Once Christianity developed a hierarchical structure biblical passages originally directed to all believers started to be applied to just a privileged few. Eventually we saw the creation of clergy and laity, a caste system the historical Jesus seems to have passionately despised. Proponents of his non-biblical split among the faithful earmarked many of our most important biblical texts for the clergy and left the laity to simply ooh and aah over the prerogatives of this special group.
This is especially true for today’s gospel pericope. One of the seminaries I attended, for instance, proclaimed this passage immediately before the institution’s post-ordination meal. The reader always began by labeling it, “Christ’s prayer for his newly ordained priests.”
John would never have understood this “modern” designation. The fourth evangelist presumed everything his Jesus said was directed to all his followers, not just to one special group. Yet it’s easy to see how later Christians turned this into a prayer for priests only.
First, ignoring the gospel fact that many women accompanied Jesus on his fateful Jerusalem Passover pilgrimage and that logically this group would have eaten such an important meal together, some started to limit Last Supper attendance to the “Twelve Apostles.” Then after a few centuries, when the priesthood as we know it eventually appeared, other commentators began to contend that Jesus actually “ordained” these special individuals priests during that last meal. One upshot of such biblical mismanagement was that whatever John’s Jesus said during his final get-together with his disciples was directed only to his priests. Given this uncritical interpretation of the fourth gospel’s Last Supper narrative it made sense to take this pericope out of its original context and use it to introduce an ordination banquet.
As today’s gospel is being proclaimed, please hear it as John intended it to be heard. Jesus is praying for all of us Christians. We are those who “know the only true God, and the one whom (God) sent, Jesus Christ.” Each of us has kept his word and, and like him, have constantly tried to change the world we inhabit. No wonder he prays for us. “I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them.” Because all of us are committed to becoming other Christs, we need lots of prayers, especially the prayers of the person we try to imitate.
As the author of I Peter reminds his community, if Jesus whom we imitate suffered, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we suffer. We actually “share in the sufferings of Christ.” The risen Jesus suffers through us and comes to life through us. “Whoever is made to suffer as a Christian,” he writes, “should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name.”
Of course, certain perks accompany such suffering. As we’ll hear next Sunday, those who carry on Jesus’ ministry receive Jesus’ Spirit. That seems to be one of the reasons Luke clicks off the people gathered in that Last Supper upper room awaiting their Pentecost surprise. Like the signers of our Declaration of Independence helped create a nation, the Spirit morphed Jesus’ first followers into a church. We’d expect the Eleven to be in that room, but notice Luke also mentions “some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” were part of that unique group - a rather broad, diverse congregation.
All serious students of Scripture gradually discover that through the centuries some well-known institutions have methodically excluded parts of our sacred authors’ most inclusive beliefs.