The Politics of Location—John 17:6-19 (Mark Davis)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

The term ‘cosmos’ is used in a number of different senses in Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Within the fluidity of Jesus’ employment of this term we find a multi-faceted characterization of the world that can inform our politics.

6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

John 17, of which we are reading a portion above, is a prayer that Jesus offers after washing the disciples’ feet in chapter 13 and delivering the great discourse of chapters 14 to 16 that follows. Presumably that discourse and this prayer take place in the same room where Jesus shared a supper with the disciples.

The larger story, then, begins in John 13 with these words: “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Likewise, the discourse ends in chapter 16, just before the prayer begins, with these words: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’” As these framing comments indicate, there are continued references to the “world” (cosmos) throughout this story. Such references are characteristically Johannine: there are 78 uses of the term cosmos in John, compared to 15 in the rest of the Synoptic gospels.

At times, it seems that John is using the term cosmos spatially, to refer to all of creation—such as in v. 5 just before our pericope, when Jesus says, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the cosmos existed.” At other times, it seems to refer to all of humanity, such as in John 3:16, “For God so loved the cosmos….” Since our brief pericope contains the term cosmos 13 times, it may be best not to try to find a ‘one size fits all’ definition of cosmos in John. Rather, we might let the sense of each occasion of the word be shaped by the sentence in which it is embedded. In doing so, I see at least five possible ways to hear the word cosmos in this part of Jesus’ prayer.

  1. We could hear the term “cosmos” as a term of wonder, such as in the way Antoine de Saint-Exupéry uses “the world” in The Little Prince. There, the fox says to the Prince, “You are unique in all the world to me.” If we hear verse 6 this way, Jesus could be saying—with wonder—that “out of all the cosmos, these are the ones whom you have given me.”
  2. One might hear v.6 as implying that the cosmos is a place of origin for the disciples. God gave them to Jesus, out of the cosmos. However, Jesus says twice—in v.14 and v.16—that neither he nor his disciples are “out of the cosmos.” It could be that the reference in v.6 is of origin, while vv.14 and 16 aver that neither Jesus nor his disciples are ‘products’ of the cosmos, in that they do not reflect the values and cares of the cosmos.
  3. In v.11, the reference to the world simply seems to be a location. Jesus is no longer in the world, but the disciples are still in the world. The problem with this reference is that Jesus is still, in fact, in the cosmos when he offers this prayer. By the time the gospel is written, however, Jesus has long been “out of the cosmos.”
  4. We could hear cosmos negatively, as a place of dangers, empires and temptations. In that sense, for God to give Jesus disciples “out of the cosmos” might indicate that discipleship is liberation from those structures and destructive ways of being. This dangerous interpretation of “cosmos” would make sense of v.14, where Jesus says that the cosmos hated the disciples. It would also account for the Jesus’ “protection” of the disciples and his prayer for God to provide the same in vv. 11-12.
  5. Verse 15, however, seems to auto-correct the idea that the “world” is essentially evil. Jesus clarifies that he was not asking God to take the disciples “out of the cosmos,” but that they be kept from “the evil one.” This distinction may point to the gospel writer’s complex relationship to Gnosticism, showing that the cosmos is not inherently evil, but the dangerous place where the evil one has the ability to deceive, tempt, and destroy.

What Jesus’ prayer does not offer is a single, flat meaning of the term cosmos or its relation to the reign of God. Rather, it evaluates the cosmos fluidly, offering a number of ways to think theologically about the cosmos that offers more than either “good,” “bad,” or even “in the cosmos, but not of it.” As a location created by God, the cosmos is a place of wonder, beauty, and purpose, as well as God’s intended space for human and non-human existence. As the only space that we have known as home, the cosmos is the place where our senses, our rationality, our perceptions of pain or pleasure, our understanding of right and wrong, as well as our sense and taste of the divine have been cultivated. That is, in one sense all of us have come “out of the world.” At times the cosmos is reflective of the fullness of God and at other times the space in which “the evil one” has incredibly destructive power. As a dangerous location, the cosmos is that place where protection, a prophetic word, or a community of resistance is required. As God’s space inhabited by the evil one, the world is a place crying out for transformation and the revelation of the children of God. No single way of considering the cosmos is sufficient for every occasion. Rather, the fluidity of Jesus’ use of cosmos in his prayer offers a multi-vocal pattern, which names our relationship in the world differently on a use-by-use basis.

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