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In the church calendar today is called “Ascension Sunday”, for it is meant to mark the moment in some of our Gospel stories when Jesus ascends into heaven after his resurrection. Oddly, the passages read for today don’t have anything to do with the ascension of Jesus, though those passages exist. And that’s because they were read in some churches on Thursday, which is the traditional feast day. The higher church traditions still celebrate this on Thursday, but we wait to mention it on Sunday because who wants to come to church on Thursday? I mean, really…once a week is plenty…maybe once a month 🙂
I mention it this morning because it is a way to keep us connected to the wide river of Christianity, a way to indicate that we don’t all practice alike, but we can hopefully maintain some unity despite the differences. We are all the “Body of Christ”, right, with our different parts that make up the needed whole, and all that. It is the dream that was emphasized at the beginning of our denomination, a dream emphasized by the passage that is for today. This passage ends with verse 17, which was used as the founding scripture for the United Church of Christ…or actually just part of a phrase from the verse…that they may all be one. It was the 1950s after all, when the UCC was formed, and the divisions of World War II and the beginnings of the cold war caused some in the giant thing we call Christendom to desire unity, and the challenge of that desire has not always been met by the UCC. In part because of how hard unity across divisions can be, but also because we lose sight of that dream, or we forget the call of justice that must come first.
The slogan, that they may all be one, has a nice ring to it. But I can say that if your identity, the person who you know yourself to be, is not welcomed in unity, chances are you may not seek unity. You might be willing to stand outside the circle if being in means that you have to deny, or be fake, or be silent. Unity may still be a goal, but there has to be a caveat, which is diversity. Unity in diversity, or through diversity…unity that doesn’t come with one thing being accepted as “normative” and then getting everyone else to fit in that mold. Unity cannot come with the disparagement of anyone else, in fact disrespect of any particular person is exactly what prevents unity.
“That they may all be one” means that we understand there is something deeper to unity than just being nice to each other. Unity means that everyone has a place at the table, which is a matter of justice. You can’t have unity without justice. Oh, we try. Listen to the calls post-election, or in the wake of the Shelby verdict. Alright, alright, let’s all just settle down and have some unity…the words ring in always after a wave of immensely divisive and damaging rhetoric, or acts of injustice that make the calls for unity sound like an empty, cheap gimmick.
Unity cannot be enforced, it has to be awakened. It cannot be asserted from the top down, that’s tyranny, not unity. It cannot come from indoctrination, only from awareness, from an embraced and well-developed sense of the common good. If I don’t feel like I need you, then any call for unity is a shallow PR campaign designed to make me look like I support something I don’t support…’cause it sounds nice. Such calls for shallow unity serve only to damage the real effort, and they often accompany the most disparaging language, the most discriminatory rhetoric, trying to normalize the worst instincts in all of us.
With today’s scripture lesson, we get to listen in on a prayer that only John’s gospel places in the mouth of Jesus. It takes place at the “Last Supper”, just before he is arrested. It isn’t spoken alone on some mountaintop or in a garden, no this prayer is said at the table, maybe holding hands, with all the disciples listening in. And when he says this prayer to God, but also aimed, I would think, at his disciples, he does so after a dramatic moment in the way John tells this story of Jesus. Just before this passage, in chapter 16, Jesus asks the disciples if they believe, or in the better Greek translation, if they faith…as if it were a verb. Do you faith like I faith? Do you trust like I trust? Well, then you will face some trouble in this system in which we live, but have some courage, for I have overcome this system.
From that place, from an understanding that our belief, our faith, our trusting, brings us into conflict with the system in which we live and that Jesus, or more specifically the way of Jesus, overcomes this system, he prays this prayer…out loud, so that they, and we, can hear it. The prayer draws a little circle around the disciples, with Jesus seeking God’s protection for them and seeking that the disciples task is to go and grow this circle wider. We are to seek unity, but to seek it in a particular way.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,
and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, as we are one.
We are to be one as Jesus is one with God, in other words…one because we know we are the same. One because we know that we need each other and belong to each other. One not despite differences, but because of them. One because we understand the inherent, intrinsic connection that we have to all other human beings…stronger than ideology, deeper than party or tribe or nationality, more foundational than religion or creed or class. Jesus calls this something. He calls it, in John’s gospel, zoen aionian – eternal life. Or life beyond this age. Or existence past the system. Or life that is true beyond this body, this flesh, our problems, our achievements, our whatever…life beyond me, me, me.
Unity must begin at this level, with the deep acceptance that we are all made up of the same matter, all children of the same God, all created in the image and bearing the same stardust within our cells that our ancestors shared, a cosmic link that binds us all together. At this point in my life, I’m pretty convinced that I can’t get to unity from some well-reasoned philosophy or a perfectly articulated appeal to the best in humanity, but only from a dedication to something larger than any of us. You can call it a higher power, you can call it a purpose, you can even call it nothing…I call this God. We see such an awareness here on Memorial Day weekend, when we all remember someone close to us, when we all struggle with the tension between courage and brutality that we call war, when we all feel the pain and sorrow of loss, when we all remember our mortality and the stark fact that we are not here forever, our stars fade, to be replaced by other stars, with different hues and shapes and sizes. The system, as Jesus might say, is about winning. It is about conquering and subjugation. It is about unity through victory. But Jesus’ victory is about something else altogether…life beyond all of that victory that fades so quickly, leaving us only as good as our last win. Jesus prays that we will seek, as he seeks, to know God, deeply and fully, and to embrace the fuller life that God has for us, life beyond this system, life beyond this age, life beyond what we might be able to do on our own…a life of unity in that cosmic sense.
That they may all be one won’t come if we establish what the “one” is and then seek to convert all who aren’t that. It only comes if we practice extending dignity and equality, fairness and justice, respect and compassion, allowing ourselves to know others more fully, and in doing so to know God. Now I don’t know about you, but I have no chance to do that left to my own inclinations. For a person who decries the system so much, I find myself just about every time I turn around absolutely saturated by the system, intertwined in it like a vine of wisteria running through the pickets of a fence. I often decry the “winning” of others while I simultaneously set up my own strategy for the next contest. I have no idea how to do what Jesus suggests. At a time in which we hear of the evil of white supremacy taking more victims, where another verdict declares that black lives don’t matter, where a legislature with ears closed to the very people they represent pass another budget that painfully shows what it is that we apparently do value, I don’t know how to draw the circle wider…I’m tempted to shut it down. I don’t know how to reach for justice or unity. I know just one thing – the only way I can even come close is with the Grace of God. I believe, O God. Help my unbelief.
This morning my prayer for us is that we hear the words of Jesus, or the words of John who struggled to follow the way of Jesus placed in the mouth of Jesus…the words that close this long and emotional prayer to God…words that echo through time from one system to the next, asking us to follow a new path…
“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you;
and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them,
and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them,
and I in them.”
That is our hope for true life. May it be so.