The Desire of Jesus, Deep and Daring: What if…?

This piece was originally delivered at one of Westminster Abbey’s pre-Lambeth Conference ecclesiology seminars. A volume of these essays will be published in due course.

‘God’s Church for God’s World’ is the motto of the 2022 Lambeth Conference. How can we in the Anglican Communion be resourced and inspired to be the sort of Church we are called to be now for the sake of the world as it is now? There are many relevant ways of answering that, and the other essays in this volume explore some of them. My way is very easy to sum up: Enter more deeply into the Gospel of John.

This is a way that is open to every member of the Anglican Communion, and to each family or group of friends, to each local congregation, organization, seminary or theological college, region, national church, and international body or movement or network, and to the Anglican Communion as a whole. Beyond our Communion, the Gospel of John encourages deeper communion with other Christians. Within and beyond Christianity, John’s global horizon of God and all creation, as headlined in the Prologue (John 1:1-18), can and does inspire fresh and deeper engagements with the sciences, with technologies, with many cultures, with the wounds of history, with other religions, and with the dynamics of our complexly multi-religious and multi-secular world. At every level of life John offers wisdom and inspiration—from each person called by name to the immense challenges of the twenty-first century, including climate change, growing numbers of migrants and refugees, deep inequalities, violent conflicts, religious and ideological divisions, and the problems and possibilities of our global ‘information civilization’.


The Desire of Jesus

In the midst of all this, what is the desire of Jesus now? Can any question be more important for those of us who follow Jesus?

‘Father, I desire…’ says Jesus (John 17:24). He is praying for us, for ‘those who will believe in me’ (17:20). It is a deep desire, unsurpassably deep, rooted in and springing from the very being of God, from the intensity of glorifying between the Father and the Son that is rooted in their presence with each other in love ‘before the world existed’, ‘before the foundation of the world’ (17:5, 24). It is unsurpassably daring, both in its scope—‘authority over all people’, ‘so that the world may believe’, ‘so that the world may know…’ (17:2. 21, 23), and in its richness and quality—the deep, abundant, and lasting life of trust and love, on both sides of death, that is called ‘eternal life’ (17:2, 3). Above all, it is a desire to share what is most precious and important to Jesus himself:

21 As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

This is the ultimate desire of Jesus, poured out in prayer as he approaches the climactic moment of his life on the night before his death. We are invited to unite our desire with the desire of Jesus, to trust him, and to be drawn deeper into God in love, deeper into communion with each other as Christians, and, together, deeper into the world God loves—sent as Jesus was sent (17:18; 20:21). What if the whole Anglican Communion were to be gripped and moved afresh by this desire, inspiring our thinking, our praying, our life together, and our engagement with other Christians, other people, and the whole of creation?


An Education of Desire  

The first thing Jesus does in the Gospel of John is to form a community of disciples—that is, of learners. Any worthwhile, long term learning community is gripped and oriented by deep, broad, generative questions. The very first words of Jesus in this Gospel, spoken to his first disciples, give his community a core question: ‘What are you looking for?’ (1:38)

Already in the prologue readers have been prepared for the astonishing scope of what there is to be found. The prologue begins with God and all reality, and the deep meaning of the Word of God: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him… What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.’ (1:1-4) It culminates in the deep love at the heart of this reality, ‘God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart’ (1:18)—the relationship that the prayer of Jesus in John 17 opens up to others, without any limits set, except the trust that is essential if love is to be mutual. In between these depths of meaning and of love, the prologue plunges us deep into the messiness and tragedy of life with its light and darkness, its not knowing and rejections, its divisions and disappointments. The mysteries of light and darkness, of trust and love and the rejection of trust and love, come together in the life ‘among us’ of the Word become flesh, Jesus Christ. The core testimony is that ‘we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’, and ‘from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace’ (1:14, 16). This is what is to be desired. More fundamentally, this is who is to be desired.

After the big picture of the prologue comes the drama of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and, interwoven with that, the orientation to the later, ongoing drama in which we, the followers of Jesus are taking part now. This Gospel is ‘written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (20:31). Coming to trust in Jesus and then to live life in his name, in the light of who he is, and in utter commitment to him—loved by him, loving him, and sent by him into the world as he was sent: that is what we, the readers, are being invited to desire above all.

