Sunday is the only time during the present three-year cycle of Sunday readings that we'll hear the word "Christian." (The title is used in just two other passages of the Christian Scriptures: Acts 11 and 16.) But it shouldn't bother us that the word is mentioned so rarely; the concept which "Christian" conveys is taught and applied throughout the writings which bear its name.
There's no doubt what our biblical writers mean by the term. For instance, the context in which the author of the second reading (I Peter 4:13-16) employs the word "Christian" provides its definition.
"Rejoice," he encourages the newly-baptized, "to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you....Whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but should glorify God because of the name."
"The name," like any name, stands for something or someone that exists behind the name. In this case, it signifies the belief that whoever receives the name Christian actually is living and suffering in the place of Christ. Though the historical Jesus is no longer among us, one way the risen Jesus is present is in those who daily imitate His dying and rising. Jew or Gentile, man or woman, child or adult, officially given the title or not, such people are "other Christs" -- Christians.
Without using "the name," the first (Acts 1:12-14) and second readings (Jn 17:1-11) teach the same reality. The Acts passage is significant because it conveys such a belief. Though it seems nothing but a list of names, these are the names of the first people in history to carry on the ministry of the risen and ascended Jesus. For Luke, these individuals become models for all who will undertake that ministry through the centuries.
Just as the high point of the musical "1776" is the dramatic roll call of those who are about to sign the Declaration of Independence -- those first "Americans" -- so Luke, just before the arrival of the Holy Spirit, gives a list of the first "other Christs:" the men and women who will carry on the work of Jesus.
As simple as this concept is, Christians through the centuries have had problems with it, especially problems in limiting those followers of Jesus whom we actually regard as other Christs.
Such restrictions come to mind when I recall my original introduction to Sunday's gospel. I, along with many other priests, first heard it in the context of the festive dinner our seminary celebrated immediately after its annual spring ordination ceremony. Before our "clerics only" community began eating, a student lector proclaimed the passage, introducing it with the words: "Jesus' prayer for His newly ordained priests!"
This misleading introduction certainly influenced the way we heard these important words. Instead of applying them to all followers of Jesus, as John intended, we restricted them to a small group of followers who had received sacramental ordination.
Listen to these words today as John wanted us to hear them. Listen to them for perhaps the first time in their original context. "I revealed your name," Jesus reminds the Father, "to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word....I pray for...the ones you have given me,...I have been glorified in them. Now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world while I am coming to you."
Jesus is speaking about all His followers here, all His other Christs, all His Christians. Whether sacramentally ordained or not, Jesus expects us to be Jesus in the world.