Parent educators tell us that one of the most important gifts we give to our children is a sense of belonging. Young children are vulnerable and helpless, and need the physical care and protection of adults. But more than this, they also need to know that they have a safe place to belong, where they are loved and cherished for who they are, even when they act up or misbehave.
As we’ve seen in our journey through the gospel of John, the disciples feel a bit abandoned when Jesus announces his departure, so much so that he spends a good deal of their final time together reassuring them that they won’t be left as orphans. When they finally seem to believe what he’s been telling them, he turns his eyes heavenward and begins to pray. He even begins to pray for them directly:
I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. (John 17:9-10, CEB)
When Jesus says that he’s not praying for the world, it’s not for lack of concern; to the extent that his disciples are to carry on the mission he’s already begun, praying for their good is praying for the good of the world.
But what’s especially noteworthy here is something we’ve seen repeatedly in John: the unity of the Father and the Son. “Everything that is mine is yours,” Jesus says; perhaps any believer could pray that. But only Jesus can then say “everything that is yours is mine.”
And he’s not talking about “things” in the abstract: he’s talking about the disciples. They always belonged to the Father, who gave them into Jesus’ care. Now that he’s returning to the Father, Jesus is prayerfully handing them back.
One wonders how the disciples heard this. Their little band had come to identify with their master; their identities and their futures depended on the fact of being his disciples. So did their cohesiveness as a group. This is where they belonged. This is where their lives mattered to someone. What would they do if Jesus went away?
Jesus’ prayer suggests an answer: they don’t just belong to him, they belong to God the Father. They always have. He’s not handing them over to a babysitter.
And more: Jesus is glorified in them.
This is, of course, the kind of glory that it takes the eyes of faith to see. Jesus anticipates being glorified in the cross, but the world will not see it as such. If his glory is thus hidden, so is that given to him by the disciples. For the moment, one might see glory in the way they love one another. But when Jesus is crucified, the only thing the world will see in the disciples is a band of misguided fanatics at best, or seditious troublemakers at worst. Not much glory there.
Things will look a little different after the resurrection and Pentecost.
As we’ll see in the rest of the prayer, Jesus is concerned that the disciples remain in the world but not be of the world — that their values, priorities, and identities would not be shaped by those of a world order that rebels against God. They must remember, in other words, to whom they belong.
And so must we.