Easter 7C John 17:20-26
Once upon a time there was a small Lutheran congregation that had a bit of a problem. They could not decide if they should stand, sit or kneel during the prayers. Over time, this little problem had become a big disagreement and then a big fight. People spoke meanly and cruelly about each other and some people weren’t speaking at all. One group said that it was traditional to sit during the prayers, another said it was traditional to stand and still another said the truly proper and traditional way was to kneel. The groups were so divided that one wanted to create an entirely different service for the standers, another wanted to split off and make a new congregation with kneelers in every pew and still another was planning to stage a prayer vigil/sit in to protest everybody else! The pastor was growing weary with all this discord and disagreement and could not figure out how to resolve the problem. Then, she remembered old Pastor Martin. He was now living in the Home for Ancient Lutherans in the next town so the pastor of this little divided congregation went to speak to the wise Pastor Martin for guidance. Surely, she thought, he will know what the real tradition is and we can resolve this issue once and for all. ‘Please, Pastor Martin,’ she said, ‘I need your wisdom. When we say the prayers, is it traditional to stand?’ ‘Nope,’ said Pastor Martin, ‘that’s not the tradition.’ ‘Well then, is it the tradition to sit during the prayers?’ the younger pastor asked hopefully. ‘Nope,’ said Pastor Martin, ‘that’s not the tradition.’ ‘Ah!’ The pastor of the divided church could see a resolution in sight. ‘Then the tradition must be for us to kneel!’ ‘Nope,’ said Pastor Martin, ‘that’s not the tradition either.’ The younger pastor was confused and felt hopelessly frustrated. Throwing her hands in the air she said, ‘But everyone is arguing all the time over these three ways of praying!’ ‘Ah HA!’ said Pastor Martin, ‘THAT’S the tradition!’
‘That they may all be one’ Jesus prays, ‘as you and I are one.’ Even when we Christians are not debating the proper way to pray or to baptize or to do communion or how one comes to be saved by Jesus, we can find all kinds of things to be in discord about. Jesus’ prayer for us to all be united is one we are fortunate to overhear in today’s gospel text. I will admit, however, that this part of scripture is so confusing! I used to love John! ‘In the beginning was the word’, ‘all things were made through him’, and all that jazz. Brilliant! ‘Only begotten Son’. Save the world not condemn it. And love, of course. God so loved the world! But the text we hear today is not from those parts. This is what is called the High Priestly Prayer. This is the big, formal and very public final prayer Jesus makes before hitting the road. The road to the cross, that is, because right after he finishes this prayer he and his disciples will head for the garden and Jesus’ date with destiny and the betraying kiss of Judas. This is the night in which he was betrayed. All of this means that this prayer is very important. It is very meaningful and it is meant to be overheard by the disciples and by us.
And yet it is so confusing! Its cryptic sounding wording can get us all tangled up! I in you and you in me and I in them and you in them and they in us? I feel like I need a diagram or big white board in the front of the church in order to preach on this. Every time I read this part I think of football commentators’ diagrams with xs and os and lines with arrows going this way and that to diagram a particular play. Jesus has the ball, fakes left, then goes right. Passes the ball to Peter who struggles to find an opening to throw it to the Father before winding up on his back underneath a huge pile of opposing players. If only they had gone for a Hail Mary pass!
Recently, I watched the movie ‘Lincoln’ and there were times in that movie that I felt sort of the same way I feel when reading this part of the Gospel of John. Most often, it was when Lincoln was telling one of his many stories. I knew there was something important there; something really meaningful that we ought to get from that his telling of that particular anticdote at that particular moment, but it wasn’t always clear at first what he was talking about. In one scene, at a moment of personal conviction and national crisis related to legislation outlawing slavery, he seeks to make a logical argument for equality. In doing so he talks about Euclid, a mathematician who lived around 300BC, and his First Common Principle. If two objects are equal to a third object then those two objects must be equal to themselves. Seems very disconnected from the problem at hand but actually not. However if, for example, a white person is equal to the definition of what it means to be human and a black person is equal to the definition of what it means to be human then white people and black people are also equal. Ah Ha! Very logical! And perhaps even common sense. In fact, Euclid said that this was self-evident; common sense and obvious. Of course, what Lincoln was talking about wasn’t as self-evident to everyone at that time which is why it might be helpful to point out such a Common Principle.
Perhaps there is a little bit of the First Common Principle present in Jesus’ words. Let’s take another look at them. “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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 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.”
Two objects that are equal to a third are therefore equal to each other.
While Jesus’ words are confusing and folding back on themselves, there is a purpose here. He is trying to tell the disciples and us a really important part of what it means to be a follower of him. This is a prayer, a prayer to God the Father, but it is also something that Jesus meant to be overheard by them and by all Christians. In this prayer, Jesus prays for unity. He isn’t praying for a unity to come and unite the disciples, nor is he praying that the Father will bring some sort of new unifying force to them to bring us all together. Rather, Jesus is praying that the disciples will recognize this unity that already exists, the unity between all of them, himself and God the Father. A unity that is sort of like that First Common Principle.
