Seventh Sunday of Easter
TEXT: John 17:20-26
“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)
Some passages of Scripture are difficult because they are so clear. “Love one another as I have loved you,” is about as clear as Scripture can get. However, its clarity does not render Jesus’ commandment easy to follow. Loving is tough. And “loving as God loves”—can we humans possibly do that?
Other passages of Scripture are difficult because they are confusing to begin with. They do not speak with clarity. And that is the case with our gospel text for today.
“I [am] in them and you [are] 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.”
So it is with much of John’s Gospel. The words roll and tumble and circle about, and they are beautiful—but they can also be mystifying. Reading Scripture of this sort can be challenging. It’s a bit like what happens to those of us who—in our waning years—have to get used to bifocals or “graduated lenses.”
They’re very different from ordinary spectacles. We put them on, and—wonder of wonders—things at first seem very clear. We say: “Ah! Now I get it! Now I know what I’m reading.” But with one crank of the neck or one blink of the eyes, it all blurs over again.
So it is with the Gospel of John. Just when you think you have a handle on what the author is saying, up comes a crank—or a blink … and it all blurs over again.
Today we hear Jesus’ prayer that we might all be one. Jesus is praying one last, long prayer for his disciples—and for the disciples that will follow them in the centuries to come. Right now, Jesus’ prayer is for us—and for all Christians around the world:
- For Canadian Christians seeking reconciliation with their First Nations sisters and brothers, Jesus is praying.
- For fundamentalist and evangelical and liberal Christians across North America, Jesus is praying.
- For Orthodox Christians suddenly divided by Russia’s war in Ukraine, Jesus is praying.
- For pastors and teachers in the world’s churches—thirsty and dried up with fatigue, surrounded by the sufferings of their people—Jesus is praying.
- For those mourning loved ones lost in the latest of too many mass shootings and wondering when and how the life-giving water of the Spirit will come, Jesus is praying.
- For those who find themselves wondering if God will really catch them if they fall … For them, too, Jesus is praying.
Jesus is praying for all people in times such as these, when we are troubled and perplexed that our personal worth seems to be tied to who’s got what—to who’s got the biggest, and the best. Even Christians fall into this trap—and then we behave as though success depends upon the size of our congregational budget, or upon huge attendance figures at Sunday worship.
When that happens, we know Jesus’ prayer for us has not been fully answered.
Some years ago, I heard another pastor speaking to a gathering of church workers. His parish was in Chicago—in some of that city’s worst slums—and he told a story from his ministry there.
One day a woman whom he knew slightly came to visit him in his office. He recognized her immediately as one of the prostitutes who walked the hooker stroll not far from his church. She was in wretched condition—homeless, sick, and unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told the pastor in detail how she and her daughter had been living.
“I could hardly bear hearing her story,” he told us. “I had no idea what to say to this woman. The story she was sharing was making me sick. At last I asked her if she had ever thought of going to church.”
Then he saw the look on her face. It was a look of horror! “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They would only make me feel worse!”
Probably, she was right.
Jesus is praying for us. And his prayer has not been fully answered.
In the rambling, rolling, exquisite language flowing from the apostle John’s pen, Jesus is praying that the unity of love will bind us and hold us together.
Muslim, Jew, Christian—we all claim the same patriarch, Abraham. We all say we worship a God who desires peace, and not conflict; who calls us to love our neighbours and bless our enemies; who loves people of all races and creeds.
In recent years, the similarities in our three faiths have been emphasized more than perhaps at any other moment in history. In these dreadful times, people of faith everywhere are seeking common ground. And that is a good and amazing thing!
But I wonder: have you given any thought to what it is that makes Christianity stand unique among the world’s religions? What makes Christianity truly different from the others?
Is it our teaching about the incarnation—about God becoming human in the person of Jesus? No. Other religions have similar stories about gods appearing in human form.
Is it our belief in resurrection? No. Other religions have accounts of miraculous returns from the grave.
What makes Christianity unique is its teaching about grace—the assertion that God’s eternal and perfect love is being offered to us free of charge, with no strings attached. Grace is the essence of this good news—this gospel—that we proclaim, and it is God’s free gift to the world, offered through Christian faith.
The Buddhist “eight-fold path,” the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, the Muslim code of law—each of these offer to humanity methods of earning approval, or of working out our own salvation.
Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional!
In grace, the sun shines alike on good people and on bad. By grace, birds gather seed freely, neither plowing nor reaping to earn a harvest. Through grace, untended wildflowers burst into bloom on rocky hillsides. Grace teaches us that God is eager to bless us—not because we have worked for blessing or because we deserve it—but simply because we are God’s beloved creation, the sheep of God’s fold.
Yet we live in a world that teaches the opposite. We live in a culture that teaches ungrace. We live in a world that judges us and sorts us and labels us and tells us that what we get is only what we deserve.
Businesses do that. Long-serving employees—who cost too much in wages and benefits—are pressured to retire or resign (it’s called “constructive dismissal”). Others are expected to consistently generate huge financial returns and are devalued when they inevitably fail. Human resources departments grade workers according to “performance-graded rating scales” where “one” is bad and “five” means job survival.
Such business practices foster ungrace.
Some families ooze ungrace, as well. Families like that of the novelist, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s very religious mother detested his hard-drinking, two-fisted lifestyle, and in later years refused to allow him near her. One year for his birthday, she sent him a cake—along with the gun his father had used to kill himself!
Another year, she wrote him a letter explaining that a mother’s life was like a bank. Every child that is born to her enters the world with a large and prosperous bank account, she said. As the child grows, she explained, it draws upon the bank’s resources—without making any deposits, of course. However, when the child is grown, it is time to replenish the account—it’s time to pay the mother back. Hemingway’s mother then proceeded to explain how he could remain in her good favour.
“Send me often flowers, fruit, candy, pay my bills, and above all,” she wrote, “stop neglecting your duties to God and your Saviour Jesus Christ.”
Hemingway never got over his hatred of his mother.* And he never got over his hatred of her Saviour—Jesus Christ.
Churches can teach ungrace, too. They become shame-based churches. What do I mean by that? Let me tell you a story. It’s about a man I met once.
“What do you do?” he asked me. So of course I told him, “I am a United Church minister.”
Over the next half hour or so, he told me how tough his life has been. But then his face brightened, as he spoke proudly about having completed his second week of outpatient treatment for drug addiction. And with great enthusiasm, he told me about his “Twelve-Step” group, where—at his first meeting—he heard that there is a Higher Power who loves him no matter how badly he has screwed up.
“I never heard that in my church,” he said. “All my life—in church—what I heard was, ‘Don’t come back until your life is straightened out!’”
“As you 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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
That is Jesus’ prayer for us. I do not believe that his prayer is for uniformity in our doctrines. I don’t even think it’s a prayer that all our churches should merge and become one huge “mega-denomination.” No. I believe what Jesus meant when he prayed that we might all be one was that we be united in our message of grace and hope.
As we look to the days ahead and ponder what the future may hold, Jesus continues to pray for us. And his prayer is not just that we might survive on promises of a brighter tomorrow, but that we may live fully in the present, receiving encouragement for life in the now.
Is that prayer being answered in our lives? Is there deep faith amongst us, whatever challenges we might face?
Here is good news: the power of heaven is ours for the asking—so let us ask. The love of God is even now being displayed in our midst—so let’s look for it.
The best is yet to come, my friends. Despite appearances, the best is yet to come. Thanks be to God.