NRSV JOHN 17:20-26
20(Jesus said) “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. 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.”
Well, that’s a funny way to end the season of Easter. Marching right back through the resurrection appearances, back through the empty tomb, back through the suffering cross, back to the night of betrayal, denial and arrest. Here we are one week from Pentecost and its long season of listening for the Spirit, but these words take us back to the upper room with Jesus praying for his disciples.
But this is not just any prayer. This is Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, as it has come to be known. The end of his Farewell Discourses with his disciples. His last words with them before they are scattered.
If you want to – and I hope you will want to – you can read the whole prayer, going back to verse one in this chapter. But for this Sunday we have these words of Jesus for his disciples, and his earnest plea. And what does our Lord want for those disciples – and all of us – more than anything in the world? To be rich and famous, to have people like us, to have our heart’s desires, to be good boys and good girls? No, none of that. Jesus wants us to be one.
Maybe you should have stuck with the rich and famous, Jesus. It might have been a little more ‘realistic’ as they say, at least as far as this world operates.
If that sounds a little sacrosanct to you, consider unity. We hear about the need for it all the time. We know how important it is. We might remember that one of the promises we officers in the church make is to “further the peace, unity and purity of the church.” I know I mention it in sermons all the time. Maybe it’s because I need that sermon as much, if not more, than anybody else. Maybe you know you need it, too.
We need it because if we were really honest with each other we would admit that we probably would have preferred that Jesus would want something else for us. To practice unity means I have to take another person seriously. To practice unity means I have to admit that we will agree on more things than we will disagree, even though I might want to zero in on those disagreements. To practice unity means that when we don’t agree I still have to love them and admit that they are God’s child made in God’s image, no more and no less than I.
Opposition to this unity doesn’t only come from social media, but it seems that much preferred method of communicating has not exactly helped unity, or our sense of self-worth. In a recent article in The Atlantic, the question is asked, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The author notes that, “within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.”
There is something very important for sticking up for what you believe to be right; for searching your own heart and soul about a position, and advocating for it firmly with others. The Bible is full of warnings about being tossed about on the winds of popular opinion. The old saying from Peter Marshall that we must stand for something lest we fall for anything is as true now as it was 80 years ago.
The problem comes in part I think when we internalize our opinions so much that they become not just a thought or a belief we have, but something that is a part of us. When someone disagrees with our positon we can feel like they are attacking us. Personalizing an issue can happen to all of us – I know it has happened to me. But all that does is to make us demonize anyone who doesn’t think like I do. It doesn’t unify us. It just makes us lonelier.
It also forgets this prayer, and the One who lifted it up. We can read something in the Bible so many times that its force and meaning can be lost to us. But think about this – on the last evening with his disciples, in his last words to them, Jesus does not say ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ Instead, he prays. And he prays not for himself, but for others. The other gospels have the account of the agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, but we don’t have that here. John, writing years after these events, casts a picture of Jesus lifting up a prayer, a request to God for those whom he will leave behind.
I wonder if we really appreciate how difficult it is to practice unity – I mean, to really practice it, especially with those with whom we have serious issues. I couldn’t find it last week but recently I read someone’s take on this and they started it off by saying, “Why did you have to say that, Jesus? Don’t you know that we are always going to disagree on something? And some of us take great joy in disagreeing with others. Pray for anything else, but praying for unity – especially in our divisive, narcissistic culture – is just a waste of time. We just enjoy disagreeing with each other too much. And unity is what we give up for our freedom of thought.”
But Jesus is not looking to enslave us to another master. Jesus is seeking to free us all in this prayer, and he gives that liberation in words that communicate many things, but three in particular. One is that the prayer Jesus lifts up transcends generations. Jesus is not just praying for his fellow Galileans in the first century CE. He is praying for all those who will believe because of the message one generation passes on to another. I said recently that a phrase that has come to mean so much to me lately is the one Paul offers up in First Corinthians – “For I delivered unto you what was delivered unto me…” Jesus is praying for those who will pass on his good news, as well as for those who will receive that good news and deliver it to someone else.
In other words, Jesus is praying for us. He is lifting up the Communion of Saints, that part of the Apostles’ Creed we recite, and he is praying for all people, known and unknown. For you and for me. For my children and grandchildren, and your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. For those who have gone before us, and for those who will come after us. It is somewhat humbling to hear this prayer, to read those words, and remember that Jesus is not just praying for anybody. He is praying for you and for me.
Then there is the line that may sound to us like mystical musings hard to understand – the mutuality between the Father and the Son. “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 sent me.” If we think we have to keep Jesus and God the Creator divided into their respective spaces this can sound strange. But there is a oneness here that defies human logic. There is a connection between the three persons of the Godhead which we will take up in a couple of weeks on Trinity Sunday. But for now let me just share with you how helpful I have found it not to keep God in a box of my own human expectations. God is not a prisoner of our own notions of time and space. God is Spirit, Jesus tells all of us Nicodemuses, and God’s Spirit moves in every life. We see God in each other; we see Jesus in each other. We let others see God in how we live, in how we love, in how we celebrate the fullness of life.
Mystics through the centuries have been better than we preachers at showing this – that God moves through every life, and when we find ourselves doing or saying something that we never thought we would say, something that shows love, that shows connection, that shows unity, it is God moving through our lives. As Richard Rohr has noted, “We cannot attain the presence of God, because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What‘s absent is awareness.”
John Philip Newell, a writer of Celtic Spirituality, was reflecting on the work of Julian of Norwich who lived in the 14th century but whose writings still touch us today. Newell noted that, “(Julian) says that Christ is the one who connects us to the ’great root’ of our being … We are not simply made by God; we are made ‘of God.’
“What Julian hears is that ‘we are all one.’ We have come from God as one, and to God we shall return as one. And any true well-being in our lives will be found not in isolation but in relation. She uses the image of the knot … to portray the strands of time and eternity intertwined, of the human and the creaturely inseparably interrelated … Christ’s soul and our soul are like an everlasting knot. The deeper we move into our own being, the closer we come to Christ. And the closer we come to Christ’s soul, the nearer we move to the heart of one another.”
The third part is that our unity is a witness to the world. We can worship the false idol of rugged individualism and think that no one else counts but me. Or we can attend to the lessons of Jesus and look beyond ourselves. Working for unity can show what it looks like for people who have different opinions to come together and know that there is something greater than those opinions – the love and presence of a God who holds us all together; the love and presence of a God who dwells in each of us; the love and presence of a God who yearns for people to be one.
A few years ago there was a very serious fight in our Presbytery over one church that wanted to leave this denomination on its own terms. There was many a floor fight at meetings, and it really got to be a bit of an embarrassment that Christians couldn’t sit down and talk things over and work things out. At one meeting where this really threatened to blow up the Rev. Bill Klein preached during the worship service. Bill’s son David was Dean of Students at Hampden-Sydney College, and I knew Bill when I was an intern at Salem PC and Bill was pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke. He was one of the ten best preachers I have ever heard, and at this Presbytery meeting he did not disappoint. I don‘t remember anything he specifically said. I just remember his presence and the way he delivered his words brought people together. Bill didn‘t have to yell at anyone to behave. His mere presence was enough to remind us of how important it is to be one in Christ.
How important is it that we live in unity, that we be one in Christ? Enough for Jesus to lift us all up in prayer on the night before the cross. If it was that important for our Lord, then that does not make it an option easily discarded by us. Amen.