This last week has been an exciting week in the life of the Church and in our own lives, because last Thursday we celebrated the Ascension—the rising of Christ into heaven on the 40th day after His Resurrection. In the Gospel reading for today from the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 17, St. John sees the whole movement of Christ from death through Resurrection to Ascension as “glorification”—of how Christ created glory in His life and in the life of His disciples and in our lives, too.
How did Christ create glory in His life and in the life of His disciples and in ours? In verse 4, Christ says to His Father and our Father, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” That is the challenge which the Father gave to Christ and to his disciples and to us—to learn and to achieve the work on earth that the Father wishes each of us to accomplish.
In Verse 2 of this Gospel Christ states that He wishes, and I quote, “to give eternal life” to everyone that God the Father has “given Him.” Christ is speaking here to his disciples, after He has eaten a Passover Meal with His disciples and washed their feet. In the next verse Christ defines eternal life: “This is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Christ is praying for his disciples that each of them may know the Father and Himself, the Son. He is also praying for us, that just as the disciples would not be distracted by the many false gods and idols in first century Palestine, so we too would not be distracted by the many false goals in the secular world of the twenty-first century—such as becoming rich or becoming well-known as a celebrity or just spending our lives enjoying ourselves, or simply being lazy and doing not much of any significance to anyone, including ourselves.
A modern dictionary points out that there are two rather different meanings of the word “eternal.” The word is often used informally to mean “frequent or endless.” However, the more accurate meaning of the word “eternal,” in both the first century and the twenty-first century is “unchanging; valid for all time.” Children, what do you think doesn’t change in your life? What is always there? . . .
Using the words “eternal life” Christ is trying to communicate to the disciples and to us something that doesn’t change—something that is so important that the idea hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. In a study note on this verse, The Orthodox Study Bible tells us that “the knowledge of the only true God is far more than intellectual understanding. It is participation in His divine life and in communion with Him.” To me, that’s rather challenging—to participate in the divine life of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—while we are still alive here in the world. How can we do that? At times, the world is quite confusing. Life in the world offers each of us so many choices over the course of our lives that it is often not very clear what God would like me (or perhaps you) to do.
How then does Christ communicate to us what this divine life is that He as Son shares with the Father? Well, Christ lets us listen in while He talks to the Father. As Verse 1 of this Gospel reading begins, Christ “lifted up His eyes to heaven” and begins to talk to the Father. We can overhear, because John the Evangelist who heard those words recorded them for us in his gospel, which is now our Gospel. This was the traditional manner in which the Jews had been praying to God for more than a thousand years; and everyone gathered around Christ knew that. Psalm 122 (123) set the model for the early Christians: “To You [O Lord] I lift up my eyes, O You who are enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of the servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid [look] to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until He is gracious to us.”
Over the past 2,000 years cultures have changed. In many parts of the world, there is a far greater degree of free will in the twenty-first century than was present in the first century. Many societies, including our own here in the United Kingdom, are not divided into those who are “masters” and those who are “servants.” We can all seek the education which empowers us to know ourselves—our very own strengths and weaknesses—and how to live and how to serve God and how to serve others. However, while cultures have changed over the centuries, the underlying purpose of worship has remained the same: “Our eyes [still] look to the Lord our God, until He is gracious to us.”
In Verse 8, Christ makes it clear that he is praying only on behalf of those who believe He has been sent from the Father. He tells the Father that “the words which You gave Me I have given to them [that is, to the disciples and to us]; and they received them and understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me.” In Verse 9, Christ said, “I ask on their behalf [that is, on our behalf and on behalf of the disciples]; I do not ask,” said Christ, “on behalf of the world, but [on behalf] of those whom You have given Me for they are Yours.”
By our decision to come to church today, we are raising our eyes to heaven and saying simply that we each belong to God the Father, and that we know we have been given to Christ to follow Him and His teaching in our lives. That is not a decision to be taken lightly. Less than five per cent of the people of the United Kingdom—5 out of 100 people—come to any church on Sunday. Already, by coming here today we have made an important personal proclamation of our faith. In the language of this Gospel reading, we are “in the world,” but no longer “of the world.” In other words, our values, our vision, our hope “look to the Lord our God, until He is gracious to us.”
It is a privilege for each of us to be free to worship God here this Sunday, to be confident that we are not about to be killed in the midst of proclaiming that we are Christians, as are many, many Christians in the Middle East today. Here we can seek eternal life. We can search for what is unchanging and true about God and about ourselves as human persons. We can each choose how we wish to live our lives. When Christ spoke the words of this Gospel, He knew that His “hour” had come—that He was about to die, and to be resurrected and to be taken up to heaven. We are unlikely to be so clear about when our own “hour” has come. It is right then that we should be aware that the hour is now in which to pray and to ask Christ to give us the same eternal life that He received from the Father.
If we choose to do so, we can be part of that relationship between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. If we wait too long, we might be too late. We might die unexpectedly before we choose to live in glory with Christ in His death and Resurrection and Ascension. However, if we are bold today, we can each pray: “Christ, join my life to Yours and to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Father Emmanuel Kahn