June 2, 2019, It Shall Not Be So with You, John 17:20-26 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I doubt there is anyone in this room who would disagree that we are living in troubled times. And I would suggest that if there is any one thing we could point to that is at the center of all the troubles, it is that people are divided from one another. The whole world seems to be fragmenting, endlessly splitting itself in half like those videos of cell division in biology class, dividing into right and left, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, white and black, Christian and Muslim, pro-choice and pro-life, pro-gun control and pro-second amendent, gay and straight, millenials and boomers, women and men, rich and poor, American and everybody else. And so it goes, on and on and on, with no end in sight.
It’s easy to see that we are a divided people. It’s trickier, though, to name what is behind all this division. There are always countless reasons and excuses and backgrounds and justifications, but I would suggest that the root causes of any division, boiled down, are always fear and pride, or you could say the same thing another way, the root causes of division are a failure of compassion and humility. Jesus had a talk with his disciples about this very point one day, when they had gotten into an argument about which of them was the greatest. I am sure the disciples were hoping Jesus hadn’t heard what they were arguing about among themselves, but of course he knew exactly what was going on. And he gathered them around him and said to them, “You know what it’s like out in the world, how the people in authority lord it over all the rest, and how the powerful people call themselves benefactors of the common folks. Well, it shall not be so with you. If you are the greatest, put yourself in the place of the youngest. If you’re a leader, become the servant of your brothers and sisters. Follow my example. Look, I – your teacher, your leader – I am among you as the one who serves.”
And what Jesus said to his disciples that day has absolutely everything to do with this tendency in our world to divide into factions. No one would deny that the differences between human beings do exist. We are male and female. We are young and old. We are rich and poor. We don’t all think alike. We don’t all look the same. But where difference becomes division is when people engage in the age-old argument that got the disciples in so much trouble: when we begin to fight with one another about who is the greatest.
Just as an example, the problem of racism, when you get right down to it, has nothing at all to do with skin tones. After all, human beings come in an infinite variety of shades from pale to dark, and the truth is, there isn’t any real difference between the genetic makeup of a person from Norway and a person from Nigeria. We’re all just good old Homo Sapiens. Racism is the thing that happened when people of one particular skin tone decided they had the right to be the greatest, to lord it over the rest. Racism is a product of fear and pride, not of science. Racism is a complete failure of compassion. Racism is certainly a failure of humility. Racism is the total breakdown of the commandment to love our neighbor. And so it goes: every division among human beings, whether races or genders or political parties or religions or nationalities or economic classes, every division is the result of those same old tired human sins of fear and pride, and a refusal to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But it shall not be so with you, Jesus said. And his last word to us was to tell us that it is exactly the sign of NOT division, of unity, that is to be his sign to the world of God’s love. He prayed to the Father about us, “The glory you have given me I have given to them that they may be one, I in them, and you in me, perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
There is so much to unpack in that little piece of prayer. First of all, Jesus is praying to the Father, eternal God to eternal God, on our behalf. And his prayer is that we would be so filled with the glorious presence of divine Love that we would be a united people, one in heart and soul and mind and strength. On the most basic level, those of us who are parents can understand Jesus’ heart here. What more do we want for our children – those people on whom we have poured our very selves in love – what do we desire for them more than that when we’re gone they will continue to love and care for each other? I don’t know about you, but on a purely human level, any other wish for my children comes in a very distant second. So, in the same way, Jesus came from the heart of the Father to draw us back into that heart and to restore us fully in that eternal relationship of love. That is the first, the primary meaning of who we are as his Church. We could all, every one of us, call ourself the name John used for himself: the one Jesus loved. And it would be true. And that means that as a Church, there are to be no divisions among us, but only love.
That’s what unity does mean. What unity doesn’t mean is that Christians are all supposed to be alike. I have a deep suspicion of the phrase “like-minded” when people use it about the Church. Christians don’t all think alike. We don’t look alike. We don’t all come from the same backgrounds. We don’t all dress the same. We don’t all vote for the same candidates. We don’t all have the same abilities or experiences. Our unity has nothing whatsoever to do with sameness. But it has everything to do with love. We are loved. We are united in love. And we are to love one another. That is our unity.
And that’s why there’s no question of who’s the greatest in the Church. In this family, the strong wash the feet of the weak. In this family, it is the weak and the foolish who are specially chosen, not the wise and the impressive. In this family, if you want to be great, get down on your knees and be the servant of all. In this family, the prostitute and the addict go through the gate before the pope or the president. Because that’s the pattern that our Lord and Master set for us. All division comes from fear and pride. But our unity is nourished by compassion and defined by humility. Love is our unity, the unexpected, undeserved, upside-down love of God. We love because he first loved us.
And, as is the nature of love itself, all this love and unity doesn’t just stay contained within the four walls of the Church. Love reaches out. This wonderful unity of love that God has given the Church is a sign to the whole world that they, too, are loved. How often do we get that totally wrong! How often has the Church tried to sit in judgment on the world, or separated itself in self-righteous holier-than-thou-ness from it? How often has the Church tried to lord it over this sinful world with political power, claiming that we are doing “the Lord’s work”? When Christians fail to love one another, as we so often do, the light of God’s love-sign to the world is dimmed and distorted. But it may be that we fail even more spectacularly when we refuse to acknowledge that we Christians are no greater, that we are no more deserving of the love of the Father, than every other human being on the face of the earth.
The world is full of division. The world is full of people striving for power and position. But it shall not be so with us. We are the Body of Christ, called by him out of every nationality and religion and economic class and political persuasion to be united in love for one another. Just like any two snowflakes or blades of grass no two human beings are ever the same. But we have all been made one by the love of the one who created each of us. And Jesus has told us that our unity is God’s announcement to the world that he is here, and that he loves every single person he has created without exception. That is the good news we have to offer this fractured world we live in. And we proclaim it first and foremost by living as his Church, with compassion and humility, united in his love.
I’d like to invite you to join me in praying the prayer for the unity of the Church, found on page 818 in the Book of Common Prayer:
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away
all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith,
one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.