Text: John 17:20-26
This morning’s New Testament reading from John’s gospel is one of those foundational texts of Christian life. It’s one of those strong roots that lie at the very heart of who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. One of the questions I like to ask about any biblical text is, “Where do you see yourself in this text?” In this morning’s gospel reading, that’s easy enough to answer. We’re right there in verse 20. Jesus is praying to God here, and prays not only on behalf of those disciples who are with him at that moment, but also on behalf of those who will come to believe in future generations. That’s us. We are the future generations who have come to believe because of someone else’s word. It seems like this passage draws a pretty straight line from those first disciples to all of those who follow, but as we will see, it’s not that simple. There are no straight lines.
There’s a strange thing that happens when you become a follower of Jesus. Typically we come much like those first disciples did, leaving our work and our schedules behind so that we might be a part of something extraordinary, and maybe we don’t even know what that something is, but we come trusting Jesus to lead us. Jesus is the one setting the tone for our lives; he reaches out, touches the sick, and makes them well. He approaches the last, and the least, and the lost, and welcomes them into community. He forgives them, and blesses them, and loves them. He performs miracles, and some of his most profound miracles weren’t the kind that you could see like water into wine, but the kind that happened on the inside of someone when he took their hand and spoke the word to them: “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
These are amazing things that Jesus is doing, extraordinary things, and we can’t help but want to be a part of that. The gospel of Jesus Christ is so profound, so life-changing, that we simply cannot sit idly by as spectators. No, we want to be participants. We want to respond to it, to get in on it. In the echoes of the gospel we suddenly all become wide-eyed children, speaking words that nearly every mother or father knows all too well: “Let me do it! Let me help! I want to do that!” And we do. We find that the miracle is happening in us as well, and it’s better than anything we can imagine. But that’s when something strange happens. When you follow Jesus, sooner or later you realize that there are others following Jesus, too. They are walking, just like we are. They’ve seen the vision and felt the miracle. They saw and heard and experienced the gospel as well, and just like us, they wanted in on it! They wanted to participate just like we did. Only…
Only, they aren’t like us. And now that we think about it, they aren’t even that likeable either. And if you want to know the truth, there are a few of them sitting in that pew over there that I just flat out dislike! How can Jesus be so inconsiderate, so indiscriminate about who he lets in? It doesn’t make any sense.
That’s why the line between the disciples and us isn’t a line – it’s a tangled web of offshoots and splits and separations. It’s the Christian family tree, and if you ever look at the whole thing at once you’ll get dizzy. There are the Catholics, and the Deists, and the Baptists, and the Anabaptists, and the Revivalists, and the Methodists, and the Congregationalists, and the Lutherans, and the Pentecostals, and the Presbyterians, and on and on and on it goes, branch after branch after branch. But it doesn’t stop there. Every branch has needles on it, like a pine tree. The Presbyterian Branch has the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, and there’s a needle here because we didn’t agree on what kinds of music to sing in church, and a needle there because we didn’t agree on whether it was okay to ordain women, and a needle over there because we didn’t agree on whether it was okay to ordain homosexuals, and a needle there because… well, because those people just don’t understand the Bible like I do! But you know what? It doesn’t stop there, because there those people are, sitting in that pew over there and who let them in here, anyway? If I had known they were going to be here today I just would have stayed home!
The Christian family is full of branches, and it’s full of needles, and here we are this morning sitting on our branch, on our needle, and Jesus… Jesus says something, prays something… “That they all may be one…”
What are we supposed to say to that? What does Jesus want for us to say? He prayed that we might be one, so should we just apologize? “Sorry, Jesus, but we only missed it by a billion?” What does he expect us to do about that? It’s been said before that if you put three Presbyterians in a room, you’ll get four different opinions. So if we worship and live in a world in which denominations can’t agree, and churches can’t agree, and individual Christians even in the same church don’t like each other, what are we supposed to do?
Well, let’s just get it out there that there’s probably not anything that we can do about the Baptists. I kid, of course. The truth is that it’s not very likely that all the world’s Christian denominations will suddenly see eye-to-eye on all things theological and practical, so let’s set the bar a little lower. I’m reminded of a story about Christian writer G.K. Chesterton, who in the early 1900s saw an invitation in The Times of London newspaper. The editors asked for readers to submit essays in response to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” A number of people had written in with all kinds of criticisms and all-but-certain solutions to the widespread problems of the world. Chesterton simply wrote a letter to the editors that said, “What’s wrong with the world? I am. Yours sincerely, G.K. Chesterton.”
What would it be like if we brought that same honesty to the reality of this fractured Christian world? If I’m honest with myself, the real reason that Jesus’ prayer isn’t fulfilled isn’t the Baptists, or the Methodists, or the Unitarians. It isn’t this or that theological doctrine. It isn’t whatever controversial issue is lighting up the newspaper headlines at any given time. No, it’s me. It’s my resistance to the “other”, my failure to seek, and invite, and welcome, my unwillingness to forgive that has gotten played out on a global scale for centuries upon centuries. What’s wrong with the church? I am. I am, when I just won’t let the conflict go. I am, when I think “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” I am, when I spend all my time pushing my own agenda instead of following God’s.
A couple of years ago Anne Lamott was being interviewed on NPR about Easter, and she told the story of one of her very close friends named Pammy, who died at age 38 from cancer. When Pammy had reached the point in her cancer treatments where she was confined to a wheelchair and had to wear a wig, she and Anne decided to go out shopping to try to cheer themselves up. As they were shopping, Anne decided to try on a dress that she thought might impress a boyfriend at the time. She asked Pammy what she thought of the dress and if it made her look good. Pammy simply replied, “Oh, Annie. You don’t have that kind of time.” For Anne Lamott, it took a dying friend to remind her of what was really sacred, and holy, and important in life.
From time to time God puts people in our lives to remind us, as well. For you, maybe it was your mother, and your heart is bursting with gratitude today because of that. Maybe it was your Father, or a grandparent, or a sibling, or a friend, and they reminded you of your roots as a Christian, taught you what it’s like to be selfless, and generous, and caring, even to other people, even to those you don’t know, even to those people in that pew over there.
It can happen through scripture as well. There are times when the Word of God reaches out and resets us, recalibrates and re-centers us around what really matters. It’s not theological statements, or conflicts around hot-button issues, or worship style, or the sins of another. It’s unity. It’s relationship. It’s togetherness. It’s love.
Jesus knew we’d have a monstrous hard time with it. That’s why he’s praying here to God instead of teaching it directly to us. He knew we would need significant help. But even as he asks for yet another miracle, he points us in the direction of it: “That the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” It’s love. That’s where we start. That’s what we do. We love. This is the life to which Christ has called all of us.
So let this morning be a beginning, brothers and sisters. Let it be a beginning of generosity, a beginning of compassion, a beginning of love. Let it be a beginning of relationship, and community, and unity. We aren’t all going to think the same things or practice the same things or even believe the same things. But it’s not sameness that Jesus is praying for, it’s one-ness, one-ness that asks you to set aside your self for the sake of the other. Author Parker Palmer once wrote, “When people look upon the church, it is not of first importance that they be instructed by our theology or altered by our ethics but that they be moved by the quality of our life together: ‘See how they love one another.’” (The Company of Strangers, p. 118)
That’s it. Love. That’s the root from which this whole tangled family tree has grown. It’s under you, and it’s in you, and it’s through you. And yes, it even start with you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
This sermon was written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz