"Party Unity" – John 17:20-26
"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, 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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. "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."
The timing for this reading from Jesus’ “farewell discourse,” as it’s called in theological circles, couldn’t be much more timely, or ironic, or funny, or sad, or something – depending on your perspective – these days.
If you watch enough cable news, I mean, you know there’s an awful lot of talk about “coming together;” about “party unity;” about “uniting around the presumptive nominee;” about “bringing people together” and such, in the realm of presidential politics in our country. It seems laughable to me – supremely ironic – that any of this pretends to really be about “unity” at this point, no matter on what side of the aisle you sit, or which candidate you support. The whole process – in spite of the language of “unity” we use to describe it in these “United” States – seems to be all and only about opposing parties, divisive differences, choosing sides, naming winners and losers, and so on.
Indeed, part of the plan and expectation for this so-called “unity” is to go after it, to promise to achieve it somewhere down the line, in the future. “Unity” is like a carrot our candidates dangle before us, just out of reach, that will be achieved at or after their respective conventions; or something we’ll all have no choice but to work toward, come November, when the final vote has been cast.
But back to Jesus, and his “farewell discourse.”
I always have a hard time with this passage – wrapping my brain around whatever in the world it is Jesus is trying to say.
All of this talk about "being one as we are one…" About "I in you and you in me and them in us…." And about "being made known, knowing this and making that known…" It all sounds like a bunch of gibberish, really.
But that’s okay, I think. It's okay to be a little confused, here. It helps me to realize that Jesus is praying – that he's having a conversation with God, the Father, and it's not practiced or scripted. I actually wonder if it was ever really meant for anyone else to hear. It's nothing more – and certainly nothing less than – a prayerful conversation between a Son and his Father; between a man and his God; between the Savior of the world just before he leaves his disciples to head off to his own crucifixion.
And even though it may be hard to figure out at first, there is something very meaningful about what Jesus prays. "God, make my disciples one just like you and I are one. Bind them together in a way that matters. Call them together in my name. Remind them that I am yours and that they are mine. Keep them focused on your grace and glory and help them to share what I've taught them about love with the world where they live."
It's a nice prayer. It’s a lovely sentiment. But it seems like Jesus might be a little bit upset or anxious or scared, here, which makes sense – not just because of all the pain and suffering and death that was in his future – but because he knew he would be saying goodbye to his disciples. He would be leaving his friends and family. Even if that whole resurrection thing panned out like it was supposed to, things were going to be different going forward, and Jesus would be leaving. (On Thursday of last week, actually, Christian churches all over the world celebrated the commemoration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven.)
And, Jesus knew enough about this band of misfits he called “disciples” to be more than a little concerned, as he prepared to leave them. He knew about guys like Peter who could be temperamental, stubborn, impulsive, and weak. He knew about guys like Thomas who would doubt and demand proof at all costs. And he knew about men like Judas who could be bought and sold for a small chunk of change. (I won’t name names, of course, but they sound like they could be running for president, really: temperamental, stubborn, impulsive, weak; bought and sold for a small chunk of change.) It's no wonder Jesus prayed.
And Jesus wasn't just praying for the eleven or so disciples who would be left when he left. He was praying for us, just the same. It's right there in the first sentence of this Gospel, "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…" Jesus was praying for all those who would call themselves followers and all those who would claim to be disciples or church members or Partners in Mission, or whatever.
And he prayed that we would be one … not that we would be successful as disciples or that we would remain sinless in the eyes of God or that we would prove equal to the task of spreading the Good News, even. He didn’t pray that we would build the best wall or have the best foreign policy or develop the greatest tax plan or that we would win any election. Jesus prayed, simply, that we would… somehow… by God’s grace… be one.
In a world that tries to divide rather than unite, Jesus prayed that we would be one.
In world that would separate rather than gather together, Jesus prayed that we would be one.
In a world that would sooner fight than embrace; that points out differences before celebrating common ground; that labels people according to lifestyle, race, nationality, political party, income level, denomination, and so on… Jesus prayed that we would be one; not just with each other, but one with the whole wide world; one with the kingdom of God as we understand it.
And we don't always see that. We don't always want that. We do a lot, if we're honest, to keep that kind of unity from happening. But I believe Jesus' prayer is answered, in spite of ourselves, when we gather here, in worship, with all of our differing opinions and ideas and ideologies about so many things. For me, it’s why life in the Church and the work of the Church still matters.
When we gather around the water of baptism – where we’ll welcome little Blake McCain, today – all of the world’s labels and liabilities are washed away. We are reminded of the grace that loves us all, just the same.
When we gather around the table of holy communion – where we eat bread and drink wine and each receive forgiveness and the promise of redemption and second chances – we are one with the body of Christ and one in the eyes of God’s love and one with our neighbor, whether we like it or not.
And I need this. Because I know that the sinful, broken, stubborn parts of my self are not – by my own understanding and strength – able to vote for, let alone reconcile or unite spiritually with the sinful, broken, stubborn parts of all those with whom I disagree.
But here, around this altar and that font, what makes us one isn't that we always agree or get along or do the right thing. What makes us one, in this place, is that God calls us children. What makes us one is that God loves us whether we deserve it or not. What makes us one is that grace and forgiveness and mercy and love come to each and every one of us – in bread and wine, in the waters of baptism, in community with one another, and by the forgiveness of our sinful, broken, stubborn selves through the patient, loving, grace of our creator.