Seventh Sunday in Easter | John 17:6-19
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
Everywhere I go in the world of Christianity, I hear about heaven: heaven is real, going to heaven, back from heaven, phone calls from heaven. If not heaven, then I hear about hell: it is Jesus or hell, the fires of hell, you don’t want to go to hell, you are going to hell. (That last is usually from people who read these posts.) Yet in this long prayer, on the eve of the crucifixion, in what amounts to a farewell benediction, Jesus does not pray about his followers leaving this world for heaven, nor does he issue dire warnings of hell.
All this talk about heaven, yet Jesus openly prays for his followers, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world….”
He does ask that God protect them from the evil one, one might point out. There it is, the devil himself, right in the heart of all of it. Really? To borrow a question from a long line of thoughtful theologians, who is the evil one? This Satan who is rarely mentioned in scripture but whom we have built into a central figure in horror films? Or is the evil one our too human neighbor? The criminal who does us harm? Our enemies on a battlefield? Are we, ourselves, the evil ones? If so, Jesus is praying that we be protected from the darkness of our own hearts.
John’s Gospel records Jesus confessing that he has given his followers the words that God gave him. This Gospel began with it: in the beginning was the word, we read, the logos, the essence of God. Jesus confirms that his followers keep that logos, that word, that essence of God within themselves. It is an echo of the famous statement found in a very different Gospel, Luke 17:21—the kingdom of heaven is within you, or perhaps, the kingdom of heaven is in your midst.
We hear no pie in the sky Gospel message, not in these passages at the least. We hear a Jesus who passionately claims that the essence of God, the power of God, the bliss of heaven, is already present in and among those he leaves behind, here on this earth, in this life.
All of which begs the question, what are we waiting for? According to this prayer of Jesus, we’re not going anywhere, at least not any time soon, and any one day destination is entirely forgotten in the urgency of realizing the presence of God, the essence of God, here and now, where we already are, in what we are already doing.
We become so focused on the future that we forget to live, forget to be present, forget that God is present—in, behind, around, through, in the midst of our lives, our hopes, our needs.
This is where Jesus intends for us to be—in this world. Our lives change, our needs shift, our gifts vary, our interests broaden or deepen or narrow. In all of these circumstances, it is the claim of the Jesus of the Gospels that we are already touching heaven. We walk on streets of gold, whether we look for them or not. We dwell in the mansions of eternity, whether we pause to experience it or not. Whether we feel it or not, accept it or not, believe it or not, we are already in the presence of God. And God’s not going anywhere.