01 June 2014

That They May Be One

John 17: 1-11

Seventh Sunday of Easter/ 1st June 2014
Sacrament of the Lord's Supper

The seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel is known as Jesus’ high priestly prayer. In the hearing or reading of this text ,we become voyeurs, looking in, listening in on the poignant intimacy of Jesus at prayer. He’s in Jerusalem. He knows what’s coming.  He knows that before the sun rises the next day he would be betrayed and then arrested.  It’s just the two of them in conversation, Jesus and the God he calls Father, and yet what’s overheard is intended for his disciples’ ears—and ours.

            With no anxiety or fear, but confident of God’s faithfulness to him, Jesus prays with assurance; lacking nothing, he prays with gratitude.  Jesus prays for himself, then he prays for his disciples who will soon be left behind, and then he prays for others who will come to believe through the witness of his disciples.  So, in effect, Jesus is praying for the Church, which means that Jesus here is praying for us. This is Jesus’ prayer for you and for me. 

            What is Jesus praying?  What does he desire for them, for us?  Jesus wants them, he want us to know God the way he knows God.  In fact, Jesus tells us that this is what eternal life looks like.  “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).  Eternal life is not so much a place as it is a relationship.  It’s a way of living—life touched by eternity, life that becomes divine and holy and beautiful when one knows God, the God who sent Jesus Christ, the God known in the face of Jesus Christ.  “I glorified you on earth,” Jesus prays, “by finishing the work that you gave me to do. …I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world” (John 17:4, 6).  Everything God sent the Son to say to his disciples has been said and they trusted and believed.

            Then, on their behalf—that is, as a priest, a mediator—on behalf of these disciples and all the others who will come to trust and believe in Jesus because of their witness, Jesus prays that they be one, just as Jesus and God are one. Four times in this prayer Jesus asks for unity.  Jesus wants his disciples to be one, to be united, together.  Why?  Unity reflects the nature of God.  Unity reflects the nature of Jesus’ relationship with God.  Jesus is in God; God is in Jesus. Those who are in Jesus are in God because Jesus is in God.  One.  One-ness.  Union.  Unity.  Not uniformity, but unity, a unity that reflects the Triune God who is diversity in unity.  As Desmond Tutu reminds us, “For Christians, who believe they are created in the image of God, it is the Godhead, diversity in unity and the three-in-oneness of God, which we and all creation reflect.”  Jesus’ relationship with God, therefore, becomes the model for our relationship with one another in the Church.  

            “That they may be one.”  This is Jesus’ petition in 17:11, first for his disciples and then he repeats it again for the Church, for you and for me: “I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21).  That all followers of Jesus may be one.  Jesus says, “The glory that you have given me I have given them,” meaning, us, “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”—why?—“so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23).  Unity is a sign of Christ’s love.  Unity is for the sake of the Church, but it is also for the sake of the world, for those beyond the walls of the Church.  When we love one another—really love one another—and know God’s love for us and the love that binds us together, when the world sees how we live in community with one another, then the world, on the outside looking in at us, will come to know of God’s love for them, for those beyond the community of the faithful.

            That’s Jesus’ prayer.  That’s Jesus’ hope for the Church. 

So, what happened?  This certainly isn’t a description of the Church that I know. Is this an example of unanswered prayer?  Or is it a prayer waiting to be answered?

            Christian unity is supposed to be a sign of God’s love for the world because it presumes God’s love is at work in us.  When the world beyond the Church looks at us these days, the first thing that comes to mind is not, “see how much they love one another.”  That’s how the early Roman Christian, Tertullian (160-220), described the Church, “See how much they love one another.” 

Today, the Church, as a whole, is divided both theologically and culturally. Just look at the history of Christianity and the story of the Church. 

The Roman Catholic Church split east and west in 1054 and is still apart today. Although, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I announced last week in Jerusalem, after praying together, that the first ecumenical synod in 1700 centuries will take place in Nicea in 2025.

Or, look at the history of the Reformed Church.  Try sorting out our family tree from the sixteenth-century all the way down to the present, following all of the schisms and divisions within our tradition. You’ll end up with a headache.

