Readings: Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, Acts 1:6-14,
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 24 2020
A Video version of this service can be found HERE
Our gospel reading today, John 17:1-11 is part of an amazing prayer, that Jesus offers at the end of the Last Supper, before He heads out to Jerusalem where He will face betrayal, trial and execution. One can only imagine what was going through His mind as He sat at table with that much loved group of friends, knowing that one was going to betray Him, another deny Him and the rest run away in fear from what was happening.
Yet, still, He makes this glorious life-affirming prayer, lifting up His disciples and praying that they my be “kept” in God's love, even daring at the end of this passage to pray to His Father, “That they may be One, as We are One.” (verse 11)
2000 years on we look around at the worldwide church and what we do not see is any urgent sense of unity. Like the disciples at that last supper table we are divided, confused, opinionated and equally capable of betrayal, flight and denial as they were.
Over the centuries we have erected many barriers to protect our purity and proclaim our uniqueness and in the process the notion that we Christians love each other seems a rather hollow sentiment. Yet... still... Jesus prays, Father, “That they may be One, as We are One.”
In the face of such abject failure it would be easy to dismiss these words as being an impossible dream. Even though we know that in heaven there will not be separate enclaves for believers of different theological persuasions, it appears that the last thing we are prepared to do is actually believe that God's will regarding unity, should be pursued on earth as it is in heaven.
But I would suggest to you, for the following three reasons found in this prayer of Jesus, that pursing unity is exactly what we should do. Why?
- Jesus builds His Church from common clay.
- Jesus prays His disciples will be “kept.”
- In Jesus unity becomes reality.
Jesus builds His Church from common clay.
I was visiting a stately home in Wales. The guide who was showing us around commented on how the marble around the fireplace had been imported from the Mediterranean, the wood around the doors from the African continent, the silk curtains were from India, the fittings from China... and so on and so on. Nothing... except the slate mined from local quarries, a business that had made the home owner his fortune, was sourced locally.
In contrast most of the homes that the slate quarry workers were housed in were made entirely of local materials, bricks of local clay, roofs of local slate, wood from the nearby forest.
When Jesus put a team together to evangelize the world, He chose a group of 12 local lads. He did not scour the world for experts or folks with obvious charisma and ability. He didn't ask them to submit resumes. He just said to a few young fisherman and other local workers “Come and follow Me.”
These were among those He mentions in His prayers as “People whom You have given me out of the world.” None of them appear to be particularly outstanding. Prior to the resurrection they often appear more clueless than faithful. Jesus could easily have complained about their mediocrity, but instead speaks of them respectfully, as a treasure that the Father had placed into His hands.
Despite their lack of ability, sometimes irrationality and on other occasions just plain ignorance, through their lives the church came into being. Such gives me hope for the future of the church.
Because, let's face it, we all have misunderstandings, we are all very poor reflections of the love of God, we are all far too busy with the life of this world to always even keep in mind the things of the Kingdom... and yet... Jesus describes us as treasure and lifts us up in prayer to His Father. And He makes a very particular prayer.
Jesus prays His disciples will be “kept.”
He does not pray they will become perfect. He does not ask that they will never fail. He does not ask that they sail through life in glory, victory, health and prosperity. He asks that, in the face of an often hostile world, they be “kept” in a place of faith, trust and protection.
To enlarge on the text of verse 11 Jesus prays “Keep them … through Your name.” He is asking that their identity may continue to be formed by the relationship they had found with God, through His teaching and through the Holy Spirit. That the spiritual growth they had already experienced would be something that continued to be a happening in their hearts and lives.
In verse 10 Jesus prays “All mine are Yours, and Yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” The words and teaching that He had given them had already taken effect in their lives. Because of their relationship with Him, they were not the people they had once been.
I am quite sure that is something many of us can testify to. That, because of our understanding of who Jesus is and what He has done for us, we are not who we once were. That because we have gathered together in worship and gone out together to serve, we have been changed by experiences of His love, living and active, glorious experiences that reminded us that God has called us and empowered us and helped us.
Through His example, Jesus encourages us to see things through to the end, to keep on running the race of faith. He prays in verse 4, “I glorified You on earth by finishing the work that You gave me to do.” It is a wonderful thing to set out an a journey. But the journey is not complete until we arrive, until we finish it!
God has work for us yet to do. There is growth we still need to experience. There are words yet to say, acts of kindness yet to be accomplished, missions yet to be embarked upon. We are not there yet! The greater glory is not revealed until we, like Jesus, become finishers.
