That They May Be One. (A sermon on John 17:1-11)

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

(John 17:11, NIV)
You may remember that when, a couple of weeks back, we looked at an earlier section of this speech given by Jesus, I prefaced my thoughts with a few famous last words – that is, final quotes from women and men who were about to meet their maker. Since then I’ve found a few more!

“I found Rome brick, I leave it marble.” (Augustus)
“Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy … how can I ever forget them…” (Charles Schulz)
“I am about to – or I am going to – die: either expression is correct.” (Dominique Bouhours – famous French grammarian)
I confess that the last quote is my favourite. There truly was a man who died as he lived – a pedant to the end!

The relevance of these quotes, for those who were not here two weeks back, is that we have been dealing with Jesus’ last words – not His last last words (so to speak), as spoken from the cross, but words spoken at His last supper – words that form a dialogue generally referred to as ‘the last discourse’.

And we were looking at the opening words of this last discourse two weeks ago, and I’m not exactly sure what text Keith was working with last week, but quite likely last week you were looking at this last discourse again. And if it weren’t Pentecost Sunday next week we might be dealing with it next week too, for the last discourse of Jesus in the book of John nearly covers five chapters (13 to 17 inclusive)!

That’s worth reflecting on in its own right, as that’s almost a quarter of the whole book!

The compilers of the book of John, at the very end of the Gospel, note that there were a lot of things that Jesus did and said and that if they’d recorded them all there wouldn’t have been enough room across the entire Middle East to store all the books (John 21:25), which was no doubt an exaggeration, but which was certainly also an indication of the fact that those who put together this collection of the words and works of Jesus picked and chose very carefully what they should include and what they should exclude. And this makes it all the more extraordinary, I think, that these people chose to include so much of the last discourse of Jesus, such that it almost takes up one quarter of the entire book!

And yet, at the same time, it’s very true to life, for as we have already noted, whatever it is that we like to remember about the life of a person we love, we inevitably like to remember their final words to us.

Those who know me at all know that my memory is terrible. I forget names and I forget faces and I forget to do my fly up … all the time! I’m told that the final stage after forgetting names, faces and fly up is to forget when you need to pull it down. Thankfully I haven’t quite reached that stage of decrepitude yet, and yet I sense it is fast approaching.

And of course I am able to laugh about it and I am able to blame it on the hits to the head but, in truth, I do find it genuinely disturbing that memories that are important to me, such as the good times I spent with my dad, are becoming increasingly hazy!

It was only ten years ago that he died and yet there is so much there in the store of memories that I am losing. And this is painful, yet even so, I take some comfort in the fact that while there are so many moments with dad that I now can’t remember well, I remember the last moments I spent with him very well! I can’t remember everything he said to me now but I certainly remember the last things he said to me!

Indeed, that’s even true of my mum. She died when I was a teenager and that seems like ten lifetimes ago, and yet, in truth, while there is a lot I have forgotten about those days with my mum, I do remember those last days.

And so, likewise, we find that the disciples of Jesus, when they started compiling and writing down the various things that their beloved Lord had said to them, remembered with particular clarity the last things He had said to them, and so they quoted Him lovingly and at length, even though a lot of what He said on that occasion was repetitive!

Indeed, if you read through entire final discourse, starting in John chapter 13 and going all the way through to the end of chapter 17, you’ll find that there were really only three key things that Jesus was trying to communicate:

He warned them about the impending violence
He promised them that He would not abandon them
He prayed that, when He had gone, they would be there for each other
And it’s on that final note that today’s passage concludes:

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

And this prayer for oneness that Jesus prays is beautiful, and powerful, yet not easy to interpret! Many of us who work in the ecumenical movement like to quote this verse as a clear indicator of Jesus’ wish that all of us who call ourselves Christians should be working together in peace and mutual trust.

And yet other students of the Bible point out that Jesus is praying for a spiritual unity that is like the unity between the Father and the Son, and nothing like an organizational unity between ecclesiastical institutions!

Certainly it would have been easier if Jesus had prayed that we be one as the Roman army is one – fighting together as a single disciplined unit.

It would have been easier if He had prayed that we be one as the Sanhedrin of His day was one because they all cast their vote the way the High Priest told them to.

