A Provocation: The Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 28, 2017: John 17:1-11

John 17:1-11
17:1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,

17:2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.

17:3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

17:4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.

17:5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

17:6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.

17:7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you;

17:8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

17:9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.

17:10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

17:11 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.

A Question or Two:

  • Does the only true God belong exclusively to your denomination of Christianity, or is monotheism more interesting than that?

Some Longer Reflections:

So, Jesus is giving eternal life to people whom God gave to him.  This seems customary enough.  Life we can make sense of, even if we have no proper sense of eternity.  We think of it in terms of time, which is precisely not the point, since we would then be thinking of extremely long periods of measurable time.  Eternity, however, is an attribute of God, who is not subject to measurable time.  So that’s a bit of a problem.

But there is actually another, more interesting, problem here.

When the NRSV has Jesus promise “eternal life” to those given to him, the Greek original promises αἰώνιος ζωή.  Life is promised, that is sure, but though it is customary to translate αἰώνιος as “eternal,” that is not exactly what it means.  The phrase αἰώνιος ζωή means, not “really, REALLY long life,” but “aeonic life.”  Life of the aeon.  

“Aeonic life” is not exactly a phrase that rolls off your tongue, but it does have discernible content.  In the phrase, “aeonic” functions as an adjective, it paints the noun, life, with a certain quality, a distinctive character: it is life that has the character of the aeon.

Whatever that means.

Though we use the word aeon (or eon) in ordinary English to refer to “really, REALLY long times,” that is not what it means in ancient Greek, especially when the ancient Greek text in question dances with Jewish apocalyptic notions.  In such texts, the aeon under consideration names a shift in the quality of existence.  In the present aeon, Rome has control, children starve to death, diseases hunt us, the past haunts us, and death finally limits life, making us subject to whoever has the power of the sword.  Jews in the ancient world waited for a new aeon, an existence in which Rome no longer washes the world in blood, all Creation flourishes, and Life rejoices.

This is what Jesus is promising in this scene: Life of the promised Aeon, unlimited by death, subject only to the God who gives life.

That’s why he describes αἰώνιος ζωή the way he does: aeonic life consists in knowing God, the only true God; aeonic life consists also in knowing Jesus who is the messiah.  

These two descriptions belong together, even for ancient Jews who were not convinced that Jesus was significant (at least except for the Jesus part).

The messiah was understood as the agent who accomplished the shift in aeons.  Though faithful people have disagreed (then and now) about whether Jesus has accomplished that shift, still Jews in every century recognize that “messiah” is a word that functions as code for one way of thinking about God’s balancing of Creation.  Aeonic life would erupt out of the restorative work of messiah.

But what I find most interesting is the recognition that the key step in living aeonic life comes with knowing God.  This is not a Christocentric statement.  Knowing God is accomplished by living a life shaped by Torah, and knowing God is the substance of aeonic life.  The key to living a life shaped by God’s promise of a new aeon is to live a life shaped by Torah, a life shaped by the stable and orderly love of the one true God.  This is the point of the statement made by Jewish writer, Ahad Ha’am: More than the Jewish people has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.  Jews have long known this.  Christians ought also to learn this.

Of course, Jesus goes on to make claims that are only convincing to Christians.  But these claims only come after Jesus lays down a principle that is simply and straightforwardly Jewish: Knowing God (which happens through Torah observance) is what allows faithful people to live a life not dominated by death.


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