God is for real! (A sermon on John 17:20-26)

“A Crowd – not this crowd or that, the crowd now living or the crowd long dead, a crowd of humble people or of superior people, of rich or of poor, etc. – but simply a crowd, in its very concept is the untruth.”

Who said it?  Soren Kierkegaard, in a short book entitled “The Individual”, and those who know me at all, know that I named my son, Soren, after the great Dane, which reflects my degree of reverence for the man’s work, and indeed this short quote is a good example of why I revere him as I do.

Kierkegaard goes further:

“There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there also is the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side.  There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that (to consider for a moment the extreme case), even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were all to get together in a crowd – a crowd to which any sort of decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd – untruth would at once be in evidence.”[1]

Kierkegaard is remembered, of course, as the father of existentialism, and indeed any number of other writers and thinkers have followed him in his suspicion of all things that happen en masse!

Nietzsche took up a similar polemic to Kierkegaard, employing the more derogatory term ‘herd-man’. Herd-man has no identity of his own but simply adopts the views and identity of the herd. Heidegger likewise later spoke of ‘das man’ – that anonymous, semi-human entity that floats in and out with the tide of public opinion, having no identifiable individual soul.

The issue for all these men was not any fear of crowds as such, of course, but rather a loathing for the way people behave when they are in a crowd, and who people become when their individual identity gets absorbed into a greater corporate identity.

People do things in mobs that they would never do as individuals! The social psychologists call this ‘deindividuation’ – that bizarre phenomenon where normally quiet and civilised people go on rampages when in a group – vandalising property and lynching blacks or whites or Muslims or Christians or whatever minority group is being scapegoated at the time.

They do it as a pack! They would never dream of acting like this as individuals. Kierkegaard would say that this is because each person involved divides his or her degree of responsibility by the number of people in the crowd.

Perhaps that’s right?  Either way, as I contemplate returning to Syria, I think of the atrocities that have been carried out (and that continue to be carried out) by groups like DAESH (ISIS) and any number of other groups, and I know that these groups can only do what they do because they do it together.

I’d suggest that’s the main reason why we don’t see any real terrorist violence on our own soil here in Sydney. It’s not because there aren’t any number of angry young men wanting to strike back at the violence of Western imperialism. It’s because they need the boys around them.  They need to be able to move with a group that has one mind and one ideology and one intent, and so they travel all the way to the other side of the world to find their herd, so that they can be one with the movement.

For a movement that it completely one can do just about anything, and that’s why when I read Jesus’ words of prayer – that we may be one – it leaves me feeling rather ambivalent!

Jesus prays to the Father: “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.” (John 17:22-23)

It’s a very pointed prayer from Jesus, asking the Father not only to unite us as one but claiming that it will be our oneness that will testify to the rest of the world as to the veracity of the claims of Jesus concerning His relationship to God!

The connection here doesn’t seem immediately obvious to me. The Third Reich were one (at least for a time) but this hardly testified to their divine origins! Lynch mobs, as I say, are one, but that doesn’t make them any less demonic!

Of course, not everything about acting in unison is bad either (pace Kierkegaard), and I appreciate that I’ve been painting a very one-sided picture, for, in truth, we can accomplish a great deal of good too when we’re working as part of a greater team.

I think it was Elizabeth Achtemeier (or one of the great feminist theologians) who, when asked why she continued to work with the church, said “there’s only so much you can do without access to a photocopier”.

It’s true – you can’t do much on your own, and indeed, if you want to do a lot of good, you generally need a lot of people to help you do it.

I remember when I joined my first Christian group when I first attended University in 1981, I went away on a weekend retreat where I listened to Rev. In Myung Jin of the Urban Industrial Mission of South Korea, and he told us of the most magnificent stories of group action by churches in South Korea.

Evidently the church in South Korea is so large that when all the Christians there act as one they can exert enormous influence! I remember Rev. In telling us that at the time someone in South Korea was maimed or killed in an industrial accident every 30 seconds, on account of there being no occupational health and safety laws  to protect workers.

The response of the church, apparently, was to organise boycotts of factories and companies that were the worst offenders, which apparently meant that millions of Sunday-School-aged children would suddenly stop buying a particular brand of candy! Because there were millions and millions of church members acting as one like this, it did make a real difference, and there would be an immediate response.

The first response, mind you, was normally to arrest Rev. In, who had spent many years in prison by the time I met him. Over time though, these actions by the church did lead to tangible and lasting reforms!

