I had the privilege of preaching in Cannon Chapel October 6, 2015. This is the manuscript I used. As with any sermon I preach, the words I speak are not verbatim from the manuscript.
“That they may be one, as we are one”
John 17: 20-26
Service of Word and Table
Candler School of Theology
October 6, 2015
“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 they 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
You have just eavesdropped on a prayer. And it isn’t just any prayer. It is a prayer that Jesus prayed to the Father. And he prayed it to the Father immediately before his arrest and crucifixion. These are precious, moving, words. This morning, I want to ask you to be open to being moved, not only in your intellect, but also in your heart, in your feelings, those places that we are often much less comfortable forming in seminary classrooms, but which are nevertheless every bit as important for the Christian life and for leadership in Christ’s church. In anticipation of receiving God’s word deep in our souls, will you please pray with me?
The church has often struggled to maintain a balance between the values of unity and diversity that are found throughout the Christian faith. Perhaps where this is most fundamentally found in Christian theology is in the doctrine of the Trinity. God is both genuine difference: three. And God is genuine unity: 1. Three persons in one essence. The fact that the Christian understanding of who God is affirms both unity and diversity makes it all the more lamentable that Christians have so often failed to hold this delicate balance, both in thinking about who God is – and in thinking about who we are. If we had more time, we could name a host of examples of the proclamation of Christ being perverted by a drive for homogeneity that was as passionate as the desire to share Christ in love with the other. This has been expressed in the United States in its most basic and tragic form through the simple cliché that 11 o’clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week. When unity is put in opposition to diversity, the gospel is always impoverished.
Unity and diversity. Both are important. I hope you hear me saying that. Because, even as I myself often struggle to preserve this tension, I am certain that it is at the heart of who God is and at the heart of the church God has called into being. I do not believe it is a mistake or a coincidence that on Pentecost Peter and others proclaimed the gospel, not in one new language, but in the languages of the people who were present. When the Holy Spirit came, linguistic and cultural differences were not suppressed or somehow overcome. And yet, the Spirit did enable one message to be proclaimed in many languages.
And I do not believe it is a mistake or a coincidence that Revelation 7 invites us to anticipate “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
All tribes. All peoples. All languages. Diversity.
One God. One Lamb. Unity.
For a variety of reasons, many of which are not just understandable, but commendable, but all of which are beyond the scope of what I am able to address today, so-called mainline denominations and mainline theological seminaries at present are most clearly at risk of privileging diversity in a way that undermines the unity to which we are also called. Put sharply, my worry is that at times we see unity as an inherent threat to diversity in a way that makes meaningful unity almost impossible. In my church more broadly, the United Methodist Church, I see this in the suspicion that some well meaning United Methodists have of our doctrinal standards being meaningful. Doctrine, it is feared, is either divisive or enforces a uniformity that is problematic at best. At its most extreme, I’ve seen this in a rejection of the role of the ancient Creeds in United Methodist worship, which have been seen to mark the basic boundaries of Christian orthodoxy that enable true freedom by a deep and wide section of the Body of Christ.
Today’s Scripture reading is an overwhelmingly beautiful prayer for deep and meaningful unity. This passage offers us a vision for unity that challenges us to pursue a more profound unity.
In Jesus’s prayer we see, first, that Jesus really cares about unity. He asks, repeatedly, that we would be one. “That they may all be one” “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” “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.”
In John’s Gospel, as Jesus prays to the Father before the crucifixion he is asking over and over again for us to be one.
Second, Jesus prays for us to be unified with each other like the Son is united with the Father. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”
And Jesus not only prays for us to be united in a way that is like the Father and Son are united, he asks the Father that we be brought into this very unity! Let’s make this personal. Jesus asked God just before the crucifixion for you and I to be united with each other and to be brought into the perfect self-giving relationship that they have with each other.
Why? At a very deep level, this unity is intrinsically valuable. We are being ushered into God’s own life! Jesus also connects our unity with our witness and evangelistic message: “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.” Jesus connects our unity with our very mission to invite all people to belief in Jesus.
So how does this happen? I think it is here that good intentions have often gone astray and led to very unfortunate consequences. From this prayer, unity is not a work that we do for God. It is not something that we are asked to impose on ourselves. It is a gift to be received from Jesus and Jesus’s Father. God the Father is active in this passage, not “those who will believe” i.e., us.
How, then, you might ask, is this gift to be received? In the context of this prayer, unity is found in Christ. It is found in believing in Christ, that the Father has given this one God’s “glory.”
I am tempted to end here, without pushing too much farther, because I am a coward and because I am aware that I have blind spots, but do not know what they are. That is the really annoying thing about blind spots, isn’t it? But, I also feel led to ask a question: Could it be that we do not experience the unity that Jesus offers to us because we have grown so accustomed to looking at ourselves and at each other – and we have forgotten to look at Jesus. For a church, as for a Christian seminary, there is no hope for meaningful unity if we are not united in Christ. Could it be that were we to shift our gaze from ourselves and each other to the cross, to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, that in so doing we might be made one? Theologians have spoken of the scandal of particularity: that God was made known in the unique person of Jesus, who entered into a particular time and place, with all that comes with that. It is a scandal! But, it is also the heart of the truth of the gospel. There is no good news that Christians have to offer aside from the particularity that this one is Lord.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus of Nazareth is true God of true God, of one substance with the Father. Jesus is God in the flesh. He is worthy of our worship. And he wants to bring us into the very life of the Trinity. Into the very life of the Trinity. This invitation brings life, and life abundant, and it cannot be accepted in isolation or alientation from others. It doesn’t do away with difference, any more than God’s oneness does away with the difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But it does bring profound unity. A unity we desperately need and for which a broken and hurting world is desperate.
I yearn to experience deep and meaningful unity with brothers and sisters in Christ who are different than me. And I yearn to experience a deeper unity with the Triune God. In that way, I suppose, I’m a good Wesleyan. It seems that we Wesleyans are always impatient to wait on the deepest promises of the gospel, daring to hope and expect that those very promises are made good already in the resurrection of Jesus and can be experienced in the here and now, not only in some distant unknown future. Surely if we can dare to believe that those who are in Christ can experience entire sanctification, as Wesley’s heirs profess, then we can dare to believe that by the work of Jesus we can be brought into a perfect unity, even as we are not the same. This is not only for Wesleyans! I invite you to believe with me that God wants to answer Jesus’s prayer for us to be made one now.
It is also not something we are able to do for ourselves. But Jesus is able. And Jesus is willing.
Come Lord Jesus! Make us one. Make us one with each other. Make us one with you. Make us one with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May it be so. Amen.