The following sermon was preached at Church of the Atonement, Carnegie, PA 5/16/10 8:00AM
“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.”
– John 17:20-26
There are few moments more tender or intimate than the moments we spend alone with God in prayer. One of the great joys of being a Christian is knowing we can come to God our Father with any need, any pain, any request and He will hear and answer.
In our Gospel reading for today we are given the privilege of listening in on our Lord’s intimate conversation with His Father. This is an intensely personal prayer… in a sense, it is a dying man’s last wishes. As Jesus is praying this prayer He knows that before the next day is over He will be crucified. So the requests He makes in our Gospel reading for today come from deep within His heart.
The reading for today is only a part of His prayer, and I’d like to take a look at the whole prayer, or at least most of it. The prayer can be found in John 17. Take a look at what Jesus asks the Father for at a time like this.
v. 5 – Jesus asks God the Father to glorify Him with the glory He had before the world began
When He came to earth Jesus set aside the glory He had with the Father to enter our world as one of us. And Jesus talks a lot about glory in this prayer… God’s glory, His own glory… and a glory that He will share with us. The word ‘glory’ can mean ‘high honors’ or ‘radiant beauty’ but in Hebrew, it also carried the connotation of weight or heaviness. Glory is something substantial. And as we will see glory is the beginning and end of this prayer.
From here on, he is praying for US.
v. 9 – Jesus says He is not praying for the world but for the people the Father has given Him, and here’s what He asks for us:
v. 13 – That we may have His joy
v. 15 – That the Father would protect us from the evil one
v. 17 – That the Father would sanctify us in His truth – “Your word is truth” Jesus says
v. 20 – Jesus looks down the corridors of time and prays for us – for all people who will come to believe through the disciples’ words
v. 21 – He prays that we will be one as He and the Father are one
v. 23 – Three reasons why He wants His followers to be one: So the world will know the Father sent Him; So the world will know the Father loves us as He has loved our Lord; So that we can be with Jesus where He is and see His glory
So Jesus’ prayer begins and ends with glory and in the middle centers on the people of God being one. Four times in this prayer Jesus asks that we may be one as He and the Father are one. The unity of His followers is so important that it is the central focus of His prayer, and the pivotal request He makes for us before He leaves this earth to return to the Father.
And for the past two thousand years the unity of the Christian church has been… dismal. According to Wikipedia there are over 38,000 Christian denominations in the world today. Down through history Christians have excommunicated each other, and made war on each other, tossed each other out of windows (we learn these things in church history class)… and in our day if you told the churches to pick one hymnal that we would all use, they wouldn’t be able to do it… let alone agree on the proper way to take communion! And the sad thing is some of the worst divisions have been caused by theologians and clergy.
But, by contrast, in my experience as a church music director I have found that many laypeople totally get Christian unity. Here in Carnegie we have had a number of occasions to pull together the choirs from the ministerium churches and always the reaction has been the same. The singers say to me, “we love this!”, “There is nothing like singing God’s music together!”, “When can we do it again?” I think there’s a real hunger on the part of many people to see these centuries-old differences healed.
Understand I’m not saying I think having different worship styles or church traditions is wrong. I think for the most part these differences are a reflection of the great variety found within God Himself. And I’m not saying all theological differences are wrong. There have been times in history when people have had to take a stand – for example when Martin Luther stood up against the practice of indulgences – or in our day, taking a stand against church leaders who no longer recognize the authority of Scripture. But divisions in general are not good, and they are not what God intended for his people.
And Christian unity doesn’t deal just with the institution of the church. It has to do with us as individuals as well. How much do our families and friendships reflect Christian unity? I don’t know about you but sometimes some of the toughest people I know to be unified with are members of my own family. Even under the best of circumstances and in the most intimate of relationships, being one is really… difficult. In some cases, relationships become so strained they break and all we can do is hope and pray for reconciliation and a better day.
So why is unity of believers so difficult? I think unity is especially difficult for us as Americans – because we are probably the ultimate do-it-yourself, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, ruggedly individualistic people on earth. Look at Sylvester Stallone as Rambo… Bruce Willis in Die Hard… it’s all one-man-against-the-world until at the end he rides off into the sunset with the girl. Or if you’re Clint Eastwood you even leave the girl behind and ride off into the sunset by yourself! It’s the American way.