The drama of discipleship begins with that question of Jesus, ‘What are you looking for?’, and chapter after chapter then tries to educate our desiring, longing and searching. Each chapter[1] has its lessons, mostly in story form, and sometimes through showing what not to desire. The signs that Jesus does are vivid examples of what he says about himself: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (10:10). The imagery of abundance runs all through the Gospel: the Spirit given without measure, a spring of water gushing up to eternal life, Jesus as the light of the world, glory, joy, love like no other, the fruitfulness of a vine, a huge catch of fish, and more books than the world could contain. Jesus does signs of abundant life for all—a huge amount of good wine for everyone at a wedding; healings; and food for five thousand with baskets of surplus. The culminating sign of his public ministry is the raising of his friend Lazarus from death, and it is accompanied by the core lesson: at the heart of what we are to look for and desire is the person of Jesus: ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (11:25).

At the same time, there is a realism about all that resists this abundance. The light shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it—but still the darkness continues. Lies, violence, cruelty, betrayal, sin of many sorts, injustice, sickness, suffering, death, tragedy, persecution, and more: these too are real, and in Jesus the abundance of life and love meets an abundance of sin, evil, and death. In the face of all this, how can our desire for Jesus, for God, and for their abundance of life, love, joy, truth, peace—and more—be sustained?


Deeper into Jesus and Community, Deeper into the World

There is a climactic, pivotal moment in John 20 when, on the first Easter Sunday, the crucified and resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples gathered in fear behind locked doors.

Jesus has already had a surprising, moving encounter with Mary Magdalene, in which he gave her and them a message: ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ (20:17) This is the new standpoint from which to understand ongoing life, as anticipated in the prologue’s culminating picture of Jesus ‘close to the Father’s heart’ (1:18). From this ‘place’ of deep love, Jesus is free to relate to all places, all times, all people, all creation. The depth and breadth of divine and human love have been revealed in person, and there is a family community of children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus.

The next surprise appearance of Jesus is to this family (20:19-23). He greets them, ‘Peace be with you’, he shows them his hands and side, and they ‘rejoiced when they saw the Lord’. Then comes the decisive moment: ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…”

This is the core of discipleship and Christian community: receiving the peace of the crucified and risen Jesus, rooted in being utterly loved by him, trusting him, rejoicing in him, and loving him; being sent as Jesus was sent; and receiving his word and Spirit.

What does it mean to be sent as Jesus was sent? That is utterly central to being ‘the Church for the world’. Two basic elements are going deeper into who Jesus is and how he was sent, and going deeper into the world as his followers.

The first, going deeper into who Jesus is and how he was sent, sends us back to the beginning of the Gospel of John,[2] and, with this question in mind, to reread the Gospel all through—again and again. The sheer abundance of meaning means that we never fully answer the question: there is always more to learn. Going deeper into this text is an unending task, for both individuals and communities. It involves reflecting on the stories of Jesus doing signs, Jesus having conversations, and then Jesus being crucified and raised from the dead. There are many explicit indicators of the character of his mission in what is said about him or what he says. He is ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (1:29). He is ‘the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit’ (1:33). He is the giving of God’s love to the world so that those who trust him can have deep, lasting life (3:16). He gives ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (4:14). He is the one who can satisfy our hunger and thirst for what matters most (6:25-end; 7:37-39). He is ‘the light of the world… the light of life’ (8:12), illuminating the world we are sent into and the life we are to lead. He calls each one by name in order to give us abundant life (10:3, 10). He even resuscitates the dead Lazarus, and himself embodies resurrection and life (11:1-44).

But it is above all in ‘the hour’ that we are invited into the depths of who Jesus is and, at the same time, into the heart of the community into which he is forming us, and his desire for our future. ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’, Jesus announces (12:23). Jesus is being sent to suffer and die (12:27-36). The meaning of this climactic time is opened up in the Farewell Discourses (John 13-17).

The other basic element in ‘as the Father sent me, so I send you’ is the forward-looking ‘as… so…’. The ‘as’ does not mean we are to do and say exactly the same as Jesus. It means we are to be inspired by him in our different lives and situations. We are to immerse ourselves more and more in who he is, and what he has done and said, for the sake of being, doing and saying what is called for now. We are to improvise on how he was sent, and be open to new things in line with what he desires. What this might mean is also opened up in the Farewell Discourses, above all through the promise of the Holy Spirit.


