“Do We Really Have To?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
May 28, 2017: Easter 7
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 & John 17:1-12
Today is the final Sunday of the season of Easter. The season of Easter has helped us to encounter and interact with the Biblical narrative as it tells of the days after the resurrection. This has encouraged us to wonder and imagine what this ancient story means for us today. In this time we heard about how Jesus appeared to his disciples regardless of when and where the disciples were gathered. In this time we heard and learned about Christ’s way of showing up when he was needed most—this gives us a pattern in showing up in each other’s lives. We learned some things about what it means to be a community of Christ’s followers, and the importance of questions in the life of faith. This past week we heard about Christ’s ascension into heaven and the blessing he gave the disciples for the work ahead. We’ve also heard in this past weeks some hints about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Next week, we will celebrate the day of Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit descended on Christ’s followers, giving birth to the new church.
Today we pause in this grand narrative and listen back to the prayer Jesus prayed on the night he was arrested. Listening back to Jesus’ prayer points us forward to the work and life that awaits us now that the tomb is empty.
There is assurance and certainty in Christ’s prayer. In his life and ministry, Jesus made his Father’s name known to the disciples. In preaching and teaching, Jesus gave them the gift of wisdom and knowledge of the truth. Now he prays for their protection, so that everything they have learned and seen and done will amount to something. He prays, “While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one was lost…” Jesus is about to be taken away, so he places the disciples into the mighty hands of God. The work that Jesus did on earth was just the start of his radical revolution; it is now up to the disciples to take this revolution on as their own. The task ahead of them is to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. The disciples will only be able to do this if they are under the guidance and protection of God. So Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me.”
Intertwined in Christ’s prayer for protection is a prayer for something else, something urgent, perhaps even more urgent than protection: unity.
Christ’s prayer for unity does not make him unique among leaders of great movements. In fact, every great leader, and even not so great leaders, pray or hope for unity among their followers, especially when they are gone. Unity ensures that a message, or a movement, continues after a leader is gone. But unlike other leaders, Jesus prays for unity for a very specific purpose. Christ is not interested in personal fame; his final hope is not that he will be celebrated. Christ prays for unity among the disciples because their unity will make the saving love of God clear in the world. When Christ prays that the disciples may be one as he and his father are one, he is making the very bold claim that the best evidence that God is real, that God is love, that God is merciful and just, is how well, or not, the disciples live together. If the message of the Gospel is to reach even to the ends of the earth, the disciples must be one, just as Jesus and his father are one.
Think for a moment back to the start of John’s gospel. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.” That is a mysterious thing to say. From the very beginning of time, Jesus was, and he was with God, and he was God. When we look at Jesus, into his gentle eyes and to his scarred hands and feet, we know exactly what God looks like. This is the mystery Johns brings to life at the start of his gospel. And this has caused a great struggle for Christians throughout time. How can someone be from the beginning, and be with God from the beginning, but also be God? A whole bloody war was started in the 4th century because folks could not wrap their minds around this mystery. But this is a truth of our faith that we must accept by faith: Jesus was there when it all started, right by God’s side when God put creation together, and is God…one with God, united.
Jesus prays the disciples will enter into the mystery of unity between God and Jesus Christ. Christ’s prayer indicates that they will do this in two ways. Jesus prays that they will embody this unity first by nurturing and cultivating a personal relationship with God. Jesus prays that they will embody this unity second by nurturing and cultivating relationships with one another.
Honestly, the first of these is the easiest. We all have our ways of growing into a meaningful and lasting relationship with God. For some, spiritual practices like daily mediation and prayer, or fasting, nurture a personal relationship with God. For others, spiritual practices like cooking, hospitality, planting a garden and watching it grow, or music bring unity to the believer’s heart and God. Some of us dedicate our lives to a particular ministry in a case of justice, or healing, or service, and unite with God in this way. Some of us dedicate our lives to work that is not explicitly religious, say like law or politics or medicine, but it is work that brings to life and exhibits the truths of Christian faith. No matter which course we take, the Holy Spirit within us and around us is able to direct our work and draw us close to God. However we spend the days we are given, the Holy Spirit pushes us towards unity with God. We only have to open our eyes and our ears, and remain willing to receive and respond.
