s sister, who was raped, not to speak of the multiple victims in the book of Judges. We find that scripture constantly reminds us of people who are otherwise “lost” or forgotten. The same thing happens in the last chapter of Revelation where all who are thirsty are invited to come. Yet outside are the “dogs and sorcerers” and all other wicked people. One can say that murderers deserve to be outside the gates and we should be glad they are. But is Jesus’ final prayer fulfilled as long as these bad people are outside? We are quick to celebrate case closed and mission accomplished, but scripture leaves these loose ends that unravel such premature celebrating.

Unity, then, seems to be beyond us, although it exists in God’s mysterious triune unity where Jesus and his heavenly Abba and the Paraclete dwell within each other and in each of us. In the midst of the hope of this unity from before the world began, we feel the pain of those who are missing, regardless of whose fault it is. The story of Paul and Silas in jail (Acts 16: 16–34) offers us a sense of direction of what we can do. That Paul and Silas should be thrown in jail for preaching the Gospel points to a lack of unity among people. When they are miraculously freed from their chains, they could have run off and left the jailor to his fate. But they did not. First, they reached out to the jailer and not only saved his life, but they won him and his household to Christ. Bringing about unity for all people is not something we can accomplish on a dime, but we can each reach out to other people and seek to create and strengthen unity through the opportunities that come our way.

Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyWe are so used to passing the collection plate in church that we easily overlook the importance of the collection Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15 and elsewhere. The emotion and enthusiasm that gushes from Paul’s pen tells us that the collection was of the upmost importance to him. It behooves us to consider how important it was.

Many times, Paul speaks about the joy of giving, not only with money (which Paul had in short supply) but in time and energy and concern for others. It is Paul who passed on Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) while exhorting the Ephesians to help the weak through hard work. This concern for the weak in Jerusalem is one of the factors that inspired the collection. The joy Paul would have us take in giving is accentuated when we consider that Paul’s word for giving generously and joyfully is hilaritas. That is, we should give with hilarity.

Paul shamelessly spurs the Corinthians on to a bit of competitive generosity by boasting of how the Macedonians gave even beyond their means while urgently pleading “for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people” (1 Cor. 8:5). Competition has its problems but I don’t think Paul is holding a contest for who could give the most to the collection. Rather, Paul is holding up the Macedonians as an example to follow, hoping that their enthusiasm will inspire a like enthusiasm in Corinth.  What Paul is urging is a chain reaction of generosity that will spread throughout the churches.

Paul emphasizes the importance of sharing out of abundance, or at least having enough for sustenance, with the hope that such generosity might be reciprocated if the roles were reversed. This is what Paul is getting at in advocating “equality.” In a helpful online article, Sam Marsh suggests that the reason this equality is important to Paul is because he does not want to set up anything resembling a patron-client relationship between the Gentile churches and Jerusalem. The Roman institution of patronage is one of many ways power remained entrenched with those who already had it. Paul is envisioning something very different: a matrix of mutual giving where there is need where everybody takes turns in giving and receiving.

The unity of the church also emerges as a principal motivation for the collection. When Paul met with the elders in Jerusalem, as reported in Galatians 2, Paul said he was admonished to remember their poor, which he very much wanted to do. The debate over admitting Gentiles without circumcision was decided Paul’s favor but later correspondence shows much lingering tension over the issue. If the Gentiles of Macedonia, Ephesus and Corinth should send what money they can spare to Jerusalem, it would be a powerful sign of fellowship uniting one church in Christ.  Paul’s making sure that representatives other churches accompany him to Jerusalem is another indications of mistrust of Paul in the church of Jerusalem.

Most important is the Christological dimension to the collection. Contributing with enthusiastic hilarity is modeled on Jesus who though he was rich, for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty could become rich (1 Cor. 8: 9). This verse has been enshrined in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in one of the collects for saints who followed the religious life. We can’t help but recall the famous verse in Philippians where Christ humbled himself to enter the human condition and suffer the same vulnerabilities, including death, which humans suffer from. This is a far cry from the billionaire who writes a few tax-deductible charity donations from the comfort of his or her mansion. We can’t compete with Christ in generosity but we can at least empty ourselves of what we do have for the sake of others.

Given the eschatological overtones of Paul’s hope for union of Jew and Gentile, this collection may well have had eschatological significance for Paul, not in an otherworldly way, but as a seismic shift in human culture. The Jewish prophets exhorted the rich to give alms to the poor, but this is the first instance in human history that I can think of where a collection of money was taken up for the relief of those in need. Paul started something momentous. It is up for us to finish the job.