The Farewell Discourses: Deepening and Daring, Abiding and Being Sent

One (of many) striking things in the Farewell Discourses is the way this course in discipleship unites deepening and daring, abiding and being sent, home life and engagement with the world, receiving abundant life and sharing it, being loved and loving the world God loves. Can we in the Anglican Communion learn to combine these better as individuals and at every level of our life together? That is the key essential in being ‘the Church for the world’. The scale of our own challenges as a Church, together with the scale of the challenges facing our world, cry out for nothing less. It amounts to desiring what Jesus desires for his community and for the whole world, and accepting his invitation to be part of its realisation.

At the very centre of the Farewell Discourses is the parable of the vine. It is a powerful image of being centred, rooted, deeply at home. ‘Abide in me as I abide in you’ (15:4). It is also a powerful image of the abundant overflow towards others: ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ (15:5) This life of mutuality and fruitfulness, nourished by the words of Jesus, inspires our desiring, expressed in daring prayer: ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask[3] for whatever you wish [Greek thelēte, desire], and it will be done for you.’ (15:7) Both the abiding and the action are rooted in the deep love at the heart of all reality: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.’ (15:9) And the desire of Jesus is ‘that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.’ (15:11)

The gift of love, of roots, of home, comes before the task of bearing fruit, of being sent, of loving. It is a cumulative theme through the Farewell Discourses, introduced by the headline statement: Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ (13:1) He washes and dries their feet, one to one. The Beloved Disciple is introduced for the first time, at home on the bosom of Jesus as Jesus is at home on the bosom of his Father (13:23-25; 1:18). The disciples are assured that ‘in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am there you may be also.’ (14:2-3). The gift of the Holy Spirit is promised ‘to be with you for ever’ and ‘you know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you’ (14:16-17). This is home life with a loving God: ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ (14:23) It is intensified by the parable of the vine, and the focus on abiding reaches its climax in the culmination of the prayer of Jesus in 17:20-26, concluding with a concise summary: ‘so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them’ (17:26).

Just as, in the parable of the vine, the abiding and the fruitfulness go together, so all through the rest of the Farewell Discourses, the gift of being loved and having an utterly loving home, a place of trust, truth, and joy, is accompanied by the task of living a life of service and love, inspired by the Holy Spirit, in a world where there are betrayal, mistrust, lies, hatred, humiliation, persecution, and violence. No imperative is more strongly asserted in John than to follow the example of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, leading into the new commandment to love like Jesus, which is orientated toward ‘everyone’ (13:35). The surprise of Jesus washing feet is to inspire endless other acts of imaginative loving service. Confidence in being utterly and eternally loved enables daring action in the community and in the wider world.

There is even the astonishing promise of doing greater things than Jesus: ‘Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.’ This is accompanied by the twice repeated promise that ‘I will do whatever you ask in my name… If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’ (14:12-14) Prayer is the depth of our action, freely uniting it with the action of Jesus, and ‘in my name’ makes this prayer inseparable from who Jesus is. Daring prayer and daring action go together, both united with the deep reality of who Jesus is and what he has done.

But what might ‘greater works’ be? When Jesus says this, the most recent work is also the one to which the strongest imperatives are attached: washing feet. This tells us to reimagine greatness: ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’ (13:14) But the ultimate reimagining of greatness is yet to come, centred on the death of Jesus. It is accompanied by a deepening of the love commandment, naming the disciples friends as well as servants, by a repeated emphasis on bearing fruit, and by a repeated emphasis on prayer in line with who Jesus is: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends… And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.’ (15:12-16)

What is the horizon for this prayer and action? It is nothing less than the horizon of the Prologue united with the prayer of Jesus in John 17—it embraces God and all reality, across generations. The Prologue’s depth of meaning and depth of love, and its realistic incarnational commitment to actual life, with its light and its darkness, all come together in the daring desire of Jesus poured out in prayer. Having prayed, ‘As you have sent me into the world, so I send them into the world’ (17:18), the culmination comes in 17:20-26, the ultimate desire of Jesus. What if we take that as the starting point in seeking inspiration for our Anglican Communion now?


What if…?

There are times in Christian history when particular parts of the Bible are especially relevant and fruitful.[4] I think that we in the Anglican Communion and those in other churches[5] should pay the Gospel of John special attention now.[6] I have come to this conclusion slowly during the years since the 1998 Lambeth Conference. That gathering was a pivotal moment in the Anglican Communion’s recent history. It especially brought to a head some issues relating to sexuality and other matters that have been a source of conflict and division ever since. John Gibaut’s verdict in his chapter in this volume is: ‘I sense that within the Anglican Communion and its leadership since the 1998 Lambeth Conference, the historic concern for wider Christian unity has been supplanted by the increasingly acute crisis of our internal disunity. In the process, Anglicans have become “ecclesiological introverts”.’ The motto of Lambeth 2022, ‘The Church For the World’, could signal the end of this phase of inward preoccupation. But will it? What is needed for this to happen well? What if the Gospel of John were to be at the heart of our engagement with God, with each other, and with our world?