Now the second way of unity that Christ prays for the disciples—personal relationships with one another—now that is much, much more difficult. This is where the really painful, the really depressing, and the really difficult work begins and remain. It appears that disunity has become the defining characteristic of the church of Jesus Christ. We have our denominations and our sub-denominations and even more groups of Christians that align with no denomination. We argue, inside and outside of denominational religion, about who can be ordained, who can be married, who can be a member, who can come to the table. We argue over our alliances with this group or that one, around the globe and even within our own community. We argue over how Christians should or should not engage in secular activities, and in how religion should interact with matters of state. This piece of Christ’s prayer, about building unity through personal relationships, must have caused the disciples to look at each other and ask, “Do we really have to?”
The answer is ‘yes.’ The answer was ‘yes’ for the disciples and it is ‘yes’ you and me. Yes, we really have to do what Jesus prayed for. Yes, we really have to work for unity among the followers of Jesus. Yes, we really have to build relationships that show this unity. Yes, we really have to live peacefully and charitably with folks we like and agree with and with folks we don’t like and disagree with. Yes, as followers of Jesus Christ we have to stay together—we do not have the option of breaking away from each other, because when we do, when we split over this thing or that thing, we damage the message of the Gospel and wreck the mission of God in the world.
So, how? How do we work for unity? How do we embody the oneness that Jesus shares with God, that we have in our personal relationships with God? Where is the hope?
On Friday, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland closed its yearly session. During the closing ceremonies, Princess Anne, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth, gave a powerful speech. In it, she commended the General Assembly on extending an invitation to Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan to speak to the Assembly. Princess Anne called the Prince brave for standing up in front of 730 Christian church commissioners, as a Muslim, in a commonwealth that just days before had fallen victim to an act of terrorism. The bomb that detonated last week in Manchester killed 22 people and injured 120 more, and Princess Anne acknowledged that the Prince could have easily cancelled his speech and the Assembly could have easily rescinded their invitation. Instead, the Prince spoke and the Assembly listened.
Princess Anne said, “I think it was both generous of you, [the Assembly] and brave of him [the Prince] to continue this discussion.” Prince Ghazi, who has twice been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, spoke of the fundamental message of love that Islam and Christianity share, that almost all major religions share. He also acknowledged the renaissance of extremism that every major religion has had throughout history. But it was love that anchored his speech, and it was love that Princess Anne commended to the Assembly as their guiding principle. She encouraged the Assembly to lead with love in the debates they have amongst themselves, and in the debates they have with those on the outside. “It is love,’ she said, ‘that will ensure what was designed to bring disunity in our nation does not destroy us.”
Love. That is how we live into Christ’s prayer. That is how we embody the oneness of our Lord and our God. That is how we begin to forge deep and lasting relationships with one another. Love.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, the prayer of our Lord rests upon us today, and with it an invitation to enter into unity. Love must take the lead, especially in our relationships with one another. It is not romantic or warm and fuzzy love; it is gritty love, complex love, messy love, that recognizes and embraces the sacred image of God present in each person. When love leads, we will listen, not just to answer, but to understand. When love leads, we will ask questions, not to shame or discredit, but to increase in knowledge and wisdom. When love leads, fear has no place to live or grow, because love is the end of all fear. When love leads, we will give up our categories, our prejudices, the ‘isms’ that separate us, and live as truly free. When love leads, we will stop running the race of judgment, of superiority, of false appearance and facades, and live as God intends. When love leads, Christ’s prayer will be fulfilled: we will be one with him and with our God, and we will be one with each other. This is how the Gospel is spread; this is how the world is transformed; this is how we live the resurrection.
Friends, today is the final Sunday of the season of Easter. But Easter is not just a season, it is a way of life. That life starts right now and it begins with us hand in hand with each other as a unified witness to the greatness of God’s love. Yes, we really have to, and yes, we really can. With great love, all of this is possible. God is depending on us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is depending on us. This broken and beautiful world is depending on us. Christ is praying for us. Thanks be to God! Amen.