But it’s not God’s way. God knows it is not good for people to be alone. He made us to be together, He made us to be with one another. That’s why in the Lord’s Prayer the pronouns used are “us”, “our”, and “we”, not “me” “my” and “I”.
But there is something in us that gravitates against unity. I don’t know about you but talk of unity worries me. When I hear people talking about togetherness all kinds of questions start to pop into my head. Are we gonna have to hold hands and sing Kum By Ya? Who is leading this group anyway, and what are their qualifications? What about my interests? Are my tastes and preferences going to be respected? What if I just don’t feel like being around all these people??” I think a lot of that is a reaction against bad experiences… a reaction against false concepts of unity we’ve been exposed to.
And then there’s another fear, the fear of losing ourselves. On TV talk shows these days we hear people saying that we all are like little drops of water in the vast sea of humanity… and that when we die our individuality becomes one with the cosmic whole. This is NOT what Christianity teaches, thank God. Our God created variety because He loves variety. He created individuals because He loves individuals. He does not want to get rid of our individuality. He created each one of us with strengths and gifts that are uniquely ours because that’s the way He wants things to be.
I think real Christian unity, rather than looking like an ocean, looks more like a symphony orchestra… each of us playing our own part. With God conducting, we become one in the music. We don’t lose ourselves, but we become a part of something greater than the sum of the parts. The kind of unity God has in mind is like that – something beautiful and great and glorious. Something that will bring us, and Him, great joy!
So what can we do to help bring about this unity that Jesus is praying for? I think maybe it’s easier to talk about what WON’T work. Ecumenical councils for example – will not work. They may be worthwhile for other things, but no ecumenical council will ever bring about Christian unity.
Developing clear theology and doctrine and getting everyone to agree to it… forget it. You’d have better luck building unity by holding community-wide potluck suppers. How about giving up on doctrine and just welcoming everyone? That’s been tried too, with disastrous results, because a religion that believes in nothing is… nothing.
Bottom line, we have to acknowledge that we can’t do it on our own. Because, according to our passage in John, Christian unity isn’t our work… it’s God’s work. Jesus did not look at His disciples and say, “I’m going away now… y’all stick together and get along with each other now OK?” Jesus went to His Father and said “let them be one even as You and I are one.” Jesus was praying for a miracle. And then He gave His life to make it possible for that miracle to happen.
And miracles of Christian unity do happen – as Jesus said, they bear witness to the love of the Father and the Son. They happen in every generation. Take Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity for example. They have one calling – to the poorest of the poor – and they move in unity to answer that calling. Or take a look at Billy Graham and Associates, who for decades followed God’s call in the field of evangelism. They not only organized thousands of crusades, but they also looked for and encouraged young evangelists around the world to develop their gifts. And here in Carnegie we witnessed Christian unity in response to the flood a few years ago. All our churches worked together to meet the needs of the community, and I can tell you people noticed. People see the love of Christ whenever Christians work together doing God’s will.
So if Christian unity is God’s work, is there anything we can do to prepare for this work in us? Yes. Jesus says in His prayer that our unity comes from knowing Himself and knowing the Father who sent Him. It comes from believing and holding on to His words. In knowing that God is protecting us, so we can have the courage to risk intimacy and being one with each other.
So stay close to Him! Stay close to Him in prayer. We might even try responding in prayer to the prayer Jesus has prayed here. That’s what the writers of our Prayer Book did. In response to this prayer of our Lord they wrote these words: “inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord; and grant that all those who do confess thy Holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love”. We agree with God that this is the top of the agenda. In the Prayers of the People this is the very first petition – the foundation of everything else that comes after it.
Stay close to Him in His word and in daily prayer. If there are divisions in the church or in our communities or families, take them to God in prayer. In all situations, even the ones that look hopeless, pray for the Father’s will to be done… because even though it doesn’t always look like it, God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer for unity will ultimately be yes. God’s people will be one, as we are in Him and He in us. May God hasten that day. AMEN.