John 17: Unity

This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, March 21, 2021 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of an ongoing series running through Easter exploring the Gospel of John.

Today’s sermon is based on John 17.

You can worship online with BBUMC through Facebook, the church website, or YouTube.

I’ve always been a grammar and English snob. There’s really no other way to put it. I’ve since learned to keep my mouth shut, mostly, but one day in high school, I remember asking my teacher as she was writing on the board, “Ms., isn’t gray spelled with an a?” (she’d spelled it g-r-e-y). She, in her confidence and wisdom, alerted me to the one of the oddities of the English language: gray can be spelled correctly either way. I remembered that event – evidence of my snotty know-it-all-ness – when I asked this teacher to tutor me in a subject during college. Would she remember or hold it against me?

Perhaps there are ways in which we can each relate to this concern. If we’ve lived away from here, and then decided to move back, perhaps we worried about how people’s memories of who we’d been would shape their interactions with us. Perhaps this comes up for lots of reasons, as we wonder versions of this question: “Will my people, the people of my hometown, my family, my church, or my friends, accept me when they know what I’ve done or what’s happened to me?” Of course, our fear is that, when people know – or even think they know the details of our lives – they’ll think less of us or turn away from us. These experiences challenge me as we encounter Jesus on his knees outside the home where they’d had supper on Thursday night before the Passover.

In John 17, Jesus prays. As students of the gospels, we know this is part of his pattern: say or do something significant – like washing his disciples’ feet, feeding them a meal laden with mystical meaning, and teaching them how to be his followers when he’s gone – and then retreat for prayer before the next big event. So, Jesus prays. His prayer is what we’d expect it to be, because we’ve prayed in similar situations – times when life is heavy and our hearts and minds are overloaded with what has happened and what we expect will happen. Similarly, heavy with awareness of his betrayal, denial, and death, and overloaded with concern for his friends, Jesus prays.

Jesus prays in thanksgiving for his friends, who have “truly understood that [Jesus] came from [God the Father], and they believed that [God] sent [Jesus]” (v. 8). Jesus prays for his friends, that God would fill them with the joy of Jesus (v. 13). Jesus prays for his friends, that God would protect them, knowing that, “they don’t belong to the world, just as [Jesus doesn’t] belong to this world” (v. 14). Jesus prays for his friends, that God would “make them holy in the truth,” which is God’s word – that they’d be holy in Jesus, God’s Living Word (v. 17). All that seems pretty normal. They’re things we pray for our friends and family, each week, and perhaps each day. But then Jesus adds a mystical, intensely spiritual, and missional element to his prayer:

“I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. […] I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me” (vv. 21, 23).

Jesus prays for his disciples of every age to be unified together, so that, in our unity, all God’s children will experience eternal life, which Jesus says, is to “know…the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [God] sent” (Jn 17:3). When I asked my teacher to tutor me, I was worried she remembered my snotty-ness – which she either forgave or forgot. It’s unlikely that Jesus had forgotten the actions of those for whom he prays. Jesus knows full well that we will not be unified. He’s already told them one will betray him and one will deny him. He’s already told them that “each of you will be scattered to your own homes and you will leave me alone” (Jn 16:32). Even so, Jesus prays with forgiveness for his disciples of every age to be unified, and so lead others into eternal life. Jesus prays for our unity, precisely because we are all too experienced at scattering ourselves.

How do we scatter ourselves? Well, let us count a few ways. We scatter ourselves when, like my fear of what my teacher will remember or think of me, we assume the worst of people, that they’ll never be able to forgive us or see that we’ve grown and changed. We scatter ourselves when, because of this, we build walls of secrecy and separation: I won’t go home, I won’t ask for help. On the other side, we scatter ourselves when we fail to extend grace to others, to let the past be the past, and see that the future can be different for us and others.

