The gospel of John was written for a specific community of people, and there are clues that some of the book was more about recording the beliefs of that community than it was about recording a historical biographical tale. John 17 is one instance where a desire to record the beliefs and creeds of the community are prominently on display. In fact, the first several verses refer to Jesus in the third person by name or by pronoun. This is more the language of a community's common creed than it is the language of an individuals speaking about himself.
No one can say with certainty what the author meant by some of the phrases in this "prayer," but believers from various Christian sects interpret it as they see fit. They actually must do so, because otherwise the words have no value aside from a slightly cryptic historical reflection of a first-century community's beliefs and concerns. Moreover, various Christian readers interpret the words differently based on their own individual understanding of Christianity. Thus, we can confidently take the same liberties as other readers, interpreting the words to fit our deeply held convictions.
Before we get to a full interpretation, however, there are a few features of the chapter that bear mentioning. Some of these may seem tedious in isolation, but in the context of interpreting the entire chapter, they may have greater significance. We will also keep in mind that, for our interpretive scheme, the character of Jesus in the gospel of John is representative of us -- of the idealized best possible version of ourselves.
First, most English translations have verse 2 reading that Jesus has been given authority over all people. The actual translation here would be power or authority over all flesh. This does not necessarily mean power of individual people, but could instead mean power to overcome the "fleshly" fears and beliefs that distract us from living with integrity to our most deeply held values.
It may also bear noticing that Jesus is made to say here that he has completed the work that was intended for him (verse 4). In the narrative, this is clearly before the crucifixion. Many Christians seem to focus on the crucifixion of Jesus as being the real significant "work" of Jesus. If this passage is to be interpreted in the context of the narrative, however, the Jesus character claims that his work is done prior to being arrested and killed. Thus, we must conclude that whatever the author of John considered Jesus' work to be had more to do with his life than it did with his death.
We also see a trace of evidence that reflects an idea of destiny, that people do not truly have control over the outcome of their lives, by the way Judas is described in verse 12. This is more a function of later editors and translators than the more ancient "son of destruction" or "one worthy of destruction" that seem to more closely match the original text -- which, I'll just remind you, we do not have. There is no known "original" of the gospel of John, just a variety of copies with some contradictions among them from which translations are created.
Regardless of translation, verses 6-20 are clearly about the community for which the author of John wrote. Their unity is also a topic of the biblical letters attributed to the same author. We might conclude that the community had considerable strife and drama and that the author was attempting to give voice to a need for unity, or we might conclude that the community was proud of this unified quality of their relationships that set them apart from other communities. Either way, this middle portion is clearly intended as a blessing on the author's community, and a somewhat exclusive one based on verse 9.
Some readers would like to suggest that this prayer for unity extends to the whole of Christianity, and not just the author's own community. It may be a nice idea, but Christianities have never embraced unity with one another. There have been differences of opinion since the earliest documentation of the Christian church. Once the church gained more political power, the differing minority opinions were labeled heresies and the church persecuted individuals who held those differing opinions.
Even with a seemingly monolithic Roman Catholic Church for centuries, there were always schisms and conflicts up until the Protestant Reformation, which spawned a number of different Christian sects. Now, the most recent estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity place the number of distinct Christian sects at over 40,000. How's that for unity? Even within the bounds of a single Christian congregation, one will find differences of belief and practice, and those differences lead to conflict, and that conflict often causes schisms within the community. In two thousand years, one thing the Christian church seems to have perfected is disunity.
Criticism is easy, though. What usefulness can we draw from this chapter, should we choose to do so? There is some language about the "name" and the "power of the name." Name here connotes authority; to know something's name in the ancient world was to have power over it, even back to the story about Adam getting to name all the animals in Genesis. If "God" is really our deepest, most noble self, then this is where our authority comes from. We are self-authorizing. Actually, every person is. Some people just pretend that their authority comes from something external to them. Ultimately, though, human beings are self-authorizing entities.
There is also some talk about "evil," and "the world" as the unenlightened practitioners of evil. We have suggested before that "evil" and "sin" are the outcomes of mismanaged fear. If this is the case, the protection from evil would be the ability to dismantle irrational fear. "The world" would reflect those people who behave as victims of fear, and based on casual observation, there are an awful lot of those folks running around. Fear, whether it manifests as shame, hatred, greed, oppression, apathy, or some other nuanced form, is churning within all of us. We self-authorize our reaction to that fear or our dismantling of it.
One way that we dismantle irrational fear is by telling the truth. The truth empowers us (verse 17). The consecration language of this passage reflects the transformative potential of every person. The author of John portrays Jesus essentially passing the torch here, indicating to his disciples (and thus vicariously to the readers) that they have the same ability that he has to live boldly intentional lives of integrity and authenticity. That is a message worth carrying forward.
Thus, a re-envisioned Humanist commissioning of John 17 is still high-minded and idealistic, but it may offer some resources for us that the creed of an ancient community does not:
Then, the Exemplar looked at each of them and said, "Now I am speaking to your deepest, most noble selves. The time has come for you to embrace your own capability. I have honored my deepest, most noble self, and in so doing I have shone a light on my authentic self. I have recognized my power to dismantle my fear and live with integrity, and in so doing, I have made clear a way for others to be fully alive. And this is what it is to be fully alive: that you know your deepest, most noble self -- the root of your deepest life-affirming values and principles -- and that you know your own capability to live with integrity to those values and principles, through connection with your deepest, most noble self. People have always been capable of this, but you have now seen it in action.
"I may have awakened you to connection with your deepest, most noble selves, but you have been the ones to nurture that connection and live into a deeper sense of your authentic selves. You now know that all of your power comes from within you. You understand something that many people do not, and you must live with integrity to your life-affirming guiding principles even as the world around you continues to react to its incessant fear. Your authentic life is the embodiment of your deepest, most noble self. You are the incarnation of yourself. You have the power to dismantle your irrational fear, and you have the power to remain calm in the midst of other people's fear.
"May your lives be full of exuberant joy, even as you continue to live among people who don't understand what you are doing. Other people will resent you for not going along with their anxiety, but don't run away from relationships with others just to feel safe. That would be giving power to your fear. Continue to do the work of connecting with your deepest, most noble self, so that you can dismantle your own fears and be a model for others. Other people's beliefs and decisions and reactions are going to look very different from yours. Continue to seek the truth and base your lives on truth rather than irrational anxiety. In this way, you will serve others and build a better world, just by living with integrity.
"Remember that every person is capable of this kind of connection, to some degree. Every person has inherent worth and dignity. This unites us all as human beings. We are all diverse, and our differences are something to celebrate. Yet, we hold in common our humanity, and thus our intrinsic value. May you find connection with other people, even those who seem different from you. May you recognize the empowerment that flows from meaningful relationship, and may you take responsibility for forming mutually empowering relationships. Then, you will connect with others with the same level of authenticity as you connect with your self. That is the essence and the power of genuine love."