Indeed, it would have been more straightforward had Jesus prayed that we be one as the Third Reich, or even as the Sydney Anglican Diocese, is one (not that I really mean to conflate the two, of course, but at least then we’d understand that He was talking about an organizational unity, held together by strong leadership and a rigid set of rules)!

And if He had said any of these things, I’m sure His disciples would have remembered them, as they did remember this discourse very well!

Jesus said nothing quite so straightforward, and yet He did repeat the prayer a little further on in the same chapter, and expand on it:

“that they may all be one. Just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, so that they may be one, just as we are one. I am in them, and you are in me. May they be completely one, so that the world may know that you sent me and that you have loved them as you loved me.” (John 17:21-23)

Certainly the unity between believers that Jesus spoke about is a spiritual unity, and one not only modelled on the mysterious spiritual union between the Father and Son, but a unity with each other that is intrinsically dependent on our own relationship with the Father and the Son.

So, yes, it is a mysterious spiritual unity, and yet at the same time it is obviously something entirely visible, as Jesus’ prayer is for a oneness that will lead the rest of the world to belief in Him! (John 17:21)

In truth, I can’t read this passage without being reminded of a story I once heard from the great Henri Nouwen, who wrote about a fellow man of faith that he met and talked to on a train trip one day. And though they only dialogued for a relatively short time, Nouwen said that when he farewelled his new friend it was as if they’d known each other for years. His friend explained, “That’s the Christ in you recognising the Christ in me!”, and added; “Now all that lies between us is holy ground!”

I have found this concept of the ‘holy ground’ that separates us to be extremely helpful to me personally, as I have found that the Christ in me continues to recognise Christ in my sisters and brothers on an astonishingly regular basis. Indeed, the Christ in me seems to recognise the Christ in others all the time, and often long before my more human side has recognised anything positive in the person!

This is the unity that is made available to us in Christ, where, by the Spirit of God, we are able to see beyond the colour of our brother’s skin, where we can see past a person’s race and accent and sexual orientation, and even past a person’s sad history of moral failure, to see Christ!

Christ in you, and Christ in me – one in Christ and one with another – not because the presence of the Spirit of Christ within us dissolves any of those things that differentiate us from each other, but simply because the unity that holds us together in Christ is so much more powerful than any of those things that might threaten to divide us!

This, I believe, is what distinguishes true Christian community from most forms of human community, which are generally made up of homogeneous units.

If you don’t know what homogeneous units are: ‘birds of a feather flock together’! That’s what homogeneous units are – birds of a feather flocking together – middle-class white people with other middle-class white people, working-class black people with other working-class black people, straight people with straight people and gay people with gay people, good and upright people with other good and upright people and sinners all bundled in with each other!

Birds of a feather will always naturally flock together, but when the Christ in you recognises the Christ in me, and when the Christ in me recognises the Christ in all of you, birds of a different feather start to come together, and the miracle of Christian community begins to happen, and the whole world sees the glory of God in Christ!

I don’t know how much of all this the disciples really took in at their last supper. They remembered Jesus’ words, certainly, but I don’t think they were really able to envisage at all the path Jesus was setting them on!

But it didn’t matter, because they knew they could trust Jesus, because they knew that His ultimate concern was for them, and that He would not abandon them.

Indeed, this is the most startling point of contrast between the last words of Jesus and those other famous last words that we began with.

Augustus’ statement: “I found Rome brick, I leave it marble.” Indicates very well what he was thinking about on his deathbed – himself!

He was thinking about all that he had done and accomplished, as were the other two characters I quoted from. And that’s not a bad thing necessarily. It’s a very human thing. Even so, it is equally clear what Jesus was focusing on in His last words – He was thinking about us!

And so it has been with all the greatest women and men that I have farewelled from this world. What have they been thinking about on their deathbeds? Their children – those that they are leaving behind.

I’ll never forget the final days of Bob Thomas – a great man of great faith in whom one could not but recognise the presence of the Spirit of Christ. And what was dear Bob most concerned about on his deathbed? He was trying to bring his two warring daughters together, so that they might be one.

And so, likewise, Jesus prays for us:

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

“that they may all be one. Just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, so that they may be one, just as we are one. I am in them, and you are in me. May they be completely one, so that the world may know that you sent me and that you have loved them as you loved me.” (John 17:21-23)

You can hear the audio of this sermon on John 17:1-11 by clicking here.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, June 5, 2011.

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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