What does the love and glory Jesus talks about and prays for look like in the disciples, in the Church in the world? Again, the Church’s DNA is found in John 17.
“And I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you” (Jn 17:11). But Jesus is in the world, in Jerusalem. But he is also speaking in such a way and of such things like glory that, in a sense, he is not in the world. Certainly, this is not an academic point, but when Christians act like heaven, then in a certain sense they are not in this world. Paul said our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). That is, having taken on the life and virtues of a Christian — say, when you forgive though it makes no sense to forgive, love though it makes no sense to love — then, in a sense, you are no longer in the world. In a sense, you are in heaven. Or, better put, heaven breaks into the world through your loving action. It is not escapist; it is transformative. As God said to that beautiful mystic, Gabrielle Bossis, “Let us begin heaven” (He and I, 17 October 1940). Jesus has been glorified in his disciples (Jn 17:10). The world is not merely the world anymore. The world is changed, like heaven.
“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are” (Jn 17:11). Here we begin to get to the heart of the matter. Jesus will no longer be physically present to his disciples, so he asks the Father to protect them, to keep them in his name, faithful to the way of Jesus. But then he says this: “so that they may be one just as we are.” Remember Jesus said, “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30). The Father and Son are one intimately, uniquely — “consubstantially,” as the Nicene Creed puts it — one in essence. The disciples are to be one “just as we are,” Jesus says. What does that mean?
The Greek word John uses for “one” is hēn, which signifies numerical oneness. It does not mean “unity” or “agreement” but “one.” That’s important. You see, it is not that we are called to agree with one another all the time or even to like each other necessarily. The oneness Jesus prayed for was more than unity. It was a real, numerical, essential, you-can-look-at-it-and-touch-it oneness. The Father and the Son share a unity of nature and love. The oneness Jesus desires for his disciples like that, a unity of nature and love. “Accordingly,” St. Thomas Aquinas said, “the Church and people can be preserved if they remain one.” This is not mere sentimental or even moral unity, important though that is. Jesus prays that his disciples “be one just as we are” — hēn. The oneness Jesus prays for is something thicker than ordinary accounts of unity. Ultimately, it’s sacramental, ecclesiastical — one, holy, apostolic.
Speaking personally, this is what began to convert me — hēn. Realizing that Jesus prayed for his disciples to be one, it became impossible for me to believe any longer claims that Christian division was in any way acceptable or good. It is not acceptable, and any thought that it is just is not true to Jesus’s own words, his own prayer, his own vocabulary. That Christian disciples are to be one as the Father and the Son are one, knowing what that oneness means, that certainly did not instantly make me a Roman Catholic. Yet it did shatter my complacent acceptance of Christian division, as if division and denominationalism were simply part of the order of things, something never to question. That is what began to convert me, the realization that my understanding and experience of divided Christianity was nothing like what Jesus actually prayed for. And I further had to accept that if Jesus actually said that — prayed that the disciples “be one just as we are” — then it stands to reason that he gave us the grace and energy to live in that oneness, to achieve it, if we would just let go of our hardened prejudices, question our givens.
“When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me, and I guarded them, and none of them was lost except the son of destruction, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled” (Jn 17:12). This, of course, is a mysterious, chilling reference to Judas Iscariot. St. Thomas Aquinas is silent about it. St. Augustine makes vague reference to Psalm 109:8. For me, again personally, I simply read it in haunting contrast to the oneness Jesus is praying for. Clearly, the stakes are high.
“But now I am coming to you. I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy” (Jn 17:13). We see now that glory is also joy. The glory belonging to the Father and the Son, shared among the disciples in oneness: the fruit of that glory and unity is joy. Earlier in the evening, thinking of Jesus’s departure — “Where are you going?” they ask Jesus — the hearts of the disciples were filled with grief (Jn 16:6). Now, because of glory in oneness, real joy is possible, the joy of heaven breaking upon earth. Like Gabriel to Zechariah and Mary, the angels to the shepherds, it is a joy that is heavenly smuggled into a dark world (Lk 1:14; 1:47; 2:10). Now, remember, we are talking about the community of believers, the Church, and the character of that community. It is a community of glory, oneness and also joy.
“I gave them your word, and the world has hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world” (Jn 17:14). The disciples will be hated in the world. Jesus was plain about this earlier in the evening, and here he is plain again (see Jn 16:18-25). As he does with so much of this prayer, St. Augustine, in his “Homilies on the Gospel of John,” reads these words about the world’s hatred prophetically. “They hadn’t yet experienced that in their martyrdoms,” he preached. Having accepted the Gospel, the disciples — just like Jesus — are hated. But again, by accepting the Gospel — again, just like Jesus — they are no longer in the world, for as St. Thomas Aquinas comments succinctly in his “Commentary on John,” “one cannot be joined to God without leaving the world.” And again, we are not talking about escaping from the world or any sort of dualism, but about holiness. That is how the Church is to be in the world — not only is it one, but it is holy too.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.