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“That They May All Be One”: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, May 29, 2022:
Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26

We continue along, dipping into the so-called Last Discourse of Jesus to his followers in the Fourth Gospel, that follows the Last Supper. It’s admittedly not the most exciting segment of the Gospels, at least in terms of action. But it’s deep, and compelling, if not in terms of action, then at least with the beauty of the language, and the yearning of Jesus that shines through. Jesus actually uses the word “desire” or “wish” here: ‘I desire that those whom you’ve given to me will remain with me, and see my glory.’ We’re hearing what is weighing on Jesus’s heart.

And what is it? “I ask not only on behalf of these [followers around me now], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” Jesus is looking down the line, to the future, to us, and to all those that would connect to the surprisingly resilient and growing movement that claimed allegiance to the surprisingly compelling religious-reformer and enemy of the state.

And in a book that is quite mysterious and gives much credence to a Spirit that will blow where it will and guide people along the way, he recognizes the more mundane reality that the new people that will come to faith will do so because of the word of the people that were there earlier. That might include clever argumentation or skilful rhetoric that convinces or satisfies hearers. But that doesn’t do it for everyone. What speaks louder than words is love, and that’s a lot of what Jesus is talking about here. “That they may all be one.”

Jesus evokes his relationship with God as a model, and the basis for this oneness. Our Church, over many centuries, will strive and struggle to talk about this mystery of love, and the oneness of God, and the relationship between what we call metaphorically “Father” and “Son” through the doctrine of the Trinity. Because oneness and love are crucial, but importantly not reduced to uniformity, or the absorption of one by another. It’s a vision of love and of God that accounts for diversity and distinction (and says it’s essential). You hear about, or maybe have experienced, how it’s actually deeply unhealthy in many cases to change for someone, or pretend to be someone you’re not. It’s not the basis for a healthy relationship. Reflecting not love, but an abusive sort of domineering expectation of one person over another. But that’s not the kind of oneness and unity that Jesus is talking about here.

Love, when you think about it, is impractical. It’s beautiful, and good, don’t get me wrong — it is the good. But it’s impractical. It would be easier to not open oneself up to others. Easier, in some ways, not to share with others. Easier to cut people off when we encounter difference or divergence than to continue to weave lives together. But for as much as we realize that love can be challenging, we recognize the blessings. The Gospel reading today speaks of a power of love (a peace that the world cannot give) that’s existed from before the foundation of the world. Jesus is saying that he wants it to remain active, through us; through our communion with each other. And if we connect with this power, this love, he believes that not only will we grow in unity, but the world — not naturally predisposed to it — will notice. (And within us is a constant tug-of-war between that divine love and worldly tendency to want to take our ball and go home.)

So that question I asked last week is a good one for us again: what in our faith tradition reflects and helps us grow in that divine love, and peace that the world can’t give? Things that the world might notice, if it were to pay attention? Is it our honesty in confession, and openness to forgiveness? Is it the attitude of thankfulness that should mark our lives and our worship, rather than a sense of entitlement? Is it that a bunch of people that in most contexts might not have much in common to bring them together… but in church these different people are all drawn to the figure of Jesus? Is it the belief that we’re all lovingly made in the Divine image, and all unconditionally loved by God? Giving us a confidence and a safety net that much of the world can’t or doesn’t want to provide.

By coincidence I was involved with a conference this past week on the topic of ecumenism: how Christians of different traditions can oftentimes receive the ways of other Christians as gifts, rather than as sources of tension. One of the speakers was a young man named Demarius, who is involved with a religious community of young people that live alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury. Presently he’s a theology student in Boston, and works at the Howard Thurman Center on the university’s campus [Howard Thurman having been an early and important Christian figure in the civil rights movement.] He spoke of his community’s presence at a very tense gathering of the leaders of Anglican Churches from across the globe, where growing differences on ethics and theology were causing great strain, and making for an agonizing meeting. He talked about how his group positioned themselves around the perimeter of the space and began to sing a hymn about the peace of God. And beyond directing the minds of the arguing archbishops to a power that was bigger than all of them, it also created a space for someone that had been struggling to get a word in at the microphone. This person, Demarius said, did finally get a chance to speak, and spoke words that built up rather than tore down.

I asked Demarius about something that the Church wrestles with from time to time: balancing the quest for justice with the desire for unity. If we push too much in one direction, sometimes the other falls. Push in the opposite direction, same thing. He spoke of how eventually in life he discovered and came into the Anglican tradition, and its historic position as a via media, a middle way between two sometimes distant or opposing paths. He said that at its worst the via media can be a comfortable and insular enjoyment of the status quo. But he challenged us to live the middle way as a life-giving path that transcended our human divisions, and has the capacity to bring as many people as possible on board.

And I’m not sure if it is a coincidence, or if he was preparing a sermon on today’s readings, but he evoked today’s first reading from Acts. An earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison, and all the doors open up. The Christians Paul and Silas could have jumped up and run away. Returned to a place of safety, or travelled to a new town and preached the gospel. But, we heard in that story, when the jailer saw that the jail had been compromised, his automatic reaction was to kill himself, rather than face the wrath of his superiors. So Paul and Silas assure him that they’re there; they talk to the jailer. A relationship grows. A household is baptized, and lives are changed. (And if you continue with the story, you’ll see that the next morning Paul and Silas are officially released.) It was a perhaps circuitous route to freedom, but it was a more relational one. It was a peaceful one. No one was lost. And it had reverberations in the family of the jailer. A Divine love at work amidst human conflict, calling people to something different. And both justice and unity are realized.

I myself, these days, would be hesitant to offer this lesson as a too-easy way to counter the ills of our society. (Even if I believe it, I would expect that I might be looking at things from too-comfortable a position.) But our conference’s speaker, Demarius, with several years experience of deep community life amidst diversity, and his daily work in Boston furthering the mission of the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, brought this story to our attention, saying that there’s something special about it we might learn from. And I pass it along from him to you. Not as an easy answer, but as a glimpse into the Reign of God; a vision of ‘another way,’ and as he put it, a ‘middle way.’

Jesus said: “I made your name known to [my followers]… so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter