Easter without end
by Isaac S. Villegas
May 12, 2013
John chapter 17 is a long prayer — Jesus’s prayer for his friends, for his loved ones. John 17 is his long prayer on the night he is handed over to his executioners. Jesus knows what Judas is about to do. Jesus knows that this is the beginning of the end. So he prays for the people he will leave behind. He prays for God to take care of them. His prayer repeats words of assurance, words of love. His prayer betrays his anguish at the thought of being separated from the people he loves. Jesus says to God:
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you,” he prays. “Holy Father, protect them… While I was with them, I protected them… I guarded them… But now I am coming to you… I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” (Jn 17:11-15).
We can hear how much Jesus fears for his friends. He worries about the wellbeing of his disciples. He won’t be able to protect them anymore. He won’t be able to guard them from the evil one, the one who scatters the flock, the one who leads people astray, who sets friend against friend, who sows seeds of resentment and betrayal.
As death draws near, Jesus draws closer to his friends — he washes their feet and tells them that he loves them, and he tells them to love one another, to be there for each other, to be bound together in God’s love, in solidarity as companions.
The thought of his separation from them stirs up his longing to be close to them again, forever close, so he prays for his union with them: Jesus says,
“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one” (Jn 17:21-23).
We can hear how Jesus is already starting to miss them, how he is already longing for a time of reunion, to be close again.
Back when Katie and I were dating, we were separated from one another by the Atlantic Ocean. She was in Paris; I was in Durham. This was back in the olden days before Skype, so we had to talk on the phone, without seeing each other’s face. During those long months away, once in a while we were able to spend a week or two together. As we spent time together, we would try not to think about how we would have to say goodbye in a few days. But as the day got closer, we couldn’t help but think about how hard it was going to be at the airport, to watch the other one walk away, knowing that it would be a while until we got to see each other again.
Obviously there’s a big difference between the crucifixion of Jesus and Katie and I having to spend a couple years apart, in a long distance relationship. What Jesus felt must have been much more severe. Katie and I were separated from one another by an ocean. Jesus and his friends would be separated by death.
On that last night with his disciples, as he prayed, his heart must have ached. When it comes to the night of Jesus’ arrest, John’s Gospel is not like the other Gospels. Mathew, Mark, and Luke have Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, praying for himself, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” For the other Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — Jesus spends his last night in agony in the garden, tormented by the thought of his death.
But that’s not the way it is in John’s Gospel. There is no garden of Gethsemane in John’s story. Jesus doesn’t pray for himself. Instead, he prays for his disciples: “I am asking on their behalf,” he says, “I am asking on behalf of those whom you gave me” (Jn 17:9). Jesus isn’t afraid for himself.
In John’s account, Jesus lingers as long as he can with his beloved friends, washing their feet, eating with them, talking, praying, stretching out their last night together as long as he can. He doesn’t want to leave. Life without them seems unbearable, unimaginable.
This is where we can begin to talk about resurrection. This is where we can start to talk about the way God refuses to let Jesus be separated from the people he loves. The power that raises Jesus from the dead is the power of a longing, a desire that is at the heart of who God is — a yearning for fellowship, for friendship, for sitting around a table and eating and talking and praying.
This is called love, the love that is God, as 1 John puts it: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Everyone who loves is born of God” (1 John 4:16, 7).
From the start to the finish, the Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus as a love story, a cosmic love story, where God becomes human in order to get closer to us, to talk and eat with us, to teach and heal us, to fall in love with humanity all over again.
As it says at the beginning of John’s Gospel, For God so loved the world that God came to us in Jesus, the incarnation of God, to share life with us, abundant life, life without end, an eternity of fellowship, of communion.
And, at the end of John’s Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus keeps on coming back, appearing to Mary near the tomb, to the disciples in a locked room, to Thomas, to his friends who are fishing, and he makes breakfast for them and he eats with them, lounging around the fire, on the beach. And then it says, at the very end of the book, that Jesus did “many other things,” as he spent time with the people he loved. Here’s the very last verse of John’s Gospel, the last word in his story about Jesus: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25). The end.
It’s a kind of end that doesn’t want to end, an ending to a story that doesn’t have an ending, because resurrection means that Jesus keeps on coming back, to be with his friends, to be with us.
Today is the last Sunday of Easter in the church calendar. On the day of Easter we celebrate the resurrection, and then we stretch it out for seven weeks, seven Sundays, because we don’t want our time with the resurrected Jesus to end, because, like Jesus, we don’t want our lives to be ruled by the gulf of death, by the division of violence, by all the little deaths, the sins, that separate us from one another and from God’s love — all of our small acts of violence, our secret resentments, our rejections of one another, our hatreds, all the ways we refuse to care for one another, to mourn with those who mourn, to suffer with those who suffer, to rejoice with those who rejoice.
Resurrection is good news because it shows us that there is a power at work in this world that will heal what has been wounded, that will stitch together what has been torn apart.
Resurrection is also an invitation, God’s invitation for us to be people who love like Jesus loves, to be people who long for the end of death, who pray against violence, who hope for restoration, to be a people who work for peace, for life, as ministers of God’s love, as incarnations of God’s love.
There’s a passage from 1 John that says all of this better than I can. 1 John continues the story of Jesus in the Gospel of John, as the writer tells us what it means to live as if we believe, as if we believe that the story of Jesus is true.
I’ll end with words from 1 John, which I hope will be an end that invites us to a new beginning, the new beginning of Easter, of new life, of resurrection:
“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14).
“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.”