Here is my sermon from the Seventh (and final) Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017. It focuses mostly on Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17, especially the final petition of our passage: that the disciples may be one, as Jesus and the Father are one.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We have come to the end of the Easter season, marked today with the seventh and final Sunday of Easter. It is 43 days exactly since we heard the first Alleluia of Easter, and so much has come and gone in that time. The lilies and flowers are cleared away—life and church returned to normal. Sunday school has even resumed and finished all in these seven weeks of Easter!
And we have journeyed together in our readings, through resurrection appearances, hearing that good news of Jesus’ new life proclaimed again and again, to these readings our last few weeks, which take us back before the resurrection, before the crucifixion, to Jesus preparing his disciples for his absence.
Here, in this Gospel reading today, Jesus prays for his disciples on the night of the last supper—and prays for us who will come after them. This is not the prayer we so often see depicted, of Jesus off alone in the garden, with his disciples unable to stay awake.
No, rather Jesus prays boldly in the presence of the disciples—he wants them, and us, to hear this prayer, to hear him interceding on their behalf. It is a powerful thing, to hear someone praying for you, and much more so when that person is Jesus.
I imagine the disciples, even though they knew they would soon be on their own, found this prayer incredibly comforting. There is so much reassurance and certainty in Jesus’ prayer. “They were yours,” he says, “and they have kept your word…All mine are yours, and yours are mind; and I have been glorified in them.”
We, too, have been commended to God by Jesus Christ, and we belong to God. And there is nothing that can ever change that. It is the very end of Jesus’ prayer that I want to focus on today, though: “Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Jesus prays for the unity, not just of the disciples, not just of the church, but of all of those who bear his name. That we may be one as Jesus and the Father are one. This is no small thing. Jesus and the Father are intertwined in eternal, divine mystery—the Word was with God and the Word was God. Jesus and the Father are the same, yet distinct, united, yet separate.
How are we doing, living up to this prayer and petition of Jesus’? There are two parts: that we, like Jesus, may be one with God, and then that we may be one with each other. The being one with God part is the easier half, in a lot of ways.
We have many different ways to seek that oneness: through corporate worship, through private prayer and devotions, through the support of others. However we do it, when we pay attention, it’s easy to find the Holy Spirit acting in our lives to draw us closer and reveal the presence of God—the presence that is already close than our own heartbeats.
It’s that unity with one another part—that we may be one—that part proves much more challenging for us. You don’t need me to tell you about the deep divisions in our communities, in our country, and in our world. I’m sure that you feel them just as deeply as I do.
There are divisions in churches, across denominations and sects, over who is in and who is out—who can be ordained, who can be married, what our focus should be. And then there are the cultural divisions—between right and left, progressive and conservative, metropolitan and rural.
In the midst of all of this real pain and division, Jesus’ prayer that we should be one seems naïve and laughable. It is so much easier, instead, to label and attack, or avoid and retreat to merely commiserating conversations with those who think like I do, those whose world views are much the same as mine. It’s so much easier to keep those divisions and walls in place, than to seek unity with those whose ideas and positions we cannot stomach.
Part of me doesn’t know what Jesus was thinking—this world is too hurting, too broken, for us to be one. Certainly not as he and the Father are one. But Jesus prayed this prayer to broken people, to a hurting group of disciples. The eleven of them that are left at this point—Judas has already gone in betrayal—are afraid, accusatory, and will almost all abandon him before the end. This prayer was meant for brokenness.
What Jesus prays that we may have in the midst of all of our brokenness and divisions is unity. Not uniformity. Not sameness of opinion or ideology. Rather a unity that binds us together across our differences. Across all of our differences. A unity that is more important denomination, or location, or political party. A unity that traverses borders and walls and divisions.
Unity does not mean that there will not still be disagreements, or differences. Unity does not excuse or dismiss serious issues and conversations that need to be had. Unity is not brushing problems under the rug. But unity is recognizing that beneath differences is another human being. Another child of God, loved by God just as much as each and every one of us is.
For Christians, we find that unity in Christ. Jesus prays for our unity and then gives us the very foundations of it by calling and claiming us. In our baptisms, we become one in Christ—as Paul writes in Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Our differences do not disappear, but they are not nearly as important as what binds us together.
Memorial Day found its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War, as our broken nation figured out how to remember and recognize those who died in the fighting. It became a way of healing—of crossing the bridge from North to South, as all mourned sons and husbands and fathers, regardless of which state they came from. It was a means of unity in the midst of division.
As we hear Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and for us, let us, too, see the things that do unite, instead of just the things that tear us apart. Let us see in each other, the image of God and the love of God in Christ Jesus that is given freely to every single one of us. Holy Father, protect us in your name, so that we may be one, as you are one. Amen.