Posted on Jun 02, 2019 by Pastor Dave Whetter
Did you catch all that? “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21-23). What on earth is Jesus talking about?
Actually, the answer is very simple. As Jesus was praying for his followers, both those who were with him 2,000 years ago and us today, he was praying that God might help us to become one. Jesus was praying for unity! It’s just that simple. But, the hard part is figuring out what does unity look like? Certainly, the church is not united today. Look at how fragmented we are. We have differing doctrines. We have differing theologies. We have differing organizational polities. We have differing politics, and the list of our differences goes on and on. But, it is critical today that we realize Jesus was not praying for doctrinal unity. He wasn’t praying for theological unity. He wasn’t praying for organizational unity, and he most certainly wasn’t praying for political unity. No, the kind of unity Jesus prayed for just before his death and Resurrection was a unity of love.
Jesus doesn’t really care about our church rules and policies. He doesn’t care about how we want to organize ourselves. He doesn’t care about how we choose to interpret scripture, and he really doesn’t care about poor politics. We care about these things. We fret about them, and, in fact, we will fight and kill for these things. Now, before we go any further, I am not saying that our church doctrines, our theologies, our organizational structures, or our politics are not important or that they don’t matter. They are very important! But, none of them matter if they are not grounded in the unifying character of love. As St. Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians, “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
Our theme this Easter season has been, “Love Wins,” and as we bring this season of Easter to a close, we hear Jesus pray that we might be a community that loves. We don’t have to be a community that agrees on everything. We don’t need to be a community that does everything the same way. We don’t have to be a community that likes the same things, or does things the same way, but if we are going to be a healthy and united community, then we ought to be a community that is grounded in love, and not just any love, but reciprocal love that is love that is self-giving as Jesus’ love for us is self-giving.
This kind of unifying love that Jesus prays for is very difficult. It is the kind of love that challenges us to look inward and say, what must I do to care for and serve this world. It is not the kind of love that says, I love you so much I am going to change you; no, it is the kind of love that says, I love you so much, I will change for you. I love you so much, I will do what is best for you, so that you might experience the love I have experienced in Christ Jesus and so that you might come to believe Jesus is truly the Son of God and God sent Jesus into this world because God loves this world. What Jesus knew and what we seem to not be able to believe is that God, no matter what, loves us, even in our brokenness. And if God can love us, even when we still are sinners, then shouldn’t we be able to love others the same way?
So, as I said earlier, the question is what does this look like, and we can look to a story in Scripture. Acts 16:16-34 gives us a little glimpse of what unity might look like. Paul and his traveling companions, Silas and Timothy, have arrived in Macedonia, where they first helped a woman named Lydia, a businesswoman who specialized in trading purple dye. Lydia was wealthy and successful in the secular world, but after meeting Paul and hearing this story of love, we are told that God opened her heart, and so she and all her household are baptized (16:15). It is right after that that we hear today’s story about how Paul casts out the demon from the slave girl that had been following them. But, by freeing her from being possessed, he also created a problem. Without this “spirit of divination” (16:16), she was no longer a valuable slave. So what did the slave owners do? They had Paul and Silas arrested, because the act they performed freed this woman, and by doing so they had subverted the very cultural and economic system that the community was accustomed to, even though it was an unjust system. If you want to really mess up unjust systems in this world, then love as Jesus loved and watch. We won’t change this world with hatred. We won’t change it with violence, and we certainly won’t change it with self-centeredness. No, when we perform acts of love that set others free, we will begin to affect change, but we will also probably get in trouble. This is the unity Jesus is praying for in this prayer. He is praying that we might come to believe and trust in God so much, as he did, that we will always choose to act in love, even if it messes things up.
Paul and Silas loved this world so much that they were beaten and thrown in jail. Now, how on earth could one go on acting in love after having that done to them, right? Well, our story didn’t go any further today, but had it gone on, you would see what this unity that Jesus prayed for looked like. After being beaten and locked up, instead of feeling sorry for themselves we hear that Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God. What? Yes, Paul and Silas, loved so much and they believed so much that they knew their actions had witnessed to God, and so even though the world didn’t like them for it, they sang hymns and praised God, and in return, God freed them of their chains, but their unifying love didn’t stop there. If they had escaped, their jailer would most certainly have been punished, so they stay, and in doing so once again they witness to the unifying love of God. Now, I’m not going to go any further in this story; if you want you can read the rest of the story on your own.
But here is what is important for us to know. The overall point of this story is that this unifying love that Jesus prays for is something we can and ought to seek to offer, but ultimately, even if it seems too hard. And when we do this, even if we do it poorly, even if we fail, the most important think we ought to remember is the real unifying love is the love of Jesus Christ. You see, Paul did free the slave girl, but as we were told, his action was out of his annoyance. Yes, the slave-girl was freed, but not because of Paul’s love, but because of Jesus' love. Paul freed her because he wanted her to stop. The jailer ends up being baptized and being freed not because Paul stayed around, but because through Paul’s witness God opened the jailer's heart and he came to believe. Even in our brokenness, evening in our feeble attempts to be like Christ, God’s love wins. When we act out of love, we are uniting ourselves in Christ, and even if our attempts are feeble at best, Jesus’ love won’t fail.
Now, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to love like Christ. It doesn’t mean we can intentionally choose to be self-centered, but what it does mean is that this unity that we heard Jesus pray for is very possible. Unity, even amongst all our diversity, is very possible, and all we need to do is allow the love of Christ to shine though us. Amen.