I used to love stories of time travel. My favorite is probably the film “Back to the Future.” It is fascinating to imagine being able to be the same person that you are, with all that you know about how things turned out, and go to a time before they happened.
Stories like that often take place in two locations at once – the present and either the past or the future. When the person who finds the time machine, or the portal or the “flux capacitor” or whatever it is that enables the time traveling, goes to the past, he is the one who is “in the know” about things that everyone else is in the dark about. For example, will the boy get the girl? The boy may be all anxious and upset about the possibility of failure – but the one who goes back in time is actually their son (as in “Back to the Future”) – so, they did get together; he has no anxiety about how it will turn out at all.
Two locations in John 17
Our Gospel text from John is a lot like that. There are two locations: one in this world, and one in the distant future. The one in this world is in a small room, upstairs in a house where Jesus and his disciples have just had supper. The other location is the future, when Jesus and all of his disciples – including us – are sitting at table together in the presence of God, in heaven.
In location one, in “the upper room,” there is a lot of anxiety about what is going to happen. There is good reason for their concern: this is actually what we call the “last supper” before Jesus is arrested, tried, tortured, and executed. Tensions are high in that room. Jesus is giving his final, crucial instructions, knowing what is coming for him, for Judas, and for the other disciples.
In location two in heaven, there is no anxiety at all. Everyone is able to see Jesus as he truly is, full of glory, at one with God the Father, surrounded by thousands and thousands of believers, the ones like us who have come to know God as Jesus has revealed him, through the mission of the disciples.
So now, as we read John’s gospel, we get to be like people watching “Back to the Future”. We get to see the two locations, two times, at once.
Location 1: Jesus Prays for us
In location number one, the upper room, Jesus has just broken bread with them, he has washed their feet, he has taught them about the Spirit whom he will send to be with them. And now, he looks up, and prays for them. We actually get to hear Jesus’ prayer – in fact it is his prayer which takes us from that location in that upper room with the disciples all the way into the future in heaven. I guess we can say that Jesus’ prayer is our portal into the future.
We start on earth. We pick up Jesus’ prayer in verse 20. What we hear is amazing: in that room, even before he was arrested, Jesus prays for us, here, today!
20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word“
We are the ones who came to believe through that long chain of missionary activity that started with those disciples, and has continued to spread the word for 2,000 years, all around the world. Jesus’ prayers, we learn, were not just for the people of his day, but looked forward in time and included us.
So, what is so important that, in the last hours with his fragile band of disciples Jesus would pray for? Everything he has done by coming to earth is going to fail if nobody believes. Even the memory of Jesus will quickly fade out and disappear like the spring blossoms on an azalea bush unless the message is believed.
But how could any sane person believe such a preposterous message: that God became a human and that God allowed himself to be caught and killed like a common criminal by the ungodly Romans?! Who would ever believe such a thing?
This is exactly what Jesus prays for in that final, crucial moment; he prays that the one thing would happen that could make this unlikely story believable. It is that people like us, human, mortal, in fact sinful people like us, would break the pattern of how humans have been for millennia; that we wouldmiraculously rise above the expected, predictable pattern of human behavior: self-centeredness, self-sufficiency, arrogance and exclusion, and instead, know ourselves as one with each other. Here is how he puts it:
20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one… so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Unity – a miracle
That would be a major miracle. It would make turning water into wine look like child’s pay. It would even be more amazing than raising Lazarus from the grave. It would be divine – literally divine, meaning “god-like”. It would be, in other words, “glorious.” And that is exactly what Jesus said as he prays:
22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me…”
How could that oneness ever be possible between creatures such as ourselves, given our history, our track-record, our proven human tendency to disunity, rivalry, factionalism, and judgmentalism?
The way this will happen, as Jesus’ prayer helps us to understand, is that we come to know and believe that our lives are totally wrapped up in the life of God himself. Listen again:
21that they 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.
If the guys gathered around that table having supper with Jesus in the upper room, and if the ones in the future, like us, who hear their message and believe it, could understand that our own personal story is part of God’s story, if we could believe that our own lives have meaning and purpose because they are part of a larger meaning and greater purpose, if we could see ourselves wrapped up in the life of God, we in God and God in us, then we would be one, and then the world would believe this unlikely story of Jesus Christ, this story of love.
If we could get a glimpse of the future, it would help. If we could be transported to a future time, and look back on our present lives in all their anxiety and fear, perhaps we would understand better.
Location 2 in heaven
So, by means of his prayer, Jesus sends us through the portal of time into the future; this is location number two, in heaven. Jesus prays that we will see him not just as he is on earth having supper, but as we will see him in heaven, in glory:
24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
There will come a time when we leave this mortal life behind. There will come a time when we see the Father in heaven, and when we do, we will see the Jesus whom we knew as a carpenter, as a teacher, as a healer, in utter, awesome “glory.”
Looking back on now
If we could just think of that time, how do you think we would look at ourselves? From heaven, we look back and see all the moments of fear, all the things we did to try to protect ourselves from loosing anything, all the times we withheld ourselves from others, all the times we reacted out of anxiety, fear, suspicion and pure-selfishness – and we will shake our heads.
But now back to earth and back to here. We live our lives here today in Gulf Shores, somewhere in between Jesus’ past prayer for us in the upper room and the future in heaven. The truth is that for two thousand years, the Christian message has had its ups and downs. Now, today, many people simply do not believe. Why not? Well, why should they, unless they see believers who have been transformed by Jesus from self-seeking division and exclusion, into super-natural unity? Why should anybody believe that we have come to know God, if we do not appear to be utterly wrapped up in God, in love and in unity?
Our challenging mission
Jesus’ prayer for us comes as a challenge. We are not here to float through life like a nasty oil slick on the Gulf. We have a mission mandate. We are here, as our mission statement proclaims, to actively “love God” – to be totally wrapped up in the life of God, in God’s story of love and redemption.
We are here to “grow in faith” – to grow, and grow, and to keep growing in our integration of words with deeds – to keep expanding our comfort zones and widening our hearts, being constantly stretched by the size of God’s love.
We are here to actively “share Christ’s love” with each other – because we are unified and one, and with the world, because that is the extent of God’s love, and because they will never believe the message unless they see it in loving action.
There is no such thing as a one-hour a week Christian. Our whole lives have been swallowed up in God and in Christ, and for that reason, it changes everything we say, everything we do, every dime and every minute we spend. We have come to know God through the life of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
One day, from the future, in heaven, we will look back on this day that we are living now. How do you intend to live today, with that future day in mind?