I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Holy Father! Keep them safe by the power of your name … that they may be one just as you and I are one! John 17:6-19
Last Thursday was Ascension Day – did you notice? It certainly mattered to Jesus’ friends and followers. Over three exciting roller-coaster years with Jesus life had been totally transformed for them. They had been basking in his love and companionship, thrilled by his authority, thoroughly at home with him and full of wild hope for the future. They had become utterly dependent on him for their sense of security, confidence, purpose and direction. And now he was saying he would disappear. They were losing him. The result: pure panic!
We are all faced with this bereavement experience, just like them. This pandemic has turned our life with its comforting habits and meetings with each other upside down. We are not the only ones who keep asking ourselves desperately: “Whom can I trust? What is true and lasting? What is safe and sure?” There’s no doubt, we have lost something these days: a confidence we once had, our old nerve, and sense of things hanging together for us, and so, springing out of that, a vigour and sense of purpose and direction.
Isaac Asimov (a famous American writer) once told a story about a Rabbi who was having trouble with his congregation; they couldn’t agree on anything. The president of the congregation said, “Rabbi, this can’t continue. There has to be a conference, and we have to settle all areas of dispute once and for all.” The rabbi agreed.
So the rabbi, the president, and ten elders met around a magnificent mahogany table in the conference room of the synagogue. One by one the issues were dealt with and on each issue, it became more and more apparent that the rabbi was a lonely voice in the wilderness. The president of the synagogue said, “Come, Rabbi, enough of this. Let’s vote and allow the majority to rule.” He passed out slips of paper and each elder made their mark. The votes were collected and the president said, “Look at them, Rabbi. It is eleven to one against you. We have the majority.”
Angrily, the rabbi rose to his feet and said, “So, now you think because of the vote that you’re right and I’m wrong. Well, that’s not so. He raised his arms impressively and looked up to heaven. “I stand here,” he said, “and call upon the Holy One of Israel to give us a sign that I’m right and you’re wrong.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than there was a deafening clap of thunder and a brilliant flash of lightning. It struck the mahogany table and cracked it in two. The room was filled with smoke and fumes, and the president and the elders were hurled to the floor. Surrounded by rubble the rabbi stood erect and untouched, grinning with triumph. Slowly, the president lifted himself out of the rubble. His hair was singed, his glasses were hanging from one ear, his clothing was in disarray. Finally he said, “All right, eleven to two. But we still have the majority.”
In the Christian Church we hope, as the hymn puts it, that “nothing changes here” – and what do we find? Different beliefs and teaching, different customs and worship on zoom. We have to live in it, for better or worse, and the Church does not seem to hear our questions, let alone help us to find the answers. We don’t want a black and white answer. Life seems too complex for simple rules of thumb. But we do want clear answers. Can this prayer of Jesus offer what is needed?
- He prayed to God: “You and I are one”.
The greatest people are simple. The nearer that great scientists penetrate to the heart of physics, the more often they say that the truth about this world is very simple. A great pianist needs no frills to be added to the music s/he plays. You hear Beethoven or Chopin, not the pianist. That’s the key to perfection.
Jesus above all was simple at heart. He was “at one” with his Father. When people saw him at work, they saw God at work. At the end of his life, we hear him praying: “I have done the work which you gave me to do”. Remember the Sunday before last, when the topic was “Jesus as the Vine”, Jesus was “at home” in God and God was at home in him. He was rooted, at home, wherever he was, whatever he was doing.
But now he knew he was going home to his Father in heaven. His life’s work was coming to an end. He was willing to let his Father show him the last thing he wanted him to do, for people who were rootless, confused, like sheep without a shepherd. He longed for us also to be rooted in this sense of being “at home”, resting on the bedrock of faith. So, He went on to pray:
2. “May they all be one, as we are at one”
In other words, as the Father is to the Son, so may the Son be to his disciples. And that means you and me, his brothers and sisters. That is his intention. Not just his closest and earliest disciples, but everyone who has come to believe in him ever since are becoming one. That’s exactly what has to happen. The moment, when this started to come true, was in Bethlehem when God became a human being.
It’s been inevitable thereafter, that as people have caught his love, the circle has widened, and this experience has been duplicated. And the process will never end till the end of time. Christ intends it to continue till everyone is at one with him, at one with God’s world, at one and at home with one another.
Unfortunately, we’re like the poet who wrote:
“To dwell above with saints we love,
That will be grace and glory.
To live below with saints we know;
Well, that’s another story!”
Unity isn’t easy. But Jesus not only prayed for it, He modelled it for us. Remember when the disciples came to Him complaining about the people who were preaching and doing signs and wonders in Jesus’ name but weren’t part of the crowd of disciples. They were ready to call down lightning upon their heads. Jesus told the disciples not to stop them and said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.”
Christian unity is not determined by whether we agree with each other about every interpretation of scripture or doctrine or form of church government. Christian unity IS determined by whether we love one another, and whether we reflect the love of God in Christ for the world.
Remember the Aesop Fable about teamwork. It seems the members of the body once rebelled against the stomach. “You,” they said to the stomach, “live in luxury and never do a stroke of work, while we have to do all the hard work there is to be done. You treat us as your slaves and we have to serve your wants. Well we will do this no longer. You can shift for yourself in the future.” They were as good as their word and left the stomach to starve. The results were just what might have been expected. The whole body soon began to fail and the members shared in the general collapse. Then, too late, they saw how foolish they had been.
We have one hope: that we will discover together how Christ has untangled things by his victory in life and death. We have one belief: that God’s spirit makes sense of the problems we are up against. And his call to us is to pitch into the fray, where he is already. This is his commission to his Church. This is where we are called to make our home. This is where Jesus longs for us to be one with him as he and His Father are one.
3. His parting prayer and legacy was that God will keep us safe for ever by the power of his name.
We all have an overriding need to be at one with Christ and with one another under the protection of God. Then we find the nerve to discover God’s will in daily living, as Jesus did, and do it. God gives us courage to see that we are ALL different, inside our church as well. Accepting our difference from one another and valuing it as God’s gift is the key to being One, to knowing God’s love. Amid all the turmoil and trials of life may we stand steadfast and sure and unafraid.