May 13, 2018/ 7th Sunday after Easter / Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26/econd Reading: 1 John 5:9-13/ Gospel: John 15:1-8
Unity is not a goal, not a task to be accomplished – It is a gift to be received. Ultimately, Christians cannot create unity. But we can acknowledge and accept the blessing of unity that is ours in Christ. Unity is not the product of negotiations and dialogues, though these are good and helpful. Our unity is the direct result of our baptism into Christ. Christ died, once for all, so we are in fact one in Christ, whether we recognize it or not. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Now, like many human families, the Christian Church has been divided, conflicted, and separated. Christian history includes way too much in the way of hatred, wars, suspicion and violence. But being divided doesn’t mean we are not members of the same family. Because Christ is One, Christians can and must be one. There is One Body of Christ – and we are all members of it. Christians have struggled with and resisted this notion from the very beginning – always deciding who is in and who is out. But Christ welcomed all, and Christ died for all – so that there might be one flock, with one Good Shepherd.
And so Unity begins with the recognition of Christ’s gracious intent, and acceptance of the gift of our true unity in HIM. Of course a gift can be misunderstood or rejected. And this has happened far too often. Followers of Christ have drawn lines and established boundaries to exclude: to determine who is in and who is out. The solution is not to enforce unity by threats – as was done in the past. The solution is not to pass bland resolutions of inclusivity. The solution is not to pretend that there are not real and serious differences between Christians. The solution is to believe Jesus, and trust the Holy Spirit, to set aside personal preferences and privileges – and open our hearts and our lives to move in the direction of a shared faith, a common hope, and compassionate love. We recently heard: “cannot love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love brothers and sisters when we have seen.” All love is from God – it comes as a gift to all who believe. And we are invited, encouraged, even commanded to share this love. This unity is not our human agenda – it is God’s holy agenda. And we are blessed to be participants in it.
There can be no doubt that Unity among Christians is both God’s desire and God’s gift – because today we overheard Jesus praying about this very thing. John 17 has been called, “The Other Lord’s Prayer.” It comes at the conclusion of the Last Supper. It is long and at times dense and esoteric – even hard to follow. Yet it is Christ’s fervent prayer for his followers. The Lord’s Prayer we all know by heart is the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray: the beloved “Our Father.” In the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying on our own behalf: for daily bread, for forgiveness, for deliverance – that God’s will be done in and through us. In this “Other Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus is not teaching us to pray, instead our Lord is praying for us. And the focus of his prayer is Unity among believers. Jesus must have clearly understood how believers could tend to fracture and split and drift apart – and so he prayed to his Father to keep us together. “Holy Father,” he prayed, “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Do you hear that? Jesus prays that we may be as closely united as the Father and the Son – that all believers could be One as the Holy Trinity is One. And Jesus reiterates this prayer in the verses in chapter 17 that continue where today’s gospel leaves off – and he specifically includes you and me in his petition: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word (that’s us!), that they may all be one. Even 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 “Other Lord’s Prayer” is Jesus praying on our behalf. You and I are the ones who have come to believe in Jesus through the word and testimony of those believers who were before us. And the unity for which Jesus prays is not only for our benefit – though this unity is certainly a rich blessing. Christian Unity is also for the sake of the world – as a sign of the goodness and grace of God. Jesus prays for unity “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Divisions in the church are a scandal that sends a terrible message to the world: Christians talk a lot about love – but see how they can’t get along with each other! Christian Unity is a compelling sign that faith, hope and love are genuine – and that Christ truly is Lord of all.
I want to remind you of the good news that Christ’s prayer is being answered and fulfilled right here at St. James. We are by no means all cut from the same cloth – we certainly have our differences. There are obvious ones: male/female, young/old. We come from different places, with different experiences and different traditions. We work in many different settings and fields. We don’t all enjoy the same things. Some prefer traditional worship, others like contemporary. We have many different opinions. Some voted for Trump, some for Clinton – some can’t believe that out of 300 million people, those were the two top choices. And yet, despite a host of real differences, things with potential to divide us – we see many signs of genuine unity: the Habitat trip, sewing group, confirmation class, church council. We are united in commitment, giving and serving. And, above all, we are united at Holy Communion. Christ prayed that, by grace, all his followers might be joined as one loving family. We have not achieved perfect harmony and unity. Yet there are encouraging signs. In the end, Christ will have his way with us all – and we will be one Body in Him, forever united in abiding love.
Thanks be to God!