In Unity and Love

The Seventh Sunday After Easter, Year C, May 12, 2013

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

As Christians, we pray for people a lot.  Sometimes we pray alone, sometimes together.  Sometimes we pray for ourselves, and sometimes for others.  It’s quite a feeling, to know you are being prayed for.  It can give comfort; it can bring humbleness, it can bring inspiration.  I find it particularly moving when I am present and can hear the prayer.  Have you ever held someone’s hand while they’re praying for you and had a chill go up your spine?  I have.  Have you ever listened to someone praying and felt something you can’t describe, that seems to fill the room?

In today’s Gospel lesson, we overhear Jesus praying for us.  Unlike many other times we hear Jesus speaking, he isn’t speaking to us, he’s speaking to his Father.  He’s not telling us a parable, he’s not teaching, he’s not exhorting his followers or telling them how to live their lives.  He’s praying.  Just as we pray for one another, Jesus prays for us.  We are hearing his prayer through the ears of the disciples, who were with him at the time.  Jesus was praying for them, and for all those who would come to follow him.  He was asking the Father to give us the unity and love which only comes through God.

Now, the disciples weren’t a very unified, loving bunch.  Peter was pretty volatile, and always leapt before he looked.  He could be very right, but he could also be very wrong, and he was never quiet about it.  Judas was there at this meeting, and hadn’t yet betrayed Jesus, but it wouldn’t be long before he did.  James and John, the sons of Zebedee, jockeyed for position and power and prestige.  Sound familiar?  Like any group, the disciples had conflicts and divisions within their group, and sometimes they focused on squabbling rather than following Jesus and learning from him.

Christians today are, if anything, even more divided than the first disciples were.  Division and strife seem to be part of human nature, and these days we revel in it.  Our culture is ever more fragmented, and it seems like everything is devolving into an us-vs.-them mentality.  Too many people believe that anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong, but stupid and quite possibly evil.  You can see it most clearly in political rhetoric, but it’s everywhere.  Christians are not immune to this tendency, and never have been.  There is a tendency among Christians to schism—to break apart into separate groups whenever there is a disagreement.  Sometimes those disagreements are truly important, but at other times they are small and trivial.  The Russian Orthodox Church once split over whether one should make the sign of the cross with two fingers or three; a Lutheran denomination in the 1870s split over whether slavery should be categorized as a sin or as an evil.

Churches have split over what time worship should be at, what language worship should be in, what type of music should be used in worship, how people should dress, as well as deeper theological issues.  And even theological issues that can seem huge and enormous at the time can look trivial in hindsight.  But no matter how small or large these issues are, they divide us and we turn against one another.  It’s so common for Christian groups to say that other Christian groups don’t follow the Bible, just because they disagree on how to interpret the Bible.  The Word of God, which should bring us together, becomes just another bone of contention.  We call for Christian unity, but all too often what we mean is that everyone else should become exactly like us.

And yet, Jesus didn’t pray that we would always be right.  Jesus didn’t pray that everyone would all interpret his words the exact same way.  Jesus didn’t pray that we’d always figure out what things are important and focus on the big things instead of the trivial.  Jesus didn’t pray that we would all become superheroic Christians, capable of single-handedly converting thousands.  He prayed that we would experience the kind of unity that the Father and the Son and the Spirit have, a unity based on love.  It’s a unity that we can’t quite grasp or understand, but which God models for us every day.

You see, there is only one God—but in that one God are three people.  The Father is not the Son, and neither the Father nor the Son are the Spirit.  All three are different, but all three are God together.  Each has their own role to play in the divine relationship: creator, redeemer, sanctifier.  Yet despite their different roles, their different personalities, they are always together as one.  Their unity doesn’t mean they work the same way; it doesn’t mean they are identical.  It means they love one another, and work together.  The trinity—the triune God—is a relationship of joy and love.  Sometimes it’s been described as a dance, or like a choir singing together.  It’s a dance that is only complete when all three partners are there and active together.  And a choir can’t have only one person; choirs are about different melodies and harmonies coming together to make music.  It’s not about being completely the same; it’s about enjoying being together, doing something wonderful that no one could do by themselves.  That’s the kind of relationship that Jesus prayed we might have.

A lot of things divide Christians today.  Sexuality, the role of women, immigration, the environment, politics, economics, and, at the root of it all, the question of how to interpret the Bible.  We sometimes think of our relationships with a combat mentality—us vs. them.  How often do we think of our fellow Christians as partners in a dance?  Or fellow members of the choir of all creation who have been called together to praise God?  For that matter, how often do we think of coming together as Christians to worship and pray and hear God’s Word as something we want to do, rather than something we have to do?  How often do we focus on the God who created us, who redeemed us from our sin, dwells within us every day, and calls us to be one?  How often do we focus on our love for one another, instead of our disagreements?  How often do we pray for one another to grow in love and faith?

Jesus prays that we will know the kind of unity that the Father and Son and Spirit have together.  He asks this so that we may show the world what God’s love is like, but he also wants us to experience that unity so that we may know the glory of God.  Now, “glory,” that’s a word we don’t use very often.  The word in Greek can mean power, or majesty, or grandeur, and usually those words are all how we think of the glory of God.  But “glory” can also mean light.  It can mean brightness or radiance.  And, in the Bible, it means the presence of God.  That’s what Jesus is praying for: that we will experience the love and the presence of God through our fellow Christians.  Jesus is praying that we will know the kind of love and joy in one another that the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—have in each other.  It’s not a unity that depends on everyone thinking and acting the same.  Instead, the unity of God is based on mutual love and respect.  What would Christianity—the whole body of Christ—look like if we always treated one another with mutual love and respect?  What would the body of Christ look like if we always remembered that whatever our differences, we are all children of the same God, saved by the same Lord?

Let us pray.  O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living Father, crucified for us and resurrected, who prayed on earth for us and prays even now to the eternal Father, saying, ‘Father, sanctify them in truth; cause them all to be one, as you and I are one in love.’ O Christ, we beg you to assist us with this prayer. Gather us together and keep us in your church. Shield us according to your loving-kindness. Amen.

Amen.

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