June 2, 2019, 7th Sunday of Easter Year C, John 17:20-26
This past Tuesday morning I was at Christ Church Cathedral, our Episcopal Cathedral in Springfield, for an interfaith day of learning for clergy called “Getting to Faith: What’s Your Path?” It was sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Western MA and the Interfaith Council of Greater Springfield. The program included a panel of three participants – one on behalf of the Baha’i community, one on behalf of the Muslim community, and one on behalf of the Jewish community. Each spoke about their own journey to faith and it was interesting in hearing each story that there were similarities in each although they were all from very different faith backgrounds. It helped those of us gathered to see that although we differ greatly over our religions we can find common ground on which to come together as both our Episcopal Bishop, Doug Fisher, and the local Roman Catholic Bishop, Mitchell Rozanski, emphasized in their talks to the group. The gathering was a reminder that even with so much difference among us as religious groups, we can find commonality and unity in our diversity.
You might think that Christians of different denominations or especially Christians from the same denomination would be able to find more unity than a group like those of us who gathered across faiths on Tuesday. After all, with all being Christian we should be able to find more common ground than those whose faiths are so different in so many ways. However, as we all likely know especially as we here have negotiated coming together as one congregation of two denominations, even among Christians it can be challenging for us to find unity. One need only look as far as the recent troubles of the United Methodist Church to see that. For those who haven’t heard, the Methodists are struggling with how they will live together going forward as a global denomination given the differences they have around the issue of fully welcoming LGBTQ people, especially around ordaining LGBTQ clergy and allowing them to serve parishes if they aren’t celibate. They recently had a vote at a denominational meeting back in March of this year where the majority went against the option that would have both sides stay as one church where the two sides would live together with their differences allowing for conferences to decide for themselves to allow LGBTQ clergy or not. Instead of this option, the one that won out called to not ordain or allow LGBTQ clergy in same-sex relationships to serve at all anywhere and in fact strengthened the punishments against them and their bishops. This has led to much discussion about whether there is still a way forward together as one United Methodist Church, or if there will be a split into multiple Methodist denominations.
Recently the Anglican Communion to which the Episcopal Church belongs has also been struggling for unity as the church around a similar issue. The Lambeth Conference or the once a decade meeting of bishops of the Anglican Communion is set to be held next year. However, although, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who calls the conference has delayed the conference for two years in an effort to get all the bishops to gather together as one, it looks like it won’t happen. Because some of those from the Episcopal Church in the United States are saying they won’t attend as all the spouses of the bishops were invited, except the three spouses of the bishops from the United States and Canada who are in same sex relationships. As well, a group of bishops from the group called the Global Anglican Future Conference say they will not attend because they say the Lambeth Conference is flawed because it will include bishops from provinces that allow same-sex marriage so they will instead meet by themselves next June in Rwanda.
These are just two among countless examples we could discuss about how it seems we as Christians just aren’t very good at the unity and oneness Jesus wanted for us as his followers. It would seem that more often than not instead of finding ways to come together as one we have done all that we could to find ways to divide ourselves up as his followers. Along lines of gender identity, race, education, socioeconomic differences, language, sexual orientation, denomination, social issues, or even preferred biblical translation. You name a difference and we likely will have sought a way to divide ourselves up by it. We seem to have done all we can do to avoid the oneness Jesus prays so hard for us to find in our gospel reading from John today.
Our gospel reading comes from what is sometimes called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse or his High Priestly Prayer. It comes from the part of John’s gospel right before Jesus is arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified. And after he has his last meal with his followers, washed their feet, and given them a new commandment to love one another. All to prepare them for how to live once he is gone.
I think we hear this prayer of Jesus for us as his followers to be one in the way that we humans usually approach things – by thinking it is all about us. We think our oneness is about OUR ONE way of doing things, OUR ONE way of thinking, OUR ONE way of being together as a community of people like-minded in that ONE way of doing and thinking. Yet, Jesus doesn’t say that here. He doesn’t say that our oneness is to be found in our beliefs or understandings or behaviors around religious rightness. In fact, he never seemed to be real big on that. Instead, you’d often see him calling religious people out on that sort of thing as they judged him for breaking all the religious rules and behaviors they thought he should follow but didn’t.
And once again here he doesn’t focus on right thinking or behavior as being what is important for us in our unity as he prays for not just the disciples following him then and there, but those of us to come in the future. Instead, of unity in uniformity of thinking or behavior he prays that we might be one in him and the Father. As they are one, so too he prays that we might be one. This unity he prays for isn’t about oneness in rightness in following the same rules or the same rigid religious behaviors or beliefs, that wasn’t what his relationship with the Father is about. Instead, their unity is about oneness in a shared relationship. Oneness in a shared spirit. Oneness in a shared generosity. Oneness in a shared love.
This oneness, this unity, is different from our usual self-centered human view of oneness as it is without boundaries or limits. It’s expansive. It’s inclusive. It’s bigger than our human comprehension. Maybe that’s why we as human beings struggle with it so much. We’d like to, in our human way of thinking, limit our oneness to a neatly boundaried and well-defined list of credentials for who is to be let in and who is to be left out. But here Jesus prays fo more than that for us. He prays for us to know the oneness he and his Father know. And he invites us into a new way of being with one another like them as he calls for us to let go of our limited understanding of unity as uniformity or sameness, and to be set free to be one in the unlimited love of God through being joined as one in the Father and the Son whose love together cannot fit neatly in a box.
Joined together in that love the walls and barriers we erect to limit our oneness to a limited few come crashing down. Joined together in that love the limits we set on just how much oneness we are willing to have burst forth to expand beyond our wildest dreams of inclusivity. Joined together in that love we find that nothing can separate us from it no matter what we or others do, as my favorite reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans says, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Joined together in that love, it will always find a way to join together what we aren’t sure should be joined because the love of God in Christ Jesus will always find a way to spread as Jesus prays to the Father it will as he says toward the end of our gospel today, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it knows, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.”
Living in this love changes everything for us. Because as the late theologian Jean Vanier wrote, “Then we no longer judge ourselves as unworthy and we no longer judge others as unworthy. We see in them and in ourselves the light and love of God. There is no longer a void or anguish or terrible loneliness, but a new life, the very life of God, surging up from within us. It is an experience of freedom and oneness with others, an experience of a fullness of life where one’s very identity has mysteriously given way to a new identity that flows directly from God.”
It is only in living into that new identity Jesus prays us into “that they may be one, as we are one” that we discover what it really means to be one with each other. It is only in that oneness that we find in our life in love with Jesus and the Father that we become truly one with each other. It is only through that oneness in God and each other that we become signs to a world constantly dividing itself up, of the unifying power of God’s love in Christ Jesus. It is only through that oneness in love that we can achieve what Bishop Fisher likes to say is our unique calling as people of the way of love here in western MA, and that I believe we heard at Christ the King-Epiphany are doing our best to live out in our live together, “In a world that is coming apart, we in the church are coming together.” Only made one in God’s love is this way of love possible as Jesus prays us and loves us into it. Thanks be to God! Amen.