Sermon; Easter 7C; John 17:20-26
Today's gospel passage is the conclusion of the Farewell Discourse – that long monologue that runs from the time Judas leaves to betray Jesus to the time Jesus and the disciples leave for Gethsemane. This is a long passage running 4-1/2 chapters long. And today's passage comes from not only the Farewell Discourse, but specifically from what is called the High Priestly Prayer that brings to an end the Farewell Discourse. Today's passage encompasses the final third of that prayer. It is here that Jesus is preparing his disciples for his imminent departure. Liturgically speaking, we are in the same boat as his disciples as we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension last Thursday – we are being prepared for his departure.
“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. I give you a new commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. Do not be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.”
These are some of the words Jesus speaks to his disciples in his last hours. As I said, the Farewell Discourse ends with the High Priestly Prayer of Chapter 17. This prayer focuses on Jesus asking the Father to glorify the Son so that the Son may glorify the Father. This prayer confirms the Son is co-eternal with the Father. This prayer asks that the Father be present in Jesus' disciples. And this prayer asks that those disciples, and all who come to believe through them, may become one just as the Father and Son are one. And this is where we are today – at the close of the High Priestly Prayer.
In this final section of the prayer, Jesus widens its scope to move beyond the eleven remaining disciples to all those who come to believe by way of evangelism. But even in this widening, the goal is always unity – unity in God and unity among believers. “I ask that they may become one; As you are in me and I in you, may they be in us; that they may be one as we are one.”
Over the course of this Ester season I've preached on not being afraid and seeing how things can change as long as we keep the resurrected Christ as our focus. I've preached on not fearing outsiders and doubts as we reach out our hands in love. I've preached on not fearing persecution or death as Christ has given us freedom to live without fear. To live fearlessly as members of the community of God. To allow God to change us into holy people. When we live fearlessly, recognizing that God changes not only us but the world around us through us, we are that much closer to not only the kingdom, but the unity for which Christ prayed.
People have heard me refer to John as “the gospel of the walrus” because it sounds like that song at times: “I am he and he is me and we are all together.” Today's lesson, and all of Chapter 17 for that matter, can sound that way. But that really only scratches the surface of this passage and chapter. It then becomes our duty to explore and dig deeper into the pages of scripture.
In today's passage, and in all of Chapter 17, Jesus prays for unity among the eleven disciples and also among those who come to believe through their word. This is deeply significant, and not simply because John is focusing on unity, love, peace, and all those nice things we hope the Church will be.
Last Wednesday I was at a clergy meeting with Bp. Sutton. The point of the gathering was to discuss the book, “A Door Set Open.” The book's focus is how the Church can/should change while still being focused on mission and hope. Throughout the book the question is asked, “What is the mission of the Church?”
In our discussion someone said that a parish can become so inwardly focused that it has no external mission; but a parish can also become so focused on mission that it offers no internal support. This comment stayed with me as I got back to the office to work on the sermon. It occurred to me that this High Priestly Prayer of Jesus is saying the same thing.
“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one as we are one.” This is part of Jesus' prayer for unity. When we are living in unity in the Father and the Son, we are expressing the glory of God. Remember, though, unity is not conformity.
When we pray with and for each other, we are in unity. When we remember to care for each other, we are in unity. When we visit the sick and home-bound, we are in unity. When we stand with each other in good times and bad, when we apologize to others and forgive others, when we live as if we were in the kingdom of God now, we are in unity.
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” This is part of Jesus' prayer for mission. We do not belong to the world, but we are in the world. And, just like the disciples, we have an obligation to tell the world of the Good News of God in Christ.
There are, of course, a variety of ways in which to do this, and I'm sure you can come up with a list. Some of those ways of evangelism are less effective than others; such as standing on a street corner with your big floppy bible yelling at people to repent of their sinful behavior, or telling people they should come to church because we've got nice people. But when we can articulate how the mission of our parish aligns with the mission of God and how they both intersect with the needs of the world, we will be more effective evangelists.
All of this is also reflected in our own mission statement to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage. Through these acts we become unified in God and community. Through these acts we go forth in mission. Through these acts, we become God's representatives on earth. We are as ready as we will ever be to go forth in the name of Christ.
As this Easter season winds down, let us hold to the prayer Jesus prayed for us before his departure. Let us remember that in our unity we can live fearlessly, and in our mission we can change the world.
May we be one as he and the Father are one.