‘…they may all be one…’
June 2, 2019
Scripture: 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. 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. 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.
“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 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.”
This portion of the prayer which Jesus gave at the last supper was part of an extensive teaching that began back in Chapter 13 with the washing of the disciple’s feet just prior to dinner and continued on for five full chapters, concluding with this passage, after which Jesus left the upper room and headed out with his disciples down across the Kidron Valley, through the ancient vineyards and into the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a prayer that included and, in a way, summarized most of the critical teachings of our Lord regarding love and service towards one another. And seemed to be Jesus’ attempt to ensure that the last words his disciples heard and therefore best remembered would be these. Within a few more lines of John’s narrative of events in Chapter 18, Jesus would be betrayed by Judas and arrested by the Romans.
As such, we too would do well to carefully consider what it was that Jesus felt was of such great importance that he would conclude his earthly teachings with the words we have before us today. In fact, I would commend to your reading and study the events of that night in total beginning with the thirteenth chapter. However, for today’s purposes I would like to focus on these, his concluding words to the prayer, and in particular his focus on praying for his disciple’s unity. And it seems that the
whole of this passage revolves around the words ‘they’, and ‘them’. Jesus’ sole focus seems to be a plea to the Father on behalf of these he would be leaving behind… ‘they’, and ‘them’.
Now ‘them’ or ‘they’ are both plural words. They are plural pronouns often, or usually indicating a particular collection of something, and in the case of Jesus’ prayer they are referring to a particular group of individuals. Now this might seem to be an obvious distinction, but I am trying to share that Jesus’ saw his disciples as a cohesive and purposed unit, as a family indivisible in terms of the call he had placed upon them.
Jesus prayed fervently that they all might be one…all together…not so that each one of them individually might be one with him and the father, but rather that they as a group, as his band of beloved disciples might be one together as a witness of grace to the world. And I would submit, that the fervency and intensity of this prayer, with all of the careful emphasis and repetition, showed that Jesus knew that what he was asking of them was not in fact an easy road to travel, especially when shortly they would be asked to carry forth without his presence, against the full force of the Roman State and the hierarchy of their faith. Jesus knew how hard it is for mere humans to act as one, to dwell in unity of love and purpose.
He was asking that the family he had spent three years with might be blessed by the father to remain strong and steadfast in their resolve to continue to carry the message of God’s love forward. By that time, the disciples had come to know the blessings of family in the presence of Jesus. They had seen amazing things, heard wonderful teachings, and found hope and purpose in a world hesitant to give it out. They were blessed in that unity, in the deep love formed in close communion with Jesus. Together, they truly had become sisters and brothers in the deepest sense.
Which is not at all to say they were perfect in the practice of that self-giving love and service to one another, for they were still just ordinary, garden-variety human beings, still in need of guidance and correction, of humility and patience, of discipline and encouragement much as all the rest of us are as well. But they belonged to Jesus, they were his disciples, and they were the ones he had so carefully taught to carry the vessel of love he poured out upon them. He called them as individuals…and he then formed them into a family…he called ‘him’ and ‘her’…and over time and with grace he formed ‘they’ and ‘them’.
I was born in the mid-fifties and by the time the late sixties were upon us I found myself in a swirl of social change and some might even call it ‘chaos’. Those close in age to me were coming of age and just starting to seek out an identity within a world in which norms and traditions were being thrown up in the air and challenged across the full range of human emotions and self-understandings. There was Woodstock, Nixon, Kent State, and Viet Nam…free love, Timothy Leary, and VW microbuses, and tragically John, Martin, and Robert as well; all of which informed our communal sense that perhaps nothing at all made much sense anymore.
And in many cases, it seemed that organized and traditional religion seemed to be the ‘answer’ that took the greatest hit and lost the most credibility. So many felt that they just could no longer believe in the notion of a good God behind all the chaos and social upheaval of the life swirling around us. And so I, who was struggling valiantly to hold on to the ‘faith of my father’ as the good and obedient son I was, and as the least rebellious of my brothers was not surprised, however I was dismayed, to hear my brother Fred tell me one day, ‘yes David, I do feel that God is real and that we do need to be in relationship with him, but I really feel it is more of an individual thing. I feel that I can find God on my own, I don’t need the church or some group of people to find God’.
