The first reading captures the meaning of today’s liturgical celebration. Matthias, not one of the original followers of Jesus, is chosen to be a witness to the resurrection. From Easter to Pentecost all the readings in effect present different aspects of what it means to be such a witness.
The Gospel concludes the Johannine farewell discourses with a selection from the Testament of Jesus, or his high-priestly prayer, which comprises one long prayer to his Father, so powerful and so poignant that it should be read in its entirety. The Lectionary excerpt is poorly chosen, since the prayer has three units: Jesus’ prayer for himself (17:1-5), for his disciples (vv. 6-19) and for future believers (vv. 20-26). Among non-biblical Jewish writings slightly earlier or contemporary with the New Testament, there is a collection called Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, or of Moses, narratives of the deaths of the great founding figures of Israel. These bid farewell to their loved ones, speaking of how God touched their lives and warning them of dangers they face. This literary genre has clearly influenced John 17. We are invited to listen as Jesus, whose death is imminent, gives voice to his deepest hopes for his loved ones.
Jesus prays that the disciples may experience that unity he shares with his Father, that they may share in his joy, and that they will be consecrated in truth. Jesus also prays for their protection in a hostile world. His own life is a paradigm for the lives of believers. He comes from above, from presence with God, to an alien world that does not accept him, and then he returns to the Father. The believer, in John, is born from above (1:12-13; 3:3), lives in a hostile and alien world (15:18-19; 16:33; 17:14, 16, 18); and, as Jesus returns to the Father, the destiny of his followers is to be with him (12:26; 14:2-3, 13).
The ambiguity of the world echoes throughout John. It was made through him (the Word) but did not recognize him (1:10-11). Jesus takes away the sin of the world, and God so loved the world that he gave his only son; he is the living bread that will be the life of the world (6:51). Yet the world often symbolizes the power of evil organized against Jesus and his followers (see especially 3:19; 15:18-19). Though other New Testament writings have a more positive attitude toward the world, and though the contemporary church is summoned to be engaged in the world and to discern the manifestations of goodness among non-Christians, in John, Jesus and the disciples come to the world not to change it, but to challenge its values. This mission should not be lost amid the contemporary change of attitude.
Jesus asks his Father also to consecrate them (literally make holy) in truth. Holiness in the Bible is not primarily a moral category, but is a way of speaking about living in the presence of God. It is more similar to a zone or marked-off area, than a personal disposition. Disciples are to operate in this zone, which is also in truth. The Greek term for truth, aletheia, means un-concealment or revelation, removal of a veil, and in John refers principally to the unveiling or revelation of God in the life and teaching of Jesus (1:14, 17; 14:6, I am the truth). Jesus prays that the disciples will live in a zone of God’s presence (holiness) as they faithfully witness to the truth of his life.
The readings this Sunday before Pentecost provide a bridge between the continued celebration of the resurrection and yearning for God’s Spirit, which will come only after the departure of Jesus. Jesus’ prayer anticipates the coming of the Spirit of truth (14:7; 15:26). Today this final wish of Jesus that his Father make the church holy in truth has a dramatic relevance. The last decade has been marked by deplorable accounts of sexual and financial abuse in the church. People are often most scandalized, not only by the sins themselves, but by an unwillingness to face the truth, often killing the messenger, or by feeble cover-ups (the direct opposite of unveil).
At the same time hopeful signs emerge of truth-filled living in a zone of holiness, such as the profoundly moving service of healing and reconciliation for victims of clergy abuse held by the Diocese of Oakland and presided over by Bishop John S. Cummins, who offered an honest apology and asked for pardon and forgiveness. Such is the kind of holiness and witness that Jesus, on the brink of death, prayed to his Father to grant his followers.