Text: John 17:20-26
On the first Sunday of every month, we join millions of Christians around the world to reenact the last meal Jesus ate with his disciples. We call this experience communion or the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist, which literally means “thanksgiving.” For some among us, it is a deeply meaningful ritual rooted in and central to our faith. For others of us at Pullen, it’s a time to see the diversity of people who gather as our community when we come forward to share in the bread and the cup. For yet others, it’s a monthly event they avoid if possible for a whole host of reasons. Whatever the nature of your relationship to this historic gathering around the table, this morning we find ourselves reading from John’s description of the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples.
Imagine the scene: Jesus and the 12 named disciples are gathered for a meal. Surely there were others present, probably women, at least at the edges of this gathering if not at the table. Someone was preparing and serving the food and someone stood ready to clean up afterward. The people in the room with Jesus were his closest friends. They had spent three years walking the dusty roads of Galilee with him, constantly encountering both large crowds and single individuals who were in need of some kind of help. They had also dealt with religious and government leaders who were much less enthralled with Jesus, always trying to trick him into doing something unlawful so they could be rid of him. It had been exhilarating, confusing, inspiring and exhausting. That evening as they gathered to share a meal, it all seemed to be headed for a tragic ending. It was tense and it was touching at the same time.
The other three gospels describe the upper room and the ritual sharing of bread and wine we now imitate in our communion. But the details of this “last supper” meal aren’t important to John. For him, Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet to model humility and servanthood is the historic event that future generations need to remember. And, more importantly, what Jesus said after the meal is at the core of the Jesus story that John wants to share with the world. So the words rather than all of the actions were recorded many years later as faithfully as possible. This is because John is interested in the theological and spiritual meaning of Jesus, not historical facts already reported by others. What he tells us is that after the meal, Jesus gave instructions to his followers about what he hoped they had learned and what they should do when he is gone. As recorded in more than 100 verses of our scripture, he patiently answered their questions and tried to prepare them for life without his physical presence. Finally, after calling on them to “take courage,” Jesus began to pray. Today’s text is the conclusion of this prayer. It’s a prayer about unity and about love.
Because of its emphasis on unity, this passage is often treated as if it was spoken to the Christian community. In fact, our text includes the watchword for the Christian ecumenical movement because Jesus talks about “oneness” three times in four verses. He asks “that they may all be one,” “so that they may be one,” and “that they may become completely one.” But it’s important for us to recognize that these words weren’t expressed to the disciples. They were spoken to God. The disciples were allowed to listen in, but they were not the primary audience. In this moving prayer, Jesus talks to God, whom he calls “Father,” about what is fundamentally important to him on the eve of his death. According to scholar Gail O’Day, these words are not last-minute instructions to his followers about what they (or we) should do in Jesus’ absence. Rather, Jesus simply turns the community and his hope for its future over to God.
This morning I want to reflect on this prayer. We read in the other three gospels that Jesus asked for his life to be spared in the Garden of Gethsemane. But other than the Garden’s anguished request, John 17 is his last prayer we know about until he got to the cross. And if what Jesus says here was important to him on the night before he was to be executed, it seems it should be important to us.
First, he speaks about unity. What did he mean then and, more importantly, what is unity in our 21st century world? Certainly it isn’t uniformity. Given the rich diversity of humanity in his day, I can’t imagine Jesus asking God to make all of his followers the same. So I don’t think this prayer was a request that “they may all be alike.” Instead “drawn together through a common bond” is more likely what Jesus meant. Where does this unity come from? O’Day suggests that “the community’s oneness derives from the character and identity of God and the relationship between Jesus and God… the key ingredients are mutuality, intimacy and reciprocity.”
Many of you are familiar with the United Church of Christ. Some of you have come to us from the UCC. This small, progressive band of Christians is the combination of several groups that came together in 1957 to form a new denomination. “That they may all be one” from John 17 is its watchword. As you can imagine, bringing multiple distinct faith groups together under one umbrella was a challenge that took years, so “being one” was practically important at its founding.
But this “oneness” notion has a much deeper meaning for the UCC. One of their core tenets says: “We believe the UCC is called to be a united and uniting church.” This is a call to be unified as a denomination. But it’s also a call to be “uniters,” to be a church that brings people together. Now don’t confuse the UCC with the Church of Christ that doesn’t use musical instruments. They offer their own gifts and challenges to the Christian salad bowl. I’m talking about the denomination that offers a progressive witness to the world about race, sexual identity, economic justice, war and peace. Their unofficial motto is: “In essentials–unity, in nonessentials–diversity, in all things–charity.”
Now I hold up the UCC not as an ideal collection of Christians, but as a diverse group trying to be committed to the kind of unity Jesus spoke about on the evening before he was killed – trying to bind themselves together around what is essentially important for followers of Jesus; trying to agree to disagree on things that are less important; and trying to do this all in the spirit of love. Our friends in the UCC would be the first to tell us that real unity is an extremely hard goal to achieve. What is essential to me may not matter to you. What you consider critical for us to be in relationship may not feel important to me at all. We can even have heated debates about what “charity in all things” looks like. As they say, the devil is in the details.
