Sunday, May 16, 2010
One: Sermon on John 17:20-26
Jesus is praying for us, today, in this passage from the gospel of John. Let’s start there. He prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these…” by whom he means, his friends, his disciples, the ones gathered around him, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” which is to say, every Christian who followed. Which is to say, us. Jesus is praying for us.
We are seven weeks into the Easter season, just a Sunday away from the great celebration of Pentecost, and the lectionary appoints for us a story that takes place on the night before Jesus is crucified. It sounds strange I know. But of all the gospels, the gospel of John shines with the resurrection in every verse. It is always there, saturating every scene, every interaction, every conversation. The resurrection is encoded in the opening verses… “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” [John 1:1, 3b-4]. The resurrection is behind John the Baptist’s description of Jesus, yelled out as he passes by: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29b]. In John’s gospel, the resurrection informs the content of the miracles, whether Jesus is turning water into wine at a wedding, providing the revelers with a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, or he is raising a man from death to life, a tantalizing foreshadowing of his own rising. Everywhere, in virtually every verse, the gospel of John speaks, shouts, sings joyfully of the resurrection.
And so, the resurrection is right there, even on the night Jesus is betrayed into the hands of those who will kill him. We have wandered into a powerful, private moment here. Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends. John’s gospel devotes four chapters to Jesus’ words of farewell, and they are modeled very much after the ancient Greco-Roman farewell speech: The speaker announces his imminent departure, recalls his life, urges his audience to follow in his footsteps, perhaps even surpassing him in their behavior, and consoles them in their sorrow. Our passage constitutes the very end of this lengthy goodbye, a moment in which Jesus has moved into a prayer on behalf of his followers—and it bears repeating, he is not only talking about the ones in the room with him, the men and women who have followed him, and learned from him, and sat at table with him, and allowed him to wash their feet; he is also taking about us. He mentions us by name, we who have heard of Jesus as a result of a long and ancient chain of storytellers and preachers, from the people in that room, all the way down to our grandparents, and our parents and our preachers and our Sunday School teachers, to us.
Jesus is praying for us. He prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 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” [John 17:20-21]. This is Jesus’ prayer: that we may be one, even as Jesus and God are one.
The next logical question: What does it mean to be one as Jesus and God are one? Great volumes of ink have been spilled over this exact question, and blood, too. It is a big question, and it might be that we can’t start there. It might be that we have to look more—locally. So, let’s look around us. Where do we see parables of what it means to be “one”?
Let’s look at the news. I know it might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but take politics: There was an election in Britain last week, and the painful global recession once again took its toll on the incumbents, booting Labor prime minister Gordon Brown out of office. But there was no clear majority winner, and so the party which garnered the most votes—the Conservatives—formed a coalition with the Liberal Democratic party. Their goal in doing this is clear: they have to rescue their nation from the brink of bankruptcy and worse. So these two parties—which are almost at opposite ends of the political spectrum—have chosen to become one, a single ruling coalition, in order to do the monumental task that has been set before them.
Or, we could look to industry and government’s response to the latest environmental disaster: There are some estimates that the amount of oil that has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in the past three and a half weeks is already greater than that lost by the Exxon Valdez. It quickly became clear, following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent uncontrolled release of oil, that all hands were required on deck, and British Petroleum put out a call to, not only the US government (including our armed forces), but also to all the other oil companies asking for their help in trying to stem the disaster. As the technicians and engineers attempt to cap the spill, those who fish the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for a living are being hastily trained to do the arduous work of, literally, mopping up the oil and tar that have been washing ashore and working their way into the fragile Mississippi River delta. In other words, enormous numbers of people are coming together from very disparate backgrounds in the service of one goal: to save the waters and wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico.
One thing to note about both these examples of “oneness.” In each instance, people are coming together who are not necessarily likely allies. The fisherman and the BP oil executive, on April 19, had very different priorities, as did the Liberal Dems and the Tories on May 6. But in the wake of the disaster in the gulf, in the wake of the vote and the threat of a hung parliament, priorities were reordered, and those whose primary interest had been profits came together with their competitors and critics. Extraordinary events conspired to make “one” those who might never otherwise have found themselves seated around the same table.
What about us? “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 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.” This is Jesus’ prayer. There are two separate themes in theses verses. First: Jesus’ desire that we be one. There is a belief that tends to make its way into our common life, that unity must equal unanimity. Or, to put it another way, that the way to be “one” is for all of us to always agree with one another. To be “one,” we must be of “one mind.” But our examples from the news show us another way. They tell us stories of those who may have strong, principled disagreements—those who believe we should or should not engage in offshore drilling, those who believe the tax burden should or should not be shifted from the poor and middle classes to the wealthy. All these disparate voices, the holders of these divergent opinions, suddenly recognize the imperative that they must come together, now, for the sake of something that is bigger, something that is more important than their disagreements.
And that brings me to the second theme: the reason Jesus wants us to be one. His reason is simple: “…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Ah. There’s the rub. Another glance through the newspaper reveals a sad truth: if there’s anything we Christians do well, it’s argue. The testimony for this is present right in scripture—just read 1 Corinthians for a rip-roaring account of a church with seriously dysfunctional relationships—I mean, people who are seriously at one another’s throats. And if we are at one another’s throats—and usually, what we’re arguing over who is most perfectly following Jesus—oh, the irony of it! Then none of us is really following Jesus! And that pretty much throws our opportunities for showing the world the wonders of our faith in the garbage heap.
Martin Luther’s definition of sin was “the human curved in upon himself (or herself).” When we play “who’s on first” with our faith—when I claim my faith is better or truer than your faith—I am embodying that definition of sin far more successfully than I am following Jesus. I am looking inward at myself and ignoring the whole beautiful and broken world God to which has called every one of us to bring the Good News of God’s love. And you know, the state of the world today—it’s every bit as big an emergency as a potential hung parliament or an oil spill. We have every conceivable reason to put aside our differences on behalf of the effectiveness of the gospel. We have every conceivable reason to show to the world that the followers of Jesus are “one,” because it is a world that is aching for repair and restoration, and our Good News is the prescription.
In 1991 the band U2 was recording “Achtung, Baby,” their seventh studio album. They were using as their theme the reunification of Germany; the Berlin Wall had fallen less than two years earlier. While they were in the studio, however, conflict arose among the members of the band over their musical direction and the quality of their material. After weeks of backbiting and slow-to-no progress the band began to rally, around a song that came about, largely, through improvisation. Here are some of the lyrics:
One love, One blood
One life, You got to do what you should
One life, With each other
One life, But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other
We get to carry each other. Not only that, we get to let God carry us. Jesus is praying for us. And that means Jesus has placed the notorious problem of our failure to be one in God’s hands. Our job is to follow Jesus, so that probably means we should put our “oneness” problem in God’s hands. And that would suggest that, in addition to working hard to set aside our differences, we should probably be joining Jesus in his prayer. It really is true that, if you have a complaint against someone, a resentment, the best possible thing you can do (for yourself!) is to pray for them. Nothing about smiting, mind you. Take that person—or that group of people—you have trouble with and pray for them exactly as you pray for the people you love most in the world. Pray for them joy. Pray for them success. Pray for them wholeness and peace and every possible blessing from God’s generous heart. Do this without reserve or tricky clauses. Do this for a month. Do this, and see what happens. Do this, and be surprised at God’s amazing capacity for healing. Do this, and behold the power of Jesus’ prayer.
“I ask… 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.” We are one, and we get to carry each other. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Image courtesy of U2 Fan Life.