If God the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in us, then logically, God the Father is in us, too! If we are in Jesus and Jesus goes to the Father, which he has been saying all along that he’s going to do, then we go, too! And if Jesus, that is to say God, is in us, then we are altogether in God! Of course, this isn’t exactly the geometry Euclid was talking about, but it does mean that if each of us is in God then all of us are in God together. If you’re there and I’m there then we’re there together and we meet up there, whether we like it or not, and we are all there side by side.
It’s that last bit that is so hard for us to get sometimes. Oh, we might readily say that Jesus is in the Father and vice versa. Jesus and the Father are one? Sure! That’s a big piece of Christian theology: Jesus is God. It is also not unusual for us to hear that Jesus is in us, and vice versa, in scripture, prayers and baptismal rite. We are united with Christ in the waters of baptism; united to his death and resurrection so we, too, will be resurrected as he was. Another big piece of Christian theology.
But these are a bit abstract and when we get to the more concrete looking stuff, unity with one another, this becomes much more difficult for us to grasp and act upon. Perhaps it is because the other two do not really ask anything directly of us. Yes, our lives are different because Jesus is God and because we are united with Jesus, but this being united with other humans in God directly affects our everyday lives in a way we can actually see because it means that I’m not only united in God with my friends and people who are like me and people I like but I’m also united with people I don’t like and who do not like me. In this united in Jesus thing, we are united with people who do things we don’t like, who smell ways we don’t find pleasant, who talk funny with different accents, who have jobs we don’t approve of and who also think we smell and talk funny and don’t like what we do for a living either, just as a few of many irritating or more than a little unpleasant examples. That’s very uncomfortable. That’s always the hardest part.
Christians are really really good at disagreeing with each other. Not in the ‘we have lots to talk about’ sort of way or even the ‘we are just really different’ sort of way but in the poking one another with sharp objects sort of way. During the Reformation, Catholics put Protestants to death all around Europe. Protestants weren’t innocent either because when they were in power, they put Catholics to death. In the early days of Lutheranism, there were Lutherans who tied stones to the feet of a group of non-Lutheran Protestants who disagreed with them about baptism and then threw them in the river to drown. That’s just a few of the things we Christians have done to one another and all in the name of believing in Jesus Christ.
We, all Christians, do the same sort of thing today only with sharpened words; less physically violent but every bit as harmful. We disagree, argue about it and form another church or denomination, move to another congregation or leave church altogether. Sometimes it is over a particular way of doing church, a belief or theological concept. Sometimes, it is over personal disagreement. Either way, it is division not unity and perhaps the worst part of all is not that we don’t all like one another but that the rest of the world looks at Christians and says: THIS is what Christians are like? Why would I want to be a part of that big mess?
This also goes for how we relate to one another as well. It’s not just about big theological disagreements and denominational divisions. When we disagree with one another to the point of division, we lose sight the unity that Jesus prayed for. It is very difficult when we are in the midst of some sort of division, however, to see how to work it out. Yet we can have confidence in knowing that Jesus prayed for it. Jesus prayed not only for the 12 disciples but for all of us. ‘I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe because of them.’ And it isn’t that Jesus prays for us to be given the gift of unity but that we see the unity that is already present. It isn’t just a unity that comes by force of our will either, but by the simple fact that we are in Jesus. Remember that First Common Principle? You and I and all of Christianity must be unified because we ARE one in Jesus Christ. Not we can be or ought to be or will be but that we ARE. It is self-evident.
Of course, we fight against this all the time. One of the ways we resist this self-evident fact of our unity is to say ‘it’s not me, it’s them!’ You see, I want to be unified with my brother or sister in Christ, I don’t want there to be division but THEY are always causing division. THEY are the problem. Of course they are. Even if that is true, and it might be true, as long as we are pointing at someone else saying they are the problem we become part of the problem. Pointing a finger at someone else makes our hands look remarkable similar to fists and completely unlike a welcoming, unifying open hand.
In Jesus’ prayer he is really clear about how important this being one in God is to us. ‘So that the world may know.’ So that the world may know Jesus is God. So that the world may know that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. Our being one in God, regardless of our differences, is a key part of the world’s knowing God.
Division and conflict are pretty much unavoidable in our broken world. It is true that we are in Jesus who is in God and we are, because of this, all together in God, but we are also broken and living in a world that is in the process of being saved by God but God is not completely finished with it yet. We are called to recognize unity, seek unity, look for the unity that Jesus stated was there and prayed for us all to see. How do we do that? Well, one way is to pray along with Jesus that we might all be one. Another might be to think about how we disagree with one another. In our disposable culture when things go wrong, we are encouraged to trash it and start over. Throw out what isn’t working and buy a new one. But people aren’t disposable and relationships aren’t either. We can disagree and still be united but what we can’t really do very well is be angry, blaming and disconnected from one another and still be united.
The most important part of this, however, is to remember that this isn’t something we’re doing alone. The prayer Jesus prays states over and over the closeness we have to God. He chooses to pray this particular prayer the night he is taken away to be crucified. He prays for their and our unity in God and in one another the night he is betrayed. Regardless of what we are trying to do, we aren’t doing it apart from God. Jesus is with us. Jesus, who left this prayer to face betrayal and death, defeat it and give us new life, is with us as we seek to be one with one another in God, as we try to find ways to live together in Jesus. We aren’t united in ourselves, we are united in God.
‘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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 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.’
You got to do what you should
With each other
But we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other