In the Name...
Queen Elizabeth II is always seen in public with a handbag. The bags vary with each of her outfits, but, it seems that the Queen and her handbag are rarely parted. Have you ever wondered what's in it? Does she carry the keys to the castle? Not likely. And with chauffeurs aplenty, she hardly needs car keys. She probably doesn’t need cash for the drive-through or even a credit card for lunch. Queen Elizabeth simply doesn’t need to carry many of the items most of us mere mortals need.
Jesus’ prayer life is a little like Queen Elizabeth’s handbag. At first glance, it seems a bit unnecessary. Jesus is God, right? The second person of the Holy Trinity, the Word made flesh? Exactly why and for what, then, would Jesus pray? And, who’s going to answer those prayers?
Scripture, though, makes it clear that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. The disciples knew that Jesus was human. They never doubted that. Understanding his divinity took longer. They came to learn Jesus was also divine, but, it took longer because Jesus, in becoming human, had emptied his divine self. So, Jesus, in his humanity, communicated to God in prayer as we do.
Indeed, everything Jesus did was done through prayer, though, oftentimes we don’t get a glimpse of his inner life. Most of the time we read that, "Jesus prayed", but, we don’t get to listen in on what he said or thought. Today’s Gospel reading is an exception. Through the prayer in today’s Gospel, we get to find out what is on God’s own heart.
Our text is part of a longer prayer in the 17th chapter of John. Jesus has already prayed for the strength to face his coming crucifixion, and for his disciples, and now, at the end of the prayer, Jesus broadens the group for whom he prays. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but, also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” That means us.
We believe in Jesus because of the word of the first disciples. Had they never gone out and told Jesus’ story, we never would have heard it. We believe today because of an unbroken chain of believers back to the time of those first disciples. So, when Jesus prays for “those who will believe in me through their word,” Jesus is praying for those of us gathered here today and for all the Christians who have ever lived around the world over the past 2,000 years.
Jesus prays, “that they (meaning us) may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they (Jesus means us again) also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” And here, Jesus prays for unity among all Christians. That is, Jesus’ heart’s desire is that we may be one with God and through that oneness with God we may be one with one another.
But, if that's Jesus' desire, how are we doing on Christian unity? If you look to Church history, the answer doesn’t look so good.
The Christian Church was divided almost from day two. First, by debates among the Jewish founders of the Church as to whether Gentiles could be full members. Then, by debates over whether Jesus was a spirit who only looked like a man, or was a man adopted by God, or was both fully human and divine. Then, the Greek East and Latin West divided along political and cultural lines into the branches we today call Orthodox and Catholic. Indeed, the hostility was so violent that Catholic armies, on their way to fight the Muslims during the Crusades, stopped off to sack Orthodox Constantinople. And of course, the Reformation divided the Catholic West into hundreds of warring Protestant sects. And the divisions continue. According to the IRS, there are over 20,000 denominations, not counting thousands of independent churches, in the U.S. alone. But, then, America is the land of opportunity.
There’s the joke we've all heard where a person dies and goes to Heaven and while being shown around by St. Peter, he sees a high wall surrounding a portion of Paradise. The person asks why the wall is there. St. Peter says, “That’s the area for the [insert name of denomination]. They think they're the only ones up here.”
Actually, it's better today than it was a hundred years ago. Not so many Christians are quite as convinced that they're the only ones going to Heaven. You may not know this, but, back in 1904, a small group of New York Episcopalians gathered to observe what they called a week of prayer for Christian Unity. People laughed at them. Today, that week is observed around the world by people of hundreds of denominations. And the motivation for them, as it was for the founders, was Jesus' own prayer, “Father make them one as you and I are one.”
Of course, some are disappointed that there are few signs of any giant-sized super-denomination coming into being any time soon. But, that might just be because that's our human way of looking at unity. Maybe the problem isn't that Jesus set us some impossible goal. Maybe the problem is that we have missed his point.
What, actually, did Jesus say? “Father make them one as you and I are one.” Okay. So, how are Jesus and the Father one?
Clearly, they are not so one that there is no distinction between them, or among them and the Holy Spirit. If they were one with no distinction, then Jesus would never need to pray, in fact, he could never have existed as a separate person. That's the Unitarian view. They don't accept Jesus' divinity because they don't accept the idea of the Trinity. But, we, and all other Christians, believe that God is a Trinity of persons—one being, yet three. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. One and yet each unique.
As Christian denominations, perhaps we too exist to be unique persons, separate from one another and yet acknowledging we share the same faith. The goal of Christian unity, perhaps, is not to lose yourself into a group so fully that there is no “you” left, but, to be, like the Trinity, distinct persons of one being. That’s the opposite of what happens with a cult. The cult wants you to lose your individuality into a group identity. Everybody must think and act the same or they are kicked out. No diversity is tolerated. On the contrary, Christianity teaches that God made each person unique, with unique gifts to offer. And, if that's true in a local church setting, why not in the global?
Christian unity is not a plot to squish everybody into a one-sized-fits-all structure. Rather, it is for all our structures to show the world that we believe that our similarities matter more than our differences. That we do not view the various churches that dot our town as competitors, but, allies in the cause of spreading the Gospel. Indeed, the Bible does not teach that all heaven rejoices when a person changes from one church to another. Rather, it says all heaven rejoices when someone trapped in a life of sin learns that God loves them and desires a relationship with them. Someone coming to that life changing knowledge, repentance, is what makes all heaven rejoice.
Episcopalians have always had a reputation for being "comfortable with ambiguity" as the phrase goes. Maybe that's why we were the ones who started that week of prayer, so ridiculed back then, but, so prophetic in its way. Unity does not mean sameness. It means similarity, of purpose, of intention, of allegiance and of behaviour towards one another.
Jesus prayed that we would be one, as he and the Father are one. Now, wouldn't that be a great prayer for us to answer?
In the Name...