A few years ago, I read a book by Vaclav Havel, the first democratically elected Czech President after the fall of the communist government in 1989. Havel then became the first President of the Czech Republic 1993-2003. His book was called ‘Disturbing the Peace’, a principle I apply to my own life as a Christian.
Vaclav Havel was imprisoned by the communist regime for helping to draft, signing and publicising a document calling for human and civil rights. Known as Charter 77, it was first published in January 1977 and came to fruition with the velvet revolution in 1992.
Vaclav Havel was one of many artists and writers who worked on the document, many of whom were imprisoned for their participation in the Charter, like Havel. He wrote about his spiritual experience while in prison, frightened for his life. He saw his belief in their work as a ‘deep prognostication of the spirit’ which, irrespective of being either optimistic or pessimistic, gave him hope for the future. It encouraged him to follow the prophetic stirrings driving him and others to risk their lives for this greater dream of justice and a better life for his people and his country. Havel himself was a playwright and author, before he ever found himself as President.
John’s Gospel text (John 17:1-11) describes in confusing details God’s willingness to give everyone eternal life through love as opposed to coercive power. As Jesus tells us, it means we are gifted eternal life by being in love with God in Jesus Christ. Eternal life as described and lived by Jesus in John’s Gospel is a relationship of love and fellowship rather than one of power and submission.
It means we can imagine eternal life through having a present relationship with God as we participate in a faithful, obedient life, engaging with God’s love and justice. Eternal life begins now, today, because knowing God involves us in an active, thoughtful, purposeful process of building our relationship with God and one another. Just as getting to know someone takes time and commitment, knowing God also involves using our strength and energy, our minds, bodies and spirits to be in relationship with our Creator. This means eternal life is both a present reality and a future blessing.
Jesus speaks persistently about God, God’s love, God abiding in us, in Jesus and us in God and the eternal nature of this love. The never-ending reiterative experience of a lifelong relationship developing with God, embracing us, accepting God’s love is life-giving and life-changing.
Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:1b-3)
John’s Gospel Ch.17 is notoriously confusing and complicated. However, confusing or not, our God given capacity to be open to God and simply let God be with us and in us allows eternal life to be a blessing as we allow space for God’s love to work in us. John of the Cross writes about this:
If we want to attain union with God, we have, of necessity, to undergo times of testing and darkness. Our spirit needs to be strengthened and the virtues refined, just as iron is tested in the fire and hammered into shape by the artist’s hand. The reason why more of us do not attain perfection is because we do not cooperate with God when God begins to work in us. We want quick results, not the labour of patient endurance. So God, realising we do not have the necessary courage, stops testing us and proceeds no further with our purification.
In these final moments with the disciples, Jesus affirms and expresses the type of authority God has given him over all people. In contradiction to worldly forms of authority, Jesus’ authority is of a human being humbly willing to die for others. Worldly authority is the human power to take other people’s livelihoods and lives in order to expand one’s wealth and status. Divine authority is precisely the opposite. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians 1:6-11 he reminds us:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, thought he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In Christ, God shows real authority and real divinity in the act of giving up all efforts to gain power. Real authority is not absolute power over others but absolute love of others, shown in God’s willingness to give up everything, including divine status itself, in order to express that love perfectly.
John’s Gospel is very different from the other three Synoptic Gospels. In Jesus’ final discourse, John presents a Christology in which Jesus is already speaking triumphantly as he sees his hour has come to its glory, with imminent union with God and union among the disciples in his name. This is not a story of sorrow and grief, but of full expectation of God’s glory and love expressed in ways beyond words, bringing eternal life to those who let go of all they have previously believed and imagined and now abide instead in God’s love.
Vaclav Havel encountered God as Havel worked for justice with love for his fellow citizens, rejecting earthly authorities’ power, corruption and death, trusting in the Spirit to change the hearts of his people.
Eternal life and God’s love turns up in funny, odd places. Unexpectedly, unimaginably real and it changes lives, including yours and mine. Jesus’ prayer to God, about himself, his followers, friends and disciples, show the power of God’s love and the blessing of knowing God eternally. The Lord be with you.
Havel, V. 1991. Disturbing the Peace. Vintage Books, NY
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels John, Vol. 2 Chapters 10-21. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Obbard, E.R. 2004. John of the Cross’ Living Flame of Love. New City Press, Hyde Park, NY