How do we scatter ourselves? We scatter ourselves when we build walls of beloved theological tropes and truisms, assured that if they don’t abide by our beloved conviction, then they’re not truly Christian. We scatter ourselves when we close ourselves off to the ideas of others – like two gardeners arguing about which full moon is the right one to plant potatoes under, or how to till, or not till, the soil. We scatter ourselves when we close our hearts and ears to the experiences and struggles of others – like women, youth, those full of years, people of color, or people with different understandings of gender – limiting our empathy and constraining our love. We scatter ourselves when we put each other in boxes, defined by our own experiences, understandings, and desires – and so dehumanize our neighbors. And in all these ways, we scatter ourselves, one believer from another, one person from another, and all of us from Jesus, who in diversity is still one with God. We scatter ourselves, and so Jesus prays for God to draw us together, but how long are we going to keep Jesus on his knees?

 Here’s the trouble: scattering is easy, and living in unity is harder. What’s more, Jesus doesn’t tell us how to be unified here. Jesus doesn’t give us a three step solution. Instead, Jesus gives us a calling: be unified, so that others will know that Jesus and God are one, and in believing this, they’ll experience God’s eternal life and resurrection on the last day.

Jesus prays, Jesus gives us a calling, and Jesus leads us into unity, if we remember his words well. Before his prayer, Jesus has just finished three chapters about loving him by keeping his commands and words. At least twice, Jesus condenses his commandment to this: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (Jn 13:34-35; cf. 15:12). Then, he defines love as giving oneself up for another – putting others before ourselves (Jn 15:13). Jesus leads us into unity by measuring our actions with love for others. And so I wonder, could loving others for the sake of unity be Jesus’ guide for us to live un-scattered, unified lives?

Thinking of the ways we scatter ourselves, how might shaping our actions with Jesus’ love unify us for the sake of our witness? Well, my teacher and tutor showed me love by forgetting or forgiving my insolence. Actions in love trust that others will be gracious and forgiving to us; love believes the best in another. We exhibit this loving-trust when we show back up to the family gathering after we’ve messed up. And we show this love when we reach out to another, putting whatever scattering thing they’ve done behind us.

Perhaps we can also measure and shape our actions in love like this. We can reframe our actions with this statement: “Jesus calls me to show unifying love by…” And if the thing we want to do or say doesn’t seem to jive with the first part of the statement, then we have a pretty good indicator that this action or word won’t foster unity in love. Here’s how it might work. Jesus calls me to show unifying love by calling out that gray is spelled with an a. No? Well, be quiet, Matt. Again: Jesus calls me to show unifying love by making fun of a person, a political party, or ideological system of thought…No? Well, better not. Again: Jesus calls me to show unifying love by turning my back on the suffering of others – because they’re far away, because nobody like that lives here, because I think they’re making a mountain out of molehill…No? Well, God, open my heart to love better. Jesus is on his knees praying for us, praying for our joy, our safety, our holiness, and our growth in him. And Jesus is on his knees praying fervently for our unity of love, so that in our unity, all God’s children will see Jesus in God through the Spirit in us. Jesus is praying for us, that we’d stop scattering ourselves. And in Jesus’ prayer and life, he is leading us toward unity in love. May we shape our lives by his calling, and by his grace, make his prayer complete.

The sermon preached at 11 o’clock worship on March 21, 2021

REFLECTION QUESTIONS:

  1. Obviously, this sermon basically condenses Jesus’ call, and the means through which God unifies us, as actively choosing in all actions to love others. Do you think this is too easy, an over-simplification?
  2. What are the ways you find yourself unable to love another toward unity?
  3. What are the things that challenge your idea of unity with others? Are there things you think Jesus simply cannot mean we should overlook or include when talking about unity with another? Why?
  4. Think about your actions or words today with the lens of this sermon: “Jesus calls me to show unifying love by…” In what ways have you been successful today in showing unifying love? In what ways have you found your actions do not fit with the beginning of the statement (“Jesus calls me to…”)?

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