In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus summoned the Twelve Apostles and sent them out to proclaim the Good News to the lost sheep of Israel, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to cleanse the lepers, and even to raise the dead. Before sending them on their way, he instructed them. Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of that instruction.
Now, Jesus’ words are meant to give encouragement to the Twelve, and to us. But the great demands he makes of his disciples just might have the opposite effect. For unless our faith is strong, the costs of discipleship that Jesus warns about might overwhelm us.
Jesus begins by telling the Twelve to expect no better treatment that he has received. In other words, they should expect to be mistreated and threatened and lied about. Even so, he urges his disciples to have no fear, but to proceed with their mission at any cost. They are not to fear those who can destroy their physical bodies. They are to fear the One who can destroy both their bodies and their souls, that is, the Lord God.
When Americans use the word election, we think of going to our local polling place and voting for the least bad choice of candidates for political office to lead us. But when Christian theologians use the word election, they mean something quite different. In a theological context, election is God’s choosing of a person or a people to lead the world to him. And in all three readings today, we get hints of such divine election.
The reading from Exodus is a clear example. God explicitly states that he chooses the twelve tribes of Israel to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” He offers to form a covenant with this ragtag federation of tribes. If they obey his voice, he will guide and protect them. And “the people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’” Of course, they didn’t, in fact, do everything that the Lord had spoken! We are given no real reason why this group of people was chosen among all the peoples of the world. But more important than the question “Why were they chosen, and not others?” is the question “For what purpose were they chosen?” What does it mean to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation”? Well, to be a priestly kingdom is to be a united people under God that serves as an intermediary between God and the Gentile nations. To be a “holy nation” is to be a people set apart and dedicated for God’s express use. In other words, Israel was elected by God to be a light to the nations of the world, so as to draw them to the living God and to salvation.
Last Thursday was Ascension Day. Next Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost. And you might very well expect today’s Gospel reading to take place during the ten-day period between the Ascension and Pentecost. But surprisingly it doesn’t. Instead, we go back in time, and we get a snippet of prayer that Jesus offers up at the Last Supper. I say “snippet,” because today we hear only the second of three sections of Jesus’ so-called “high-priestly prayer,” which he prays at the conclusion of two lengthy farewell speeches extending over three whole chapters of John’ Gospel. The first section of the prayer is for Jesus himself. The third section is for the future Church. And the second section, which we heard read today, is for the disciples reclining around the table at the Last Supper.
In a sense, we are eavesdroppers. This section of Jesus’ high-priestly prayer is addressed to God—not us—and it is offered on behalf of the original disciples—not us. So why does the lectionary have us listen in? I think there are two reasons. The first is that, as baptized Christians, we are meant to continue the ministry of the original disciples, and we can expect to encounter some of the same struggles that they did. The second reason has to do with a tradition of the Early Church to expound on the sacraments at every sermon during the 50 days of Eastertide. (The technical term for this practice is mystagogy.) And believe it or not, today’s Gospel has some profound implications concerning both baptism and Eucharist, despite the fact that neither sacrament is explicitly mentioned in the prayer.
But there is a problem! As we eavesdrop on Jesus’ prayer, we find that he is speaking in code. One of those code words is the word world. We get a sense that something cryptic is intended when we hear Jesus say, “I am not asking on behalf of the world.” Why would Jesus refuse to pray for the world? The answer is that, in John’s Gospel, the word world almost always refers to humanity in its fallen state. More specifically, it refers to those who willfully defy God’s will for them and who actively oppose the message proclaimed by God’s Son. Given this understanding of the world, it is not such a surprise that Jesus does not pray on behalf of the world. For the only prayer he could make is that the world cease to be the world, that sinful humanity cease to be sinful humanity.