There is a beautiful prayer towards the end of John’s Gospel (all chapter 17). There, at the conclusion of the Last Supper, Jesus prays for his disciples, that God will protect them and that they will know true joy. The question of God protecting us is an interesting one. The world we live in is not perfect, as we know all too well from the emergence of COVID-19. Christians believe that God created the universe, but the vast majority of Christians also accept the science of evolution. Our world, as it has evolved, is not without unexpected dangers, to say the least. In addition, God doesn’t protect us from our own foolishness, if we are really insistent on being foolish. We are not robots – we have free will.
A very simple example of the paradox of interpreting Jesus’ prayer is from my own life: almost two years ago I had a spectacular bicycle crash and ended up in hospital with concussion. I locked up the rear tyre descending from the hills, failed to make a corner, and hit the asphalt very hard. As my bicycle crash illustrates, God doesn’t stop us from making foolish decisions. Usually, though, God does give us a warning. I actually had a warning the day before I crashed. I felt the rear tyre lock up a little bit in exactly the same place: that was my warning, which I then totally ignored. So, God doesn’t stop us from doing stupid things, if we really want to.
In which case, what is Jesus praying about? What is he asking God to keep us safe from? Physical protection is one thing and that’s certainly part of what Jesus means. But there are other things that Jesus is perhaps more focused on. He’s praying that God will keep us safe from those temptations which will lead us away from God. What are the temptations which might lead us away from God?
One clue is in the word joy. Jesus prays that his disciples may be one with each other and that they may know complete joy; it’s the joy that comes from fellowship, togetherness, with one another. I always think of the contrast here between the false joy that comes from laughing at other people and the true joy that comes from laughing with other people. Another way of thinking about it is the false joy that comes from stepping on other people to get to the top (the sort of ambition that we see in the world every day), and the true joy that comes from working with other people to achieve a common goal.
Ultimately his prayer is about being protected from greed and selfishness, because greed and selfishness are two of the things that lead us away from God and from each other. When you think about it, greed and selfishness are responsible for most of the world’s suffering.
True joy can come in very simple ways: sometimes it is as simple as a kind word from someone. When I was lying in hospital recovering from my crash, I felt true joy when my parents came in to visit me and prayed for me, and my father (a retired bishop) anointed me with holy oil. I felt incredible joy and I have no doubt that it assisted me in my recovery. Sometimes the smallest things can bring the greatest joy.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall