Heavenly Father, keep them safely in your name
Jesus’ prayer that God keep the disciples safe is a key element of our Gospel reading today from John chapter 17, on the Sunday of the Ascension.
The movie Iris portrays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in the renowned author Iris Murdoch. Her husband and their daughters did not fade in their lifelong devotion to Iris, throughout her decline and frustrating personality changes. Instead, their tender devotion to her was like a sacrament, a life giver for each of them and for us.
How does one discover enduring joy in love and in life? The word life (or eternal life, zoe) appears earlier in the Gospel of John chapter 12 and is repeated here in chapter 17: “Glorify your Son… since you have given the Son power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given your Son. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent….”
Back there in John 12:23-26, the Greeks came saying, “Sir, we would see Jesus”. That meant that the gospel was already going into the world. Immediately, “Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. (24) Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (25) Those who love their life (psuche) lose it, and those who hate their life (psuche) in this world will keep it for eternal life (zoe). (26) Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.'” (NRSV)
So Jesus knew his hour had come, that he would be returning to the Father, and the gospel would be going into the world. At first, Jesus knew the disciples would be confused by the coming persecution they would experience, and his concern was to keep the disciples safe. Yet that would be ‘safe’ in a special sense, for the disciples would follow his path of suffering and martyrdom. So Jesus’ prayer was that God would do with the disciples as God would do with his beloved Son Jesus, that is, keep them safe from the evil one, and bring them safely to their destination.
There was a woman who was taken into hospital. Her friends were concerned to take care of her young children during her hospitalization. Jesus is like that, in being concerned for the well being of the disciples as he goes to the cross and to his glorification.
The English word ‘eternal life’ is the translation of the Greek word zoe. (Some women are named Zoe.) There are other Greek words for the English word ‘life’, but in chapter 12, John uses psuche. (We get the word ‘psychology’ from this.) Psuche is the life of the individual, strength, intelligence, possibility; the more good health you have, the more psuche you have. Everyone has their own psuche. Zoe, on the other hand, is eternal life. There is only one, so that it is never used in the plural. For John, God has zoe.
How does one discover enduring joy in love and in life? Jesus says in John ch 12, that it is by laying aside one’s own possibilities, by laying aside one’s own psuche, that our psuche is catalyzed into, invested with, or perhaps ‘hardened’ into cosmic and eternal life, zoë.
How is psuche laid aside? For John, it is when Jesus is obedient to God the Father, and when the disciples are obedient to Jesus. When there is this chain of obedience, then individual possibility, psuche, is planted as a seed, and grows, and becomes enriched and invested with cosmic and eternal life, zoe.
The story of Iris Murdoch’s husband and children shows what it means to lay aside their psuche and be invested with eternal life, zoë. A teacher or parent is challenged every day to lay aside their psuche for the sake of zoë. We see this in those that died for our freedom, as on the beaches of France on June 6 1944; in what we remember on Mother’s Day; in nursing sisters, health care workers, social workers, and medical researchers on disease and those who suffer.
Surely we all know suffering in relationships. As we learn to lay aside or transform our own possibilities for the sake of obedience to Jesus and in loving sacrifice for one another, we learn the meaning of love and life, indeed, eternal life.
How does one discover enduring joy in love and in life? Loving self-sacrifice for another does not guarantee happiness, but in this path, we discover a joy that reaches far, far beyond any happiness that the world can give.
“…They know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me…. Holy God my Father, keep them safely in your name, which you have given me, so that they may be one, even as we are one.” This is Jesus’ prayer to God; and if God answers any prayer, then surely the first one will be the prayer of his son Jesus.