The Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 28, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
These words come from the long prayer towards the end of John’s gospel, the last words from Jesus before his arrest and crucifixion – what is called his high priestly prayer, a sort of farewell address. John means for us to hear in this a kind of summing-up by Jesus, everything he was here to show and say spoken aloud all at once. Jesus prays for his followers – his disciples, and all those who will be his followers in time to come, which includes us – that God might protect them, protect us, so that we may be one, as God and Jesus are one. We followers of Jesus are still trying to live this one out.
I just returned from a few weeks pilgrimage in the Holy Land, in Israel/Palestine. I went with an ecumenical group of Christian clergy, some of whom I meet with monthly here in New York, and some of whom were part of a group from rural North Carolina. In our group of 14, we had clergy that ranged from Roman Catholic to Holiness Pentecostal, with Baptists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians thrown in, men and women, straight and gay, urban and rural, black, white, and Native American all mixed together. It was an amazing opportunity to connect across all kinds of differences, rooted together in our shared faith and love of God, our shared knowledge of scripture, our shared understanding of Jesus Christ. Traveling with this group to all those holy places was a huge part of what made it an amazing pilgrimage, and I will be finding ways to tell more of the stories of that trip in the coming weeks.
But our group’s unity provided a stark contrast to some of what we saw by way of Christian relationship in the Holy Land. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem – churches that mark the places of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection – are shared by different branches of the Christian Church, western and eastern sects who famously have a terrible time agreeing to do maintenance on the ancient buildings. One wooden ladder in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, perched on a crumbling parapet, has not been moved since the 18th century because the six different orders in that church cannot agree to move it. Only recently has restoration work begun on the two churches, prodded by the Palestinian governing authorities – who said, in essence, this is important to all of us, and if you people can’t agree, we’re going to do it ourselves. The struggles between the Israelis and the Palestinians, between the three historic faiths of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, are played out just as much in the struggles within the Christian groups themselves in that place.
Now, we know better. We Christians know that it’s not quite how we should be proceeding, of course. Over and over in history there have been attempts to address these conflicts in the church. Elizabeth I brought an end to the bloody fighting between Catholics and Protestants in England by insisting on unity in worship and tolerance in other areas – people can believe what they like, she said, but we will worship according to one rite, and so be in unity. Richard Hooker, a theologian of the early English church, continued the theme by arguing that there were things essential and things inessential to the faith, and that tolerating differences in things inessential – like church governance and minor doctrinal matters – would preserve unity in the important things. The ecumenical movement in modern times, especially the last half-century or so, sought to find the ways that different Christian denominations could agree and unite. (Just recently the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist church proposed an agreement for full communion.)
So we’ve tried various things. But despite Jesus’ fervent prayer for us, Christians have not done a terrifically good job of being one as God and Jesus are one. Before the canonical scriptures were even finished, while John’s gospel itself was being written, Christians were already arguing with one another in councils and letters about who was a real follower of Jesus and what Jesus really meant. And so it has gone, through the centuries. It’s a miracle that Jesus hasn’t given up on us yet.
Jesus prays to God to protect us, so that we can have this kind of love for each other. He knows we have a hard time doing it on our own. The letter from 1 Peter talks about the devil as our adversary, ‘like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.’ Devour is a good word for it – we talk about people being ‘eaten up’ by jealousy, or ‘consumed’ with hatred. We all know what this feels like, I think, when something inside of us rises up, our anger with another person overwhelms us, and we are miles away from being able to love that person. Whether we call it the devil or just our own worst nature, it’s there. It tears at our relationships and makes it terribly hard for us to be truly loving.
I think one of the things that makes it most difficult is our need to be right. Whether it’s Christians fighting with other Christians or different religions fighting or people of no religion at all fighting, we stake a lot on our side of the issue. We feel pretty certain that we have the right take on the situation, the grasp of the whole truth. Sometimes when we’re not so certain, we can act all the more like we are. (In my family we always knew that the louder and more authoritative my Dad got, the less he knew about the subject at hand.) And how many of us in marriage or other close relationships have found ourselves in the heat of an argument saying things that are just really absurd, painting ourselves into a corner somehow but being too pigheaded to come back out of it? Not me, of course! But whether we think we’re winning or losing the fight, we tell ourselves that we’re really in the right, not the other person or group. It’s pride, maybe, or a fear of being vulnerable – or maybe those are really the same thing. Whatever it is, it’s in all of us.
But every now and then, we Christians do something to address this permanent kink in our nature. The Eastern Orthodox have an interesting practice that begins their season of Lent. At the end of a penitential vespers service, with prayers and scriptures stressing our sinfulness and need for God’s forgiveness, the Orthodox faithful put it into practice. Beginning with the priest, each person turns to another person there individually, and asks their forgiveness, bowing or prostrating themselves and saying, ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ Each person in turn offers forgiveness to the other, saying, ‘God forgives,’ and then the two embrace. Each then turns to another person and repeats the process. With a good-sized congregation, this can take an hour or more to do. At the end of it, every person has both asked for and received forgiveness from every other person present, and every person has embraced every other person present. (I’m thinking we might need to do something different in our next Ash Wednesday service.)
Jesus talks about giving us eternal life, the eternal life of knowing God. Eternal life, as the gospel of John uses the term, is about love. We don’t have eternal life all by ourselves in some far off cloud separate from all those other people. Eternal life is something we live out now, in our relationship with God and with one another. It is a state of being one, being one with God and being one with each other. It means even in our misguided, misdirected human way, we’re supposed to try for unity. It requires humility, the sense that we don’t have all the answers, and the sense that we need others. Humility means knowing ourselves truthfully – knowing ourselves to be neither more nor less than we really are. And what we are, each of us, are children of God, intended to be in relationship with all the rest of God’s children. We’re created not to prove our point and be right, but to listen and love – to stop long enough to listen in prayer to what God is saying to us, and to listen to what is behind the differences we have with each other. To be mature enough to know ourselves and our own failings, and to forgive those failings in others. The more we are willing to open ourselves to others in love, the closer we are to eternal life. And in a world where people’s disagreement with one another has slid over into violence, individual and collective, that humility and forgiveness is needed more than ever.
It’s a principle lived out entirely in practice. Which means we have to practice it, and practice again. When we feel that consuming feeling rising up within us; when we hear ourselves making disparaging comments about people we read about in the paper or the neighbor down the hall; when we find ourselves adamant about our stand on an issue, pause for a moment. Pray for a moment. Pray for God’s protection from that consuming lion; pray for God’s help in loving others; pray Jesus’ prayer that we and others might be one, even as God and Jesus are one. From there, we can speak the truth as we understand it – and speak it in love. And listen to the truth as the other understands it. Being right may not be as important as we think it is. The love of God, eternal life – that’s the place to start. That’s the place from which we can change the world.