We can do a lot when we act together. We only have to think of the gains made by the Civil Rights movement in the USA in the 1960’s to think of the enormous difference that people can make when they act in unison for a good cause! Those civil rights marches were followed by the peace marches of the 70’s, which indeed played a key role in bringing the horrific war on Vietnam to an end.

Good people can accomplish an awful lot of good when they act together for a good cause, and I do so wish that the church could come together today when there is so much good that could be done if we could just coordinate ourselves.

  • I dream of the day when Christian people from around the world will take to the streets to proclaim that we refuse to buy into the hatred of our Muslims brothers and sisters, and that we refuse to be involved in any more wars on majority-Muslim countries.
  • I imagine us, as people of faith, mobilising in our hundreds of thousands to overturn our government’s policies on refugees and asylum seekers! That would indeed surely be a testimony to the divine origins of our movement!
  • Just imagine if we could band together and with one voice oppose the materialism of our corporate sector and banking system. We could insist on affordable housing for every Australian!

We could do a lot of good if we acted as one, and it is rather depressing to recognise that the most inspiring moments I can think of where the church has acted as one all happened in my father’s generation, not mine.

How is it that as the ‘Now Generation’ died out we made this transition into what is often referred to as ‘the age of acquiescence’, where there is so little effective resistance to the principalities and powers that run our society.

‘If only we could act as one’, I often say to myself, and then I stop myself and wonder whether our lack of unity is in fact a good thing! For we don’t have to look too hard into church history to recognise that on most of the occasions where we, as the church, did band together and act with one mind – in wars and crusades and inquisitions – the outcomes were toxic!

And it’s not as if the Bible as a whole upholds unity and single-mindedness as virtues to be pursued. Yes, Jesus prayed for unity towards the end of his earthly life, but if you go back to the very beginning of the Bible, you find quite another take on unity!

I believe the first mention of humans acting with common purpose in the Bible takes place in the book of Genesis, chapter eleven, in the story of the Tower of Babel! Here we are told that human beings come together for the first time to ‘make a name for themselves’ (Genesis 11:4) by building a city with a great tower, and God comes down and says “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do” (Genesis 11:6).

The fact that these people ‘are one’ is a basis for dread, according to the book of Genesis, and so God, we are told, deliberately sets about the task of dividing these people into smaller groups by confusing their language! How odd that by the time we reach the other end of the Scriptures, we find Jesus praying that we might all transcend these smaller groups and be one again!

Of course it’s not really odd because the oneness that we find Jesus praying for in the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel is a very different sort of oneness to that which is on view in Genesis chapter eleven, and this is clear in the passage itself.

“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,” (John 17:22-23)

The oneness that we are supposed to have with one another is a oneness through Jesus. Whatever spirit united the tower-builders of Genesis eleven, it is the spirt of Jesus that holds us together now – “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one!”

Unity through the spirit of God – this is the unity Scripture upholds. Indeed, it is the only sort of unity that the Scripture upholds, and yet it is completely unnatural to us!

What is natural for us is to form community with people from the same demographic. Birds of a feather flock together. We naturally gravitate towards people like us – people of the same social standing, and of the same gender and skin colour and cultural background, who share a similar level of education, etc.

What is natural for me as a fifty-four-year-old white, Christian male is to have other fifty-something-year-old white, Christian men as my friends and key support people. That is what you might expect of me, and yet if you came to the Syria fundraiser last night you would have noticed that most of my key support people are actually Arabic Muslim women! That suggests to me that the Spirit of God must be involved!

This brings to mind again my first meeting with my friend Muhammad Reza, who was sitting on the other side of a hotel foyer in Tehran during a meeting of our peace delegation, and staring at me! He came up to me after the meeting and said “I really want to meet you as I see that you are someone very special!”  I said to him “no, brother. It is simply the Spirit of God in you recognising the spirit of God in me.”

It is the spirit of God that binds us together. It is the spirit of Jesus – He in us and we in Him and God in Him, etc. And that’s why the most important fellowship meal we can ever share is the Eucharist – a meal that we share through Him, leading to a oneness that we share through Him.

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with sharing a meal with your mate who is roughly the same age and background as you, whose skin-colour is the same and who speaks with the same accent. There’s nothing wrong with having that guy or gal as your best friend. It’s just not what Jesus was praying for, and it’s not what we’re on about as a Christian community. It’s when we form bonds through Christ, and become one with people whose language and culture befuddle us and with whom communication is difficult, that the world looks at us and says “Hey! God is for real!”

[1]                 S. Kierkegaard, ‘The Individual’, published along with ‘The Point of View’ by Harper Torchbooks, 1962.  p.110

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 8th of May, 2016.

Click here for the video.

Click here for the audio.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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