I heard what my brother said, and I knew it was true for so many, but still it didn’t settle well within me. And in the deepest part of my soul, even though it seemed as though God was quite far away at times, I could not fully agree with his belief. I prayed it wasn’t so, I prayed that God was still there for all of us, and that practicing the faith in community was still critically important.
But I must admit, that college tried me pretty severely as well. I was exposed to so much there that challenged faith in general, even sending me almost in tears one day to a professor whom I respected and cared for deeply. I had listened to a lecture he gave with another professor who it seemed to me had battered the faith mercilessly, truly challenging some of my deepest convictions. I asked Professor Jamie Campbell why Professor Blackstone had felt the need to challenge my faith so coarsely and roughly. And with compassion and wisdom he looked up at me and said simply, ‘David, if what you have truly is faith, then something someone else says can never truly challenge it.’ Humbled, I knew his words were true and not his own. And so, I kept searching for the God I knew deep in my heart was still there…and within a faith and religious practice that survived only because of the communities of faith I was able to find both in college and after I graduated and came back home.
And over the years so many others have said similar things, so many have told me they find God on their own, ‘here’ or ‘there’, in ‘meditation’ or in ‘nature’…and yes, I know that all of that can be true, for indeed I myself find my deepest peace and solitude when I am fully immersed in the wonders of Creation. In fact, in addition to spending more time with my wife and young sons, it was probably the key reason why I left the corporate world and moved to Cascade farm over 30 years ago.
In truth, seeking and finding God on your own, having your own personal space in which the Spirit communes with your soul is so critically important…but it speaks only a portion of the blessings available from our Lord for each one of us. And in some ways, forsaking the fellowship of the gathered faithful just may shirk the responsibility we are asked to carry for one another.
For it is in community, in functioning as a family together, that we are able to truly find the richness of life that God intends for his children. And it is also the place where the will of God is able to be the most active and effective…for in the gathering of family holy, we are able to bring to bear the greatest passion and fullest breadth of experience in our witness to the rest of the world. As a family of God working together, our individual stories are combined into one, allowing us to share a deeper testimony of God’s grace and love extended, as well as draw upon a much more vast array of human life experience in seeking to connect with, and to comfort or assist another who may be going through challenges we have already passed through.
As individuals, we receive the gifts and grace of God, and to the extent of our own life story we can share that testimony…however, when the stories of many are combined and shared, then we are able to draw on the assistance of another’s story within the family in order to reach one in need.
That is the Iglesias, that is the community which Jesus long taught he was all about building…that is the ‘them’ and the ‘they’ of our passage today.
And as a final note, when it comes to the critical importance of our life lived together in community, right here and now, I think that far too often, passages such as these are seen merely as promissory visions of the life here-after. As though Jesus is praying for those who love him to be blessed after they leave the horrors and trials of life in a fallen world behind. That somehow, despite the hopelessness of the present moment, by grace we will one day be reunited again with God and one another after we die and go to Heaven.
However, I would contend that this prayer of Jesus was both a call and a promise…a request, a challenge, and perhaps even a command, that we must live, act, behave, and function as a family in order to truly be able to love one another, and in order to be able to truly love our neighbors as ourselves. This call, that we all might be one, is in fact the way in which we are able to not only usher in the promised ‘Day of the Lord’ for all others, but to dwell within it now ourselves. By acting as the family of the one true God, by accepting all of the blessings of that family, as well as the challenges that faithfully doing so presents, we are in able to see, to hear, to feel, to taste and to touch upon the glory of our God.
This call of our Lord, this fervent prayer of Jesus, offers to us a window onto the goodness and grace of God’s good Creation in which we are blessed to dwell, in which we are called to be good and faithful stewards, and through which we will not only truly see our God, but reveal him as well. This vision, which we are called to bring into living reality all around us as we faithfully walk the path of discipleship together, is the way in which finally we are able to fulfil the Abrahamic covenant to be a blessing for all others for we have been so blessed.
And in closing, it is a prayer that has been answered in full. Jesus’ prayer that we might all be one has come to pass…
…ours it is, to enter into the blessing and the work of being those disciples who carry that most glorious of news…
…we are the ‘they’ which Jesus prayed might all be one…
…may it be so…