I vividly remember a dramatic moment in the Primates’ Meeting (the gathering of the heads, mostly archbishops, of the provinces of the Anglican Communion) in Porto in 2000. During the 1998 Lambeth Conference I had been part of a team that helped to plan the conference, tracked the conference through its many strands and groups, and also produced a video record of it. I myself gave addresses at the opening and closing plenary sessions, and sat in on meetings of the steering group chaired by Archbishop George Carey, as it responded day by day to developments in the conference. So I had seen close-up the dynamics among the leaders of the Communion. The Porto Primates’ Meeting was their first since the conference. I was invited to lead the Bible studies[7] there, and was also present at their other sessions. They met amidst dire predictions of irreconcilable division.

The pivotal moment was when the Primates spontaneously decided that, as they wrestled with their differences, what they most wanted was to go deeper into the Bible. So they changed their already crowded schedule to make room for an extra session during which they shared what the Bible meant to them. This fed directly into the deliberations of the small group, chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames of the Church of Ireland, tasked with drafting a communique that was later unanimously agreed. A key sentence in that is: ‘We are conscious that we all stand together at the foot of the Cross of Jesus Christ, so we know that to turn away from each other would be to turn away from the Cross.[8]

I came away from Porto convinced that, as those Primates had agreed, renewed in-depth engagement with the Bible is utterly vital to the future of the Anglican Communion. That same year I began work on a commentary on the Gospel of John. So, following and sometimes witnessing events in the Anglican Communion (including leading Bible studies and sitting in on sessions at three later Primates’ meetings, and, for the past eight years, convening Archbishop Justin Welby’s Theological Retreat Group) has for over twenty years been accompanied by studying and reflecting on the Gospel of John. The overwhelming conviction emerging from these years is that this Gospel can be the key to a good future for us. And not only for us Anglicans, but for other Christians, and for our involvement with our fellow human beings and God’s whole creation.

This is not the place to try to spell out how that might be so. The commentary[9] that has emerged from these decades tries to do a little of that work. But the core invitation is for each of us, and each person, group, community, and other body, at different levels of the Church, and across the boundaries of each Church, to do the work in our diverse situations—reading, imagining, thinking, praying, and living this Gospel. There can be no overview of this, and there is endless, surprising potential for being led by the Spirit into further truth and inspired to do greater things, all centred in the desire of Jesus. This has the promise of sustaining long term, wise responses to the extraordinary challenges being faced in our lives, in the Church, and in our world.


Two Formative Practices

I conclude by suggesting two practices, which for me (through doing them alone and with others) have led into all the other things discussed in this chapter.

The first is to read and reread the Gospel of John slowly and regularly.

Besides the sending of the disciples and the breathing into them of the Holy Spirit by Jesus, another pivotal moment in John 20 is the engagement between Jesus and Thomas, and what immediately follows that (vv.24-31). After seeing the crucified and risen Jesus, Thomas cries out the culminating theological statement of the Gospel: ‘My Lord and my God!’ Next, Jesus says, ‘Have you believed me because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ And then this transition from eyewitness seeing to believing is immediately connected with reading. John writes about the writing of the Gospel and addresses us readers: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’

We are being told several things here, including that John knows other writings and events centred on Jesus, but has selected for his Gospel what he judges to be the essentials for the Christian life—what enables belief and trust in Jesus to begin and continue, shaping a whole way of life together in community (the ‘you’ is plural). But, most importantly of all, readers are being told that Jesus is ‘Lord and God’. This means that he is present to readers as God is present. So we read this Gospel in the presence of Jesus, meeting him through our reading. We are in fact more blessed than the original eyewitnesses. Each of them only saw fragments of the action. We who read this Gospel have the advantage of a writing that is a distillation of many eyewitness accounts, and with the additional bonus of the author’s many years of prayer, reflection, being led into further truth by the Spirit (16:13), and living in the Christian community. According to John 19:27, the author was sharing a home with the mother of Jesus; and if, as many scholars agree, the Letters of John in the New Testament are addressed to a community that knew the author and his Gospel, we can glimpse more of why he wrote the way he did, and highlighted what he did. He wrote while experiencing a Church with deep problems and divisions. Highlighting the prayer of Jesus in John 17 says to us too: let unity in love, with God and each other, for the sake of the world God loves, be your absolute priority. And a further lesson of John’s selection of essentials for Christian life is: be very wary indeed of ever claiming that anything not in the Gospel of John is essential for being followers of Jesus.

