On this last Sunday of Eastertide, we finally arrive at what is referred to as the High Priestly Prayer in John’s Gospel. We have heard the stories about the empty tomb, Jesus’ appearances to the disciples, stories about how they are to be a people of love, and Jesus’ ascension into heaven. As our final lesson, as is true for every seventh Sunday in Eastertide in the three-year lectionary cycle, we hear the final prayer Jesus says before his trial and crucifixion. In this year’s section of the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus asks for one thing: unity. He prays the disciples and all the people who will become believers may be one.
As I have watched our country over the last week, we as Americans, and most definitely we as followers of Christ, have been showing anything BUT unity. You would think a mass shooting of children would have brought us together. And maybe for a moment, we were united in action – deep grief and despair at the loss of young life. We all seem to be of one mind in one area only – that none of us wants our young school children to die. But as soon as the tears subside and we open our mouths, any conversation about what our response should be sends us flying to opposite camps, no one staying in the same room to talk about a uniting action to protect life.
I have always been so very proud of the ways that Hickory Neck is a place where people of all political persuasions gather at a common table. You only need to take a look around the bumper stickers in the parking lot to know we are not of one mind when talking politics. But we are of one mind about Jesus – and so we sit next to people who likely voted for a different political candidate than we did, we pray next to people who go to opposite rallies than we do, and we kneel at the altar rail, rubbing elbows with someone who we, outside of church, might refer to as “those people.” I cannot tell you the number of people who have asked me, “How in the world can you do that? How do you even preach the gospel in such a diverse room?” Usually my answer is pretty simple – we focus on what unites us – the one thing we all long for: a place at the Table where all are welcome.
Now, I say that all that time, and usually people leave me alone about that answer. But I think secretly, they are thinking, “Ok! That sounds all well and good but just wait – there is no way you can keep up that ruse. Something is going to give!” And in many ways, they are right. We live and witness in a precarious reality. That’s why I think what Jesus does in this prayer today is so very important. We often define “unity” as everyone being of the same mind. But that is not what Jesus means in John’s gospel. As scholar Karoline Lewis explains, “Their unity is not a made-up concept but is based on the unity between the Father and the Son. Answering the question of what this unity looks like gives us the definition of what unity is. For this Gospel, unity with God means making God known. [Unity] means being the ‘I AM’ in the world. [Unity] means knowing that, in the midst of all that would seek to undermine that unity, you are at the bosom of the Father.”[i]
So how can we be the “I AM” in the world? What does being at the bosom of the Father look like when we all want to protect life but cannot seem to find a way forward? Scholar Meda Stamper qualifies that unity comes through love. She says, “This love clearly cannot depend on feelings of attraction, desire, affection or even liking. [Love] is a behavior-shaping attitude toward the world, which is both a gift we cannot manufacture and a choice to live into the promises of that gift that is already given. We cannot paste [love] onto ourselves. Like branches of a vine, we live in something larger than ourselves, in which we are nurtured to bear fruit by the Spirit dwelling in us (about which we read in the Pentecost passage for next week). But because we are more than vines, we also become more loving by choosing to follow Jesus’ model and teachings (13:14-15) about what love is: tending, feeding, bearing witness, and breaking barriers for love—societal barriers and also barriers we set up for ourselves, including some that we may think make us rightly religious but which do not make us loving.”[ii]
The way forward to be a people of unity through love starts here at Hickory Neck. We certainly have taken the first step by assembling a group of people who are united in relationship with God even though we are not united in political persuasion. But that is the tremendous blessing: we have a place to start. The only way we are ever going to make our way to the unity Jesus wants for us is to gather in our dis-unity and find a way forward through our relationships. The reason we are facing a carbon copy of Sandy Hook ten years later is because we never sat down with people of a different mind about gun control. We simply did what we always do – we divided into camps about the right solution, and then locked horns in a stalemate that led to little change. Our gospel this Sunday invites us into a different way. Our gospel invites us into true unity through our relationship with God and one another. Only when we agree to not just rub elbows at the altar rail, but also rub elbows at houses of legislature will we find a way of tangibly witnessing the love of Jesus – so that we are one as the Father and Son are one. Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 213.
[ii] Meda Stamper, “Commentary on John 17:20-26,” May 29, 2022, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1720-26-5 on May 27, 2022.