Jesus said, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by your name, the name that you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)
“Kiss me Hardy”
“Et Tu, Brute”
“Strike the tents!”
What do these statements have in common? They were each the last words of famous men (Lord Nelson, Julius Caesar and Robert E. Lee, respectively).
Let me add one from a famous woman: “Hold the cross high so I may see it through the flames!” (Joan of Arc) Rather chilling that one (though ‘chilling’ is probably not the term to be used of someone who was burnt at the stake).
One of my favourite ‘last words’ come from Confederate General Stonewall Jackson: ȁLet us cross over the river and sit under the shade of the trees.”
These would appear to be very peaceful words of parting, except that they were preceded by various passionate commands: “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks. . . .”
People used to collect these ‘last words’ very meticulously of course, and in some periods of history there has indeed been an almost morbid fascination with a persons last words – and even if not their actual last words, their last speech perhaps, or last prayer or last farewell. The assumption of course is that people see things more clearly and speak more honestly in their final hours than they do at any other time of their life.
Karl Marx apparently rejected this notion entirely. His final words were to a woman who asked him for any last words, to which he responded angrily, “Go on. Get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”
Even so, if you talk to Father Elias, he may be willing to share with you some fascinating information about the tortured last words of the famous atheist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, and it is an account that rings true to the fact that it is often not till a person reaches the point of death that they are ready to speak openly and honestly about what they truly see and believe.
Few people, they say, get to the end of their lives and say, “Oh, if only I had spent more time at the office!” And as someone who has spent quite a lot of time with people who are dying, I can confirm that, from my experience, that is entirely true. Indeed, in my experience, most people who are dying spend their final hours worrying about and talking about their children. And so perhaps it should not surprise us that Jesus, in his final hours, did the same!
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11)
Jesus is praying for His disciples, and the passage is from John 17. And of course these are not exactly Jesus’ last words, but they are part of his last great prayer that was made at His last meal with His disciples, that which is commonly referred to as ‘The Last Supper’.
And what is Jesus thinking about at that last supper. What was He talking about. What was He praying about? He was talking and thinking and praying about His disciples – the spiritual children that God had given Him. And He prayed for them for strength. He prayed for their protection. And He prayed for them that they might have unity.
“That they may be one, even as we are one”.
And the things for which Jesus prays for His family are obviously closely related. He prays for protection, strength and unity, and the three prayers are of course one prayer, as when we have unity we are strong and protected.
I remember reading of a pastor visiting a medical unit that housed severely mentally handicapped persons, many of whom had violent and difficult histories, and yet the pastor noticed that the entire unit, that housed more than 100 patients, had only three persons there who were function as security
“Are you never concerned as to what you would do if there was a riot?” he asked. “Not at all” said one of the guards, dryly. “Lunatics never unite!”
And that seems a fitting analogy for the universal church in some ways, I think. In our crazy fixation with doctrinal and institutional purity, we find ourselves unable to unite, such that we can’t even start an effective riot, let alone change the world through filling it with the love of Christ!
In unity there is strength, and in strength the vulnerable are protected. And so Jesus prays for unity for all His children, and not just a unity based on a common commitment to His cause but that “they may be one, as we are one”.
What does it mean to be one as Jesus and the Father are one?
Perhaps It would have been more obvious had Jesus had prayed that we be one as the Roman army is one – fighting together as a single disciplined unit.
It probably would have been easier if He’d prayed that we be one as the Sanhedrin was one (ie. the assembly of Jewish judges) because they all cast their vote the way the High Priest told them to cast their vote.
Certainly it would have been more straightforward had Jesus prayed that we be one as the Third Reich was one or even as the Sydney Anglican Diocese is one (not that I really want to conflate those two entities, but at least then we‘d understand that He was talking about an organisational unity, held together by strong leadership and a rigid set of rules)!
But Jesus does not use any of these analogies that would have pointed to straightforward organisational or institutionalised unity. Instead he uses the language of relationships – specifically the intimate and mystical relationship between Himself and His Heavenly Father.
The language of being ‘one’ is not alien to the Scriptures of course, and is used of intimate human relationships too. When two persons are married to each other, we are told the ‘two become one’, and this is true to experience.
All of us who have been in intimate long-term relationships know what this means – where we make that mystical transition from me to we.
This rings true, I think, not only for marriage relationships, strictly speaking, but for any number of genuinely intimate relationships. In long-term intimate relationships, between friends and lovers and partners, and as parents with our children, we experience that mystical love where the boundaries between me and you begin to blur, and where ‘us’ becomes a new reality that is something over and above our reality as independent individuals.
“As you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”, says Jesus (v. 21) and this is the language of faith, that speaks of the mystical way in which we find ourselves alive in Christ, with Christ in us and us in Him and through Him finding that the boundaries between us begin to blur.
“I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (verse 23)
This is powerful mystical language, and it points to a reality that we cannot fully understand, but is indeed the miracle of Christian community that we experience, where our strident attempts to assert ourselves as individuals gives way to our sense of who we are as members of Christ’s body, such that we recognise the body as an entity that is more than the sum of it’s individual parts, but is us in Christ and Christ in us, and me in we and us in one another
I don’t know about you, but I find that the older I get, and the older I get in Christ, the less concerned I get about labelling myself and asserting my individual identity.
I remember when I got my first assessment as a catechist (many, many years ago) the report said that I was a good candidate for minstry, but that I needed to loose the leather jacket and show a bit more flexibility. And I remember being very disappointed with that, mainly because I couldn’t bring myself to go anywhere without that leather jacket, because it was just so fundamental to my own identity and self-understanding.
I didn’t know who I was without it! And now, in truth, I don’t know what happened to that leather jacket, but I know I gave my last one away, and I don’t think I currently own any leather jacket
And I used to be so concerned to assert myself as a Protestant and Evangelical of the right sort – a leftish, neo-conservative, social-justice orientated Protestant Evangelical (or something like that), but in all truth I don’t care a great deal how people pigeonhole me now.
Even the label ‘Christian’ is one I’m not particularly concerned about any more. It’s not that I want to disown Christ of course, but when people label me in that way in order to put me in a category that separates me from my sisters and brothers who aren’t placed in that category – whether it be because of their faith understanding or their sexual orientation or because of some notorious sin that they might have committed – when the label ‘Christian’ is used to distinguish me from those persons who are supposedly not like me, I’d just as soon not wear the label, and be identified with those who don’t fit in, and allow my being-in-Christ to speak for itself in that context.
I’m not sure whether I’m making a lot of sense in this, but what I’m wanting to suggest is that the unity Christ talks about here may not fundamentally be an institutionalised unity, where we are all officially a part of the same organisation, or even a functional unity, where we all wear the same colour and all play for the same team. It’s a unity that is found in intimate relationships, where the boundaries between me and we break down, and where we sense ourselves as a part of the body – Christ in us and us in Christ, and through Christ, one with another.
“Get some rest. I’ll be fine. I’ll see you in the morning.” Those were the last words of my dad to me.
I’ve thought on those words often. They reflect the fact that my father, at the end of his life, was thinking of me and not himself, and that he knew me well. He knew that the thing I’ve always struggled with the most is to find rest.
Jesus likewise, at the end of His earthly life, thought of us, His children, and He knows us well, and He knows what we need most. We need each other!
We struggle to achieve unity. We’re so concerned with asserting who we are and what my rights are and with defining my ego boundaries, so that I can’t be abused and can’t have my identity subsumed by any organisation, so that I can’t be manipulated. And all of that makes sense, and yet Jesus prays:
“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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, May, 2008.