To be one

Click here to listen to the audio of this 26-minute message . Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follows. (This is a longer than usual message, because the topic is rather difficult. I hope you will not be deterred by its length.)

John 17 presents Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer”, which takes place just before Jesus’ arrest and execution. In it Jesus prays for himself, for his disciples, and then for all believers who are to come, including you and me. It is a beautiful prayer that reveals to us the heart of Jesus – well worth reading.

In this message, I focus on just four verses (11b, 20-23):

Holy Father, protect them [my disciples] by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one … My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

A few thoughts on this passage:

  • Four times Jesus speaks about the oneness and unity of Christians. This can be regarded as the central theme of his prayer in John 17.
  • Verse 21 emphasises that our relationship with God (the vertical relationship) is primary and is the foundation of church unity (the horizontal relationship).
  • Verse 22 refers to “the glory that you gave me”. Scholars have long debated what this ‘glory’ refers to. There is good reason to think Jesus is here referring (again) to the Holy Spirit, who occupied much of the previous chapters.
  • Verses 21 and 23 refer to the world: that they may believe/know that God sent Jesus. The unity of Christians is not an end in itself, but the ground that produces the fruit of the world seeing God at work, thus of evangelism.
  • Verse 23 says that God loves the world as much as God loves the Son. This is a profound revelation of God’s extravagant love for the world, reminding us of John 3:16.

Despite Jesus’ marvellous vision and prayer for the unity of the Church, the sad reality is that the church is anything but unified. Denominations fracture and split; independent churches spring up constantly; even local parishes are disunified and in conflict. It does not appear that we are one as God the Father and the God the Son are one. A few thoughts on this:

  • Churches may diverge due to different practices, particularly around worship. Most Christians think about how Sunday services run and whether they like how we do things – whether we raise our hands, whether we have an organ or band, whether we use a set liturgy, whether the choir is up front or at the back, how long the sermons are, etc.
  • Given that Jesus emphasises our vertical relationship with God, and given that each relationship is different because each person is different, it seems to me that worship practices are not that important. It is probably better to attend a church where your relationship with God grows than to attend a church whose practices leave you cold.
  • Churches may diverge due to different doctrine. Some Christians may not worry or think too much about doctrine, but for many, doctrine – what we believe – is important. Churches split over their understanding of the role of Holy Spirit, over the gender of God, over the Trinity, over our sequencing of the end times.
  • We should think about and hold to certain beliefs – understanding of Truth was important in Jesus’ teachings, throughout the scriptures and to the early church. It should be important to us also. However, we should have the humility to recognise that our understanding Truth is flawed, limited, incomplete and quite possibly wrong. God knows the Truth; what we know as ‘truth’ is mere limited understanding, like peaking into a palace through a keyhole – we see just fragments of the riches within.
  • Currently the church is fracturing around our understanding of the place of LGBTQI+ people within the life of the church. In my own denomination – the Anglican communion – we have churches that see diverse human sexualities as anathema and others who see sexuality as unregulated by God. People’s feelings about sexuality run very deep and lead to pain exclusions of and judgmentalism towards LGBTQI+ people.
  • While many today have very strong feelings about these issues, Jesus did not. He had very strong feelings about love, about inclusion and about reaching out to those on the margins of society. He never talked about sexual orientation; but he talked incessantly about love. It is heartbreaking that the church should so forget how to love one another, when this is the central teaching of our Lord.

Many Christians are distressed at the proliferation of different churches. I’m not. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes about the Body of Christ, the Church, and emphasises the diversity of the body and that diversity is good and necessary for the functioning of the whole. He gives particular emphasis to cherishing those parts of the body that people may regard as immodest, unpresentable, shameful. Paul stresses that in God’s eyes, these parts are as much necessary and beloved as those parts that people are happy to show off. Every part of the Body of Christ is necessary. Paul is emphasising how to maintain a sense of unity in the church together with all its diversity.

Let us not worry about the different churches, no matter how different they may be to us. Let us rather be sure to regard them as our sisters, our brothers, beloved by Christ and part of our own body.

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Featured image from https://ssnet.org/lessons/18d/less12.html

Humility

Click here to listen to this 11-minute message.

God calls us to humility – in our relationship with God, and in our relationship with other people.

Luke 18:9-14 gives us the parable of the pharisee and tax collector, both at prayer.

  1. The pharisee – a person who was devout, religious, righteous, obedient to God’s laws – stands and prays loudly about how wonderful he is and thanks God for not making him like those ‘other’ people (explicitly mentioning the tax collector). Jesus says that this person will not be justified before God, and that people like that, who exalt themselves, will be humbled.
  2. The tax collector – a person who was regarded as dishonest, extortionist and reprehensible, and who Jesus often refers to when talking about sinful people – hides away in a corner, cannot look up towards heaven and can pray only, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Jesus says that this person will go home justified before God, and that a humble person like this will be exalted.

Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.

Of course, this ‘humility’ is not about self-denigration or having a poor self-esteem or negative self-image. Paul says clearly in Romans 12:3 that humility is about assessing our strengths and weaknesses honestly and accurately: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”

In our other reading for today – Hosea 5:13-6:6 – there is a dialogue between God and Israel:

  1. God observes that when Israel was in need, instead of turning to God, they turned for help to people who did not know God. Therefore, God sent suffering to them, to help them admit their guilt (i.e. to humble them) and until they sincerely sought God’s face.
  2. Israel then reflects that the suffering they have experienced is justified, and that despite God’s anger towards them, God will nevertheless heal them and bind up their wounds. They long to be revived and restored and to live in God’s presence. Twice they say, “Let us acknowledge God” – that word ‘acknowledge’ in Hebrew means ‘to know’ (as in knowing  a fact), but also as in knowing or discerning something not obvious (such as the truth of someone’s intentions), and is used as a euphemism for sex (as in, Adam knew Eve and she fell pregnant). Israel desires to be humble before God and to truly and intimately know God.
  3. God, the exasperated parent, responds positively. God reminds them that God’s desire is for mercy (hesed, meaning steadfast love and compassion) and acknowledgement (that ‘knowing’ word again), far more than empty religion (sacrifices and burned offerings).

Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.

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Feature image ‘Kneeling in Prayer‘ by Nadine Rippelmeyer (2006)