Do you recall the words Jesus spoke upon the Cross? “It is finished!” (John 19:30) The work He came to do was completed. The life He lived on earth had come to an end and the purpose He set out to achieve was completed. Our salvation is dependent upon actions He followed through to His very last breath. Jesus died to give us life. Eternal life.
Verse 3 “This is eternal life, that they should know You, the only true God, and Him whom You have sent, Jesus Christ.” The dictionary defines eternal as being “Without beginning or end: existing through all time: everlasting.” We think of eternal life as life that goes on and on. That may not fill us with great anticipation.
I recall Freddie Mercury in the group Queen blasting out a song, “Who wants to live forever?” In this prayer of Jesus, eternity is not about endlessness, but about having a present relationship with God. Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God and Jesus Christ. If we know Him, we also seek to follow Him and embrace those things scripture teaches us are important. One of those things is unity. How can that be achieved? Only in and through Jesus Christ.
In Jesus unity becomes reality.
We may prefer to live with disunity. We may not like to include everybody because that means there is less chance of our personal preferences being honored. We are far more comfortable with what we know, than dealing with the unknown.
Jesus invites us, because of our relationship to Him, to include in our welcome all those He welcomes. In that way, God's will on earth is done as it is in heaven. In that way, the prayer Jesus makes, “That they may be One, Father, as You and I are One” is fulfilled. If we are saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, then our neighbor is saved by that same grace. If we look to the Cross as the place of our redemption, it is also the place of redemption for our neighbor.
One Grace. One Cross. One love. One people of God. One hope. One Savior. We are inhabitants of the one heaven and called to work alongside each other to being God's One Kingdom to God's one and only earth.
This is a truth that as churches an denominations we are hesitant to embrace. The church has fragmented into many clashing groups and spent altogether too much time fighting one another and arguing about things that are meant to bring us together.
And yet – in our better moments – we see Christians working together across denominational lines in many ways – from sponsoring community worship services to financing relief efforts, from working to combat human trafficking to supporting hunger and poverty outreach. It is not enough, but it is a beginning.
Jesus prays to His Father... “That they may be One, as we are One!”
But it is complicated.
For a number of reasons!
- Jesus builds His Church from common clay. The first disciples were a mixture of folk with a lot to learn and conflicting ideals. We are no different. We are comfortable with our disunity and treasure our privileges. But God is not giving up on us!
- Jesus prays His disciples will be “kept.” Jesus prays for us that as those whom God has chosen to be harbingers of God's Kingdom, that we will be “kept” by the ministrations of God's Holy Spirit, the great encourager and inspirer. That we will finish the task before us. That just as He declared on the cross “It is finished” so we will be faithful servants of our most High God.
- In Jesus unity becomes reality. Because we have one savior, we are one. Though we may be reluctant to recognize our common identity, nonetheless we are One church and One people of God. Our unity is both through Jesus and in Jesus. We are eternally bound together with each other both in time and beyond time.
I pray that as individuals we may seek unity and peace with those we share our lives with, acknowledging our common humanity and seeking the good of all. I pray that as churches we may acknowledge our common heritage in faith as sisters and brothers of our One Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who has prayed that we may be “One as He and His Father are One.”
And to God be all glory. Amen.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.
Prayer – That We may Be One
Lord God our God we are thinking today about the prayer of Jesus that we experience unity. With You. With each other. We confess that often we are far more comfortable with embracing what we know rather than trying to cope with the unknown. We do not always see each other as equally deserving of Your love.
Keep the vision before our eyes of what could be. Help us remember that we are all common clay and therefore refrain from judging each other. Help us to recall that You pray that we will be kept in Your joy and kept on the road of discipleship. Keep before us Your desire that we may be eternally united, together with You, in this life and the next.
In the knowledge that You are the God who is for us and who is by our side we lift up particular concerns, that lay on our hearts today. We pause for a few moments of silence to offer our personal prayers.
We bring concerns about the wider world in which we live and move and have our being. We pray for peace in those areas of extreme conflict. We pray for justice in those lands where freedoms are seriously curtailed. We pray for all those who are persecuted for their faith.
We lift up leaders in church and in government. Guide us towards Kingdom priorities that Your will may be done in our churches and in our land. Teach us to live in such a way that our whole life becomes an act of worship before You. Grant us the wisdom to discern between those things that are of eternal significance and those that are just passing distractions.
We ask that You continue to guide us and help us through these days when we battle the pandemic which has taken such a heavy toll upon many lives. Things are not as they used to be. We anticipate times of restoration and pray for Your healing grace to help us through.
All our prayers we offer in the name and through the merit of our Lord Jesus Christ who has taught us when we pray to say together...
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory for ever. AMEN.