14 “I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to this world any more than I do. 17 Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. 18 Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. 19 And fort their sake I make myself holy so they can be made holy by your truth.
20 I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever trust me through their message. 21 I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one — as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will trust you sent me.
22 I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. 23 I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. 24 Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!
25 O Just Father, the world doesn’t know you, but I do; and these disciples know you sent me. 26 I have revealed you to them, and I will continue to do so. Then your love for me will be in them, and I will be in them.”
Jesus finishes his prayer by praying for the followers he already had and then praying for everyone else who would follow him because of them. Here we have one specific instance where Jesus prays for you and me. There are a few key themes here. One is stated there at the end (and a few times before). Jesus declares he has revealed the Father to his followers. Because of what Jesus has shown them, his followers know that God is loving, just, trustworthy, and interested in a close relationship with us. So close that we can share in the unity Jesus says he has with the Father. The key revelation is that the Father loves us, that God loves the whole world so completely that God is willing to do the unthinkable – die – for that love. You can find statements in the Hebrew Bible that talk about God’s unfailing love, but that is not the general picture of God a lot of people get from those scriptures. Jesus comes to show us what we would otherwise not understand – that God loves us like the Father loves the Son. God’s love is a selfless, unconditional love. And that love is the very nature of God’s presence; God’s existence is defined by love.
1 John 4.8 tells us that “God is love” that unconditional, selfless love is not just part of God’s nature but is the one thing that defines the entirety of God’s nature. Agape, the Greek word for ‘divine love’ was a word in Greek before Jesus was born, but it only meant this vague notion that sometimes love felt stronger than eros (physical love) or philia (friendship love). Sometimes love is so strong it can only be described as spiritual, when you give yourself completely to a moment and become lost in that moment, when self-love fades, where you move beyond objectifying and reciprocating. But then the moment is gone and you’re back to this realm. The notion was there but it was not tied so much to any of the Greek gods (the closest was Aphrodite, but her name means “sea foam” which evokes the ephemeral quality I was just describing), and certainly not to the God of Israel. It is the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas, God coming down to earth, laying aside all divine self-perogative and becoming fully human that begins to show us what selfless love looks like. It is the suffering and death on the cross that will complete that picture, that new revelation that God is love.
I said this idea of God as agape was new with Jesus. It was new in that no one had understood it before then, but it had actually always been true. Isa. 63.7-9 says:
7 I will tell of the Lord’s unfailing love.
I will praise the Lord for all he has done.
I will rejoice in his great goodness to Israel,
which he has granted according to his mercy and love.
8 He said, “They are my very own people.
Surely they will not betray me again.”
And he became their Savior.
9 In all their suffering he also suffered,
and the messenger of his presence saved them.
In his love and mercy he redeemed them.
He lifted them up and carried them
through all the years.
The “messenger of his presence” is Isaiah’s way of pointing to Jesus. Agape is suffering with those who suffer. Agape is lifting up and carrying those who cannot stand, who cannot walk. Agape is healing the sick. Agape is giving sight to the blind. Agape is feeding the hungry, giving clothes to the naked, visiting those in prison. Agape is dying for the sins of the world. Agape is presence, the Spirit, that fills all who trust in the One who came, was born of Mary, died on the cross, and rose again. Agape is empowerment to follow the command of Jesus: love your neighbor as yourself. At their best moments, eros and philia include some measure of selflessness. But that is not their nature. They always involve some love of self. Love of neighbor is different. Love of neighbor is agape, because it is loving the one we do not choose, loving the one we do not desire, loving the one who cannot or will not reciprocate love with us. It is the love of God come down and born among us that we celebrate in this Advent season. It is the love of God we are called to extend to our neighbors.
And it is this love that Jesus prays about here. He asks the Father that our community be fundamentally marked by this love. That looks like two things: being radically present to the world around us and living in unity with other followers of Jesus. Both of these communicate the selfless, unconditional agape love of God to the world that God so loves. The trouble is both are kind of hard. It is hard to live in unity with people we have significant disagreements with. We don’t teach the same theology, we don’t organize our communities in compatible ways, and most of all, we don’t seem content to follow Jesus in our own way and allow others to follow Jesus in their way. We feel a persistent need to argue everyone else into agreement with us and vilify those who don’t. When a church or a leader uses “biblical” as an adjective to describe themselves, that is what they are doing. Not-so-subtly stating that anyone who disagrees with them actually disagrees with the Bible, and therefore God. That sort of stuff doesn’t help us live out the love of God.
It’s also hard to love those arounds us. But we have been called to love our neighbors. This is not a matter of preference, choice, likes, taste, or common interests. Just proximity. The only thing a neighbor shares with you is space. And it’s not easy because this is divine love we’re talking about. It goes against the grain of our culture and nature. Loving enemies. Loving unlovable people. The love of God is radical. The grace of God is offensive.
In cities all over the United States, local government officials, many of whom are Christians, are making it illegal to share food with homeless people. This past Saturday, the Wake Forest Christmas Parade passed right in front of our little downtown storefront/old house church. It was cold and rainy, so we set up a canopy and a table giving away coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. People assumed we were trading the drinks for donations. When we told them it was just free, you could see on their faces, “does not compute.” Why? Because agape love is not natural. It is divine. It is how God loves us. It is how God calls us to love those around us so they can begin to understand how God loves them. Jesus prays we will accept his radical, offensive love and give it away to others. I hope his prayer keeps getting answered.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.