May 24, 2020 Easter 7A
The Rev. Denise Muller
We’ve come to the last Sunday of Eastertide, a very different Eastertide than any of us could have imagined. Yet as in any liturgical year, this is a moment when we can look back and savor the appearances of the risen Christ throughout the Easter season. We can also look forward to Pentecost next week, when we will hear of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ followers, which tradition recognizes as the birth of the Church.
Today’s readings stand at that threshold, looking back upon Jesus’ life with his disciples, and also forward to the ongoing life of the Church. In the Gospel, we hear Jesus’ intimate conversation with his Father. At the Passover table; gathered with his disciples; anticipating his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension; Jesus knows that, very soon, he will no longer be walking the earth with his disciples. Aware of his imminent death, he once again offers life-giving words for those whom he loves.
For those of us who’ve sat at the bedside of a loved one who’s dying, we know the depth of conversation that can emerge. When someone knows they are about to die, the conversation is generally not about the weather, or which sports team won the game last night. When a person knows they’re about to die, they tend to talk about what really matters to them.
We hear what really matters to Jesus in today’s gospel reading. Jesus cares about his followers. Jesus cares that he has made God known to them. In John’s Gospel, knowing God is not about knowing facts. It’s about knowing God personally through an ongoing relationship. By being with Jesus, his disciples have come to know God. And that’s what really matters to him: that his disciples know God just as he does; that they’re in relationship with God and one another, just as he is. So Jesus prays that his followers may be one, just as he and the Father are one.
If our reading from the lectionary included all of Jesus’ prayer from John 17, we would hear in verse 20 Jesus praying not only for the disciples with whom he walked the earth, but also for his disciples in the future. This verse reads, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Jesus cares about and prays for all his followers– past, present, and future. That includes us today. What difference does it make in your life to know Jesus prays for you? To know Jesus prays for all of us?
Jesus prays that his followers may be one just as he and the Father are one. As you consider this prayer does it seem like this prayer has been answered? What does Jesus mean when he prays for us to be one as he and the Father are one?
Much of the New Testament bears witness to the struggles to hold the Church together in the face of various tensions. People who had walked with Jesus and had the Holy Spirit descend upon them got into arguments over ritual, doctrine, and membership. Early Christians argued over who could share a meal. They debated over whether someone needed to exhibit a particular spiritual gift in order to be considered a Christian. The existence of deep divisions within early Church communities is evident in the Scriptures. From Pentecost onward, Christians have been called to give expression to their new life and unity in Christ. Yet they’ve also fought and argued over how to carry out that mission faithfully. How they
navigate conflict and maintain relationship with each other, or fail to do so, is a visible witness to the
Given the examples of division in the Church throughout time, we may ask whether Jesus’ prayer has been answered. But this assumes that his prayer was that there would never be conflict in the Church. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant in his prayer.
As Jesus prays for his followers to live in unity, I don’t see him envisioning uniformity. Looking upon those whom he called disciples, those whom he healed, those whom he spoke with at length, they couldn’t have been more different. Tax collectors and fishermen. Pharisees and widows. Jews and Gentiles. People who saw the world, who experienced the same patch of land in the Middle East, very differently, given their socioeconomic status, religion, and livelihood.
The same could be said of us– whether it’s preferences in styles of worship, differences in political views, or any number of other issues about which people have various and strong opinions– we don’t have the same perspective. Jesus doesn’t expect us to be carbon copies of one another. Yet he does call us to share and give witness to the values of seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Our baptismal covenant does call us to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. And a greater richness can emerge when there is unity within the various ways that we as a diverse community live as faithful companions of Jesus and one another.
What if Jesus’ prayer was not about people all having the same views or about never getting into disagreements? What if his prayer was about people willing to be in genuine relationship with one another?
Forming and sustaining relationships can be hard, especially when we perceive others as being different from us. Jesus invites us to be a witness to the world by loving one another in these differences, just as he did. By living in unity amid diversity, just as he and his disciples did. Jesus also prays that his followers will shape and reveal a community of love. That when conflicts arise, they will be acknowledged and reconciled in an atmosphere of justice with mercy, forgiveness with healing, and above all, loving kindness.
Jesus desires that we live as one as he and the Father are one. That the Church be a place where people’s fundamental human needs to be known and to belong are met. As we prepare to celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, as we desire to return to worshiping in person with one another, may we be a witness to the world of living together as one just as Jesus and the Father are one. AMEN.