For almost four years Tuesdays With Morrie has appeared on the best-seller list of The New York Times. It is a moving account by Mitch Albom of conversations with his dying mentor, Morrie Schwartz, who had earlier taught a course on “The Meaning of Life” and now unfolded even deeper meanings of life—his own and Mitch’s.
Today’s Gospel reminds me of this. As death approaches, Jesus speaks to his disciples of the deepest meaning of his life and of what faces them. This chapter of John has been called variously “The Testament of Jesus” or “Jesus’ High Priestly or Intercessory Prayer.” It is really both. The literary form of the testament was a well-recognized convention at the time of Jesus (e.g., the farewell speeches of Moses in Deuteronomy and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs). These comprise reflections on the meaning of life and parting advice to loved ones. Actually, all of John 13-17 comprises a testament, so it is easy to forget that the setting remains Jesus’ final meal with those he now calls “friends.” Earlier commentators have compared it to the eucharistic preface preceding the memorial of the Passion.
Jesus’ farewell discourse is in the solemn language of prayer, John 17, from which all three liturgical cycles present excerpts on this Sunday. In the first part Jesus prays to the Father for his own glorification, in the second that his disciples be unified and protected amid opposition from the world. In today’s reading the prayer is “not only for them, but for those who will believe in me through their word” (Jn. 17:20). Love appears five times in three short sentences. Jesus prays that believers will be one, united by that very same love that unites him to the Father, and that this unity be a sign that will bring “the world” to belief so that all may come to know God and the depth of God’s love. God’s glory is to be visible not in magnificent edifices or in structures of power, but in the love that unites Jesus’ followers among themselves and to God. Through the disciples, Jesus will continue to reveal God’s name so that “the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.”
This final prayer for love arches back to the very beginning of the extended supper discourse, in which Jesus “having loved his own in the world, loved them to the end” and bequeaths them a new commandment: that they love one another as he has loved them. Now the disciples and the readers know just what “as I have loved you” means. Jesus goes to his death as a model of love, and through his death his followers will live in the very love that unites him to his Father. Later theology will adopt the category of sanctifying grace to describe such love.
Jesus’ prayer for love and unity inspired Pope John XXIII in his desire to call a council to help break down divisions among contemporary followers of Jesus. In his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (1995), Pope John Paul II cites Jn. 17:21-22 at least five times, stressing that the unity “which the Lord has bestowed on his church and in which he wishes to embrace all people...stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission” (No. 9), and he urges common prayer to overcome the “painful reality” of Christian division (No. 22). The “Ecumenical Charter” issued in April by the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences states, citing Jn. 17:21, “If we are to be faithful to this prayer, we cannot be content with the present situation. Instead, aware of our guilt and ready to repent, we must strive to overcome the divisions still existing among us, so that together we may credibly proclaim the message of the Gospel among all people.”
Though vital during the 1960’s, the ecumenical movement today is beset by problems. Individual churches are facing massive demographic and social changes that cause them to look inward, and religious divisions within ecclesial bodies are a scandal and consume great time and energy. Landmark agreed-upon statements are the fruit of ecumenical dialogues, but often with little effect on church life. The time is ripe for dramatic moves that may respond more faithfully to Christ’s prayer that love characterize his followers and that they may be “one” so that “the world may believe that you sent me.”
Morrie Schwartz’s dying words to Mitch call him “my dear friend.” Before his death Jesus calls his disciples “friends,” if they do what he has commanded them (15:14-15), and his final words are a command to live in love and seek unity.