The second practice is to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the light of the prayer of Jesus in John 17.

I have begun doing this, and realise that it will never end. It is a way into the mystery and glory of God and God’s desire for us, into the love at the heart of all reality, into our vocations as followers of Jesus and members of his family, into the darkness we find in ourselves, our Church, and our world, and into daring prayer and daring action.

The Lord’s Prayer is central to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, and leads us deeper into that astonishing teaching. John 17 culminates the Farewell Discourses of John 13-16, and leads us deeper into that astonishing teaching. The deep connections between the two prayers[10] calls us to shape our lives and communities in response to both teachings. And the ramifications go on and on—through the rest of John and Matthew, through the other Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, through the rest of the Bible, through Church history and the Church around the world today, and through the ‘all things’, ‘all people’ and ‘grace upon grace’ of the prologue of John.


The superabundance of the glory, love, light, life, and activity of Jesus is overwhelming. John’s final sentence is: ‘But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’ Yet he managed to write one quite short text with the essentials. What if we were all to go deeper into it now?


David F. Ford
David F Ford is Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge.



[1] For my interpretation of each chapter in relation to this and the other topics discussed in this essay, see David F. Ford, The Gospel of John. A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2021). Many of the statements here need the fuller discussion given there.

[2] And the prologue sends us as well to search the rest of scripture and wherever else relevant meaning is to be found.

[3] This is a repeated promise in the Farewell Discourses: 14:12-14 (see further below), 16:23-24. This one follows that in 14:12-14, where the astonishing promise of doing greater works than Jesus is

[4] In relation to the Gospel of John, I have been fascinated by Paul Cefalu’s work, The Johannine Renaissance in Early Modern English Literature and Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2017). In aftermath of the divisions and often bloody conflicts of the Reformation, and faced with the challenges of early modernity, he finds a wide range of writers, artists, and thinkers (both Anglicans and those of other churches and movements), being inspired and resourced afresh by the Gospel of John—not only in faith, worship, prayer, theology, and spirituality, but also in culture, politics, and the shaping of society. While having reservations about some aspects of his position, I find the idea of an analogous Johannine renaissance in our century very attractive.

[5] For the Gospel of John in relation to ecumenism among Christian Churches today, with an orientation to the future, see David F. Ford, ‘Mature Ecumenism’s Daring Future: Learning from the Gospel of John for the Twenty-First Century’ in Receptive Ecumenism as Ecclesial Learning: Prin- ciples, Practices, and Perspectives, edited by Paul D. Murray, Paul Lakeland, and Gregory A. Ryan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

[6] This is by no means to exclude the rest of the Bible. One of the most striking things about the Gospel of John is how this text is soaked in the Septuagint (the translation into Greek of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament), and also resonates richly with the three Synoptic Gospels and other New Testament writings. Reading John leads into engaging with the whole Bible and beyond—this is part of the significance of the opening identification of Jesus with the Word of God and with creating all things.

[7] These were on the Letter to the Ephesians. That can be seen as a mature, rich expression of Pauline theology, just as the Gospel of John is a mature, rich expression of the tradition of gospel-writing seen in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is very significant that Ephesians, like John, places massive emphasis on the importance of Church unity—see especially 2:11-22, 4:1-6.


Another fundamental agreed statement, especially relevant to Lambeth 2022, is: ‘We believe that the unity of the Communion as a whole still rests on the Lambeth Quadrilateral: the Holy Scriptures as the rule and standard of faith; the creeds of the undivided Church; the two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself and the historic episcopate. Only a formal and public repudiation of this would place a diocese or Province outside the Anglican Communion.

[9] David F. Ford, The Gospel of John op. cit.

[10] For more on this see ibid. and ‘Ultimate Desire: The Prayer of Jesus in John 17’ in T&T Clark Handbook to Christian Prayer. Edited by Ashley Cocksworth and John McDowell (London: T&T Clark, 2021).

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