There was a time in the 1960s when ecumenism was all the rage, when it was in the air, when there was a concerted effort to come together.  After the devastation of the Second World War, the World Council of Churches was formed in 1948 to work for unity. The Roman Catholic Church, though, never joined the WCC, but they do send observers to WCC meetings.

Protestants and Roman Catholics are still divided, of course, although there is greater respect and mutual understanding today, perhaps more than ever.  The Roman Catholic Church now acknowledges the authenticity of Reformed baptisms. I’ve heard Francis described as the Protestant Pope. 

Yet, the Protestant world is legion with new denominations and sects forming every year, usually splitting over divergent interpretations of scripture. A Roman Catholic said to me years ago, you Protestants stressed the importance of reading the Bible in one’s own language and look what happened, the dissection of Christ’s body, a sect for every new interpretation of the Bible.

Several years ago, the Lutheran Church (ELCA) and the PC(USA), along with the United Church of Christ (UCC), agreed upon a shared understanding of the Lord’s Supper that now allows us to share ministers—that only took about 500 years.  And we have a way to go.  Presbyterians still don’t have a common understanding of the Lord’s Supper with the Methodists or the Episcopalians. 

            And as the PC (USA) prepares to gather in General Assembly in Detroit on the 13th June, there are rumors—again—of schism, directly related to the interpretation of scripture.  How will the Assembly respond to the question of same-sex marriage?  Will the Assembly allow ministers to perform a marriage service for same-gender couples, as their conscience dictates?  Will the Assembly go even farther and recommend changing the definition of marriage?[1]  For some Presbyterians this will be a line that cannot be crossed; if we do amend the definition, they’re leaving the denomination. The fear and anxiety are building, just like two years ago.  Will there be a schism? The last schism in the American Presbyterian Church occurred over the question of slavery, which was also a fight over how to interpret scripture.  (We split in 1857 and were reunited in 1983.)

            Schism is a serious word and should be used with extreme care.  St. Augustine (354-430) said, “There is nothing more serious than the sacrilege of schism because there is no just cause for severing the unity of the church.”  Schism, Christian disunity, is a scathing indictment of the gospel.  We’re called to unity, not uniformity—unity.  Yet, so many choose uniformity over unity—causing many to suffer because of it. 

            The nineteenth century, English art critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900), who had an enormous influence during his lifetime, was on to something profound and timely for us when he said, “The root of almost every schism and heresy from which the Christian Church has suffered, has been because of the effort of men to earn, rather than receive their salvation; and the reason preaching is so commonly ineffective is, that it often calls on people to work for God rather than letting God work through them.” 

            Schism, heresy, disunity, division occur when women and men stand in the way of what God has done and is doing in their lives, when they become too self-absorbed and self-centered; when our nervous, worried, fearful egos try to take charge and thus get in the way of what God has done and is doing in our lives; egos that are themselves divided, alienated, separated from the One who grants life; egos that are themselves schismatic, that is, cut-off from God, disconnected from the One who makes us one.

            It’s been calamitous for the Church that the Table, given by the Lord as a symbol of our unity, has become, itself, an expression of just how divided we are as Christians—why can’t the family of God agree to come around this Table, have a meal together, break bread, share some wine, and tell the story of God’s love and presence in Christ. Why is this so difficult?

            And yet, when we come with all of our differences—north and south and east and west, male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white, young and old, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, Orioles and Yankees fans—when we come to this Table because of the One who has called us here, united in our trust in him, the One who offers us bread and wine, who in remembrance and presence offers himself, when we receive what Christ offers us, when we allow ourselves to be served—as we often do in the Reformed Church, when an elder serves us the bread and wine—when we surrender to God and allow ourselves to be used by the Spirit, something happens. Something always happens:
we become one with Christ
and Christ becomes one with us;
we become one with God,
           and God becomes one with us,
which means, then, that we, too, become–

[1] For an overview of the proposals before this year’s General Assembly, see.


Tom Blair said...

VERY well said!


( and quotable, too!)

Kenneth Kovacs said...

Thanks, Tom!