But what I especially like about the UCC’s self-understanding is this call to be a “uniting” presence. It not enough for them to be unified, but to also help bring others together. And ironically, sometimes it’s easier to guide others toward each other than to be united with those closest to us with whom we disagree. Yet being a uniting church is the target. It’s the goal. According to Jesus, it is central. And it is very tough in a country and culture that for 400 years has valued and encouraged a fierce independence in its citizens. If you were here several Wednesdays ago, you heard me refer to legal scholar jon powell’s work. powell argues that this Enlightenment-inspired American individualism has contributed to the deeply embedded racism in our nation because the standard of the White Self is at the core of our independent nature. For now I’ll leave examining whiteness for another day. It’s a very important conversation. Today I’ll just say addressing all of the “isms” that separate us seems to me to be an important step toward the “oneness” Jesus modeled in his relationship with God and the unity he desired for those who would follow him.
This call for unity and “being one” is grounded in the other topic Jesus addressed in his prayer: love. Just as he mentions unity several times in this short passage, he also speaks repeatedly about love. “You have loved them as you have loved me,” he says. “You loved me before the foundation of the world.” “So that the love with which you have loved me may be in them,” he prays. These words reflect the deep intimacy between Jesus and God, which is a subject that makes many here uncomfortable. It gets dangerously close to the doctrine of the Trinity, which troubles many Pullenites. But for John, the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth, who he came to know as Jesus Christ, and the One who sent him is the reason the human Jesus mattered at all. For John, Jesus revealed who God is – the feeding, healing, standing-with-the-poor actions of Jesus are what God would be doing if God were here in the flesh. For John, Jesus embodied what God wants for the world – acts of justice and deep love, not only for the creation but especially for the Creator.
So what are we to make of these references to love? As I said earlier, just as we can debate what is essential, we also disagree at times about what love looks like. One of my favorite books on this topic is To Love As God Loves by Roberta Bondi, a retired professor of church history at Candler Seminary in Atlanta. It’s a late ’80’s book about what the early church fathers and mothers had to say about love. For them, says Bondi, perfect love is the goal of the Christian life. For us, all you have to do is mention the word “perfect” and the conversation is over. But Bondi explains how the early monastics understood this:
When they heard the commandment to “be perfect” they understood it to be another way of phrasing the One Great Commandment, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… [and] your neighbor as yourself.” To be a perfect human being, a human being the way God intends humans to be, is to be a fully loving person, loving God, and every bit as important, loving God’s image, the other people who share the world with us… We say “to err is human.” But for the sisters and brothers of the desert quite the reverse was true; for them, “to love is human; not to love is less than human.”
Loving well has always been hard for humanity. So over the years, the Church has responded to the call to love in our scripture by creating all kinds of rules – rules that, if followed, were supposed to make us look or seem or be more loving. And we know how well that worked. But it isn’t just the Church – especially the conservative side of it we want to blame – that has established criteria for proper behavior. We all do it, as this story about two elderly monastics reveals:
One day Saint Epiphanius sent someone to Abba Hilarion with this request, “Come let us see one another before we die.” When Hilarion came, they rejoiced in each other’s company. During their meal, they were brought a fowl; Epiphanius took it and gave it to Hilarion. Then the old man said to him, “Forgive me, but since I became a monk I have not eaten meat that has been killed.” Then the bishop answered, “Since I became a monk, I have not allowed anyone to go to sleep with a complaint against me, and I have not gone to rest with a complaint against anyone.” Hilarion replied, “Forgive me, your way is better than mine.”
Now let me say quickly that this story is not meant to criticize vegetarians or vegans. I was one for several years of my life. It’s simply a reminder that we can create standards of behavior that reflect life-giving values and still neglect things that would make us and our world more loving. As Bondi reminds us, “No amount of pious behavior or Christian discipline can replace love.” For the ancient monastics, love was a disposition, not an emotion. Loving God and our neighbors was conceived of as being difficult, something to be learned over a lifetime. And they would say even if we desire to be loving and we work hard at it throughout our lives, real love is ultimately a gift of God’s grace.
In the prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus asked for unity and love for his followers. He offered his prayer in the confidence that God was present with him in that moment and would be present with those who would come after him. Then he placed the future in God’s hands. This was not an action intended to let us off the hook. He didn’t withdraw his commandments to do what we can to heal a broken world. But most of all, Jesus wanted us to learn to love.
This growing season reminds us that learning to live in communion with others and love as God loves is like cultivating a garden. It requires patience and time and effort and the capacity to deal with disappointment. But with great care we can grow love, which is the ground of unity. At the most difficult time of his life, Jesus prayed that God’s love might be in us. In these most difficult days in our nation and in our world, may this be so, my friends. May God’s love be in us.
17:20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,
17:21 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.
17:22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,
17:23 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.
17:24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
17:25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.
17:26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”