Sermon Seeds: As We Are One
Sunday, May 21, 2023
Seventh Sunday of Easter | Year A
(Liturgical Color: White)
Listen to the Podcast
Acts 1:6-14 • Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 • 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 • John 17:1-11
As We Are One
Unfailing Love (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Recently, I’ve watched the prequel series, Queen Charlotte, which tells the story of what happened decades before the events of the main series, Bridgeton. If you’re not familiar with the story, Bridgeton follows the romantic lives of eight siblings, with a season dedicated to each of their love stories, set in England during the reign of King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte. Watching the prequel after watching the first two seasons of the main series prompted me to re-watch those episodes through a new lens. This time, as I watch the first two seasons, I’m less interested in the actions of the lead characters. I’m exploring the brief appearances of the king and queen knowing their story more fully. It makes for a different experience.
During the season of Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary takes us on a journey back to the events prior to the resurrection. It would seem to be out of order (and it is), but it also is an invitation to view these events in light of the resurrection, to re-examine the encounters with a fuller understanding of what transpired and why. In some ways, it’s an invitation to enter these stories from the perspective of the first disciples, who were both still reeling from the extraordinary moments they experienced and were charged to move forward as the stewards of the gospel. How often, I wonder, did they consider those events as they remembered details with new insight?
For those encountering persecution at the time of John’s writing, these stories must have been a sustaining lifeline. Their own lives have taken on the character of the ministry of Jesus. The gospel has spread and those in authority continue to be threatened by its counter cultural message of love, hope, grace, and liberty. Most of the original apostles have been martyred. Doubts about the identity of Christ emerge in the Christian community as fewer eyewitnesses are available to reinforce belief in Jesus as fully human and fully divine. It’s a time of transition in much the same way that the prayer of this passage is situated in the transition that brings Jesus to the cross.
Like the material in chapters 13–16 , Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17 is unique to John’s Gospel. It is by far the longest prayer of Jesus recorded in any Gospel and comes at a strategic time in Jesus’ ministry, sandwiched, as it were, between his final instructions to his closest followers and his passion. Jesus’ parting prayer affords us a rare glimpse into his consciousness and perspective on his imminent suffering. Once the prayer is ended, the final events of Jesus’ earthly life ensue in rapid succession: the arrest ( 18:1–11 ); the Jewish and Roman trials ( 18:12–19:16 ); the crucifixion ( 19:17–37 ); the burial (19:38–42 ); the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection appearances (chs. 20–21 ). But for one last time, Jesus pauses to take inventory, as it were, of his earthly ministry, giving his final account to the Father and, by praying, expressing his complete dependence on the Father even in this crucial hour.
Andreas J. Köstenberger
John presents this moment not only for its placement in a string of events preceding the crucifixion. Unlike Matthew and Luke, John does not include the incident when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, and Jesus offers what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer, found in John 17, serves as the significant prayer of Jesus. Rather than teaching us how to pray, it gives us an in-depth account of what Jesus prioritized in prayer.
He begins by praying for himself and then prays for his disciples. The world will benefit when this prayer is answered, but he is praying specifically for himself as part of two communities–Jesus as part of the Triune God and as part of the community of disciples he has cultivated. The prayer seems to echo his articulation of the greatest commandment. Jesus centers his prayer in God and prays for his closest neighbors to enjoy what he has experienced in the divine-human relationship–mutual indwelling, belonging, and union.
Jesus was confronting death, the most challenging and radical aspect of incarnation since his birth, as he prayed. It was the ultimate act of love of God and neighbor, which leads him to pray. Again, he starts with himself and then moves to those he has called to do the same. His prayer is part of the preparation he does for his disciples to continue the ministry after his ultimate physical departure. Only through his divine union will he be able to finish what was started at his birth; only through the disciples entering into that union will they be empowered and sustained to follow him wherever their ministry leads.
But it is not only their union with God that will keep them steady and encouraged. They will need to remain in unity with one another. Their fruitfulness will not be a result of their individual effort and dedication alone; the commitment and work of the community will make ministry possible:
By reaffirming that his community has rid itself of worldliness and is different in essence, John paradoxically leads his community to proclaim and exemplify the gospel for the world, rather than extricating themselves from it. John’s Gospel, contrary to common perceptions, is not a static, mystical document that calls people to settle down in the intimate quietude of salvation. Rather it demands that people rush into the world that refuses them and hates them, and wrestle with this world to reform it. John’s Gospel demands that the community be both courageous and proactive in its interaction with the world. John’s community is not a closed-in group, but a society again and again opened up by a centrifugal force centered around Christ. The internal cohesion of its members with Jesus as the center was not designed to deny the world or set the community apart from it, but to rush toward it, and to embrace it. Perhaps, this kind of activism and vitality might explain the dynamism of the early Christians, including Johannine Christians, despite their suffering and persecution in the Hellenistic age.
The love that Jesus hopes for his disciples, the first ones called as well as those to come, may seem aspirational but is essential for the reign of Christ to be fully realized in the world, because that reign is love, that reign is incarnation, and that reign is union.
Note that unity is not uniformity. God’s reign does not repudiate diversity; it celebrates and nurtures it. The metaphor of the church as the Spouse of Christ reminds us that a deep, abiding, and covenantal joining can take place while maintaining distinctiveness and individual identity. The prayer is not that they will all be the same; it is that they may be one. Even the Trinity celebrates and amplifies God’s distinctiveness in each Person. The disciples were called with their unique, beautiful, and messy personalities, characteristics, gifts, and traits. Curious Thomas has a role. Questioning Phillip has a purpose. Simon brings all that he is as he has been appointed to be Peter. Mary Magdalene continues to exercise her leadership in her persistent presence in spaces otherwise denied to her.
As we listen to Jesus pray for the next leaders of his ministry, we note he does not ask for them to prevail over Rome, to grow the church to a certain size, or to have an easier time. He does not pray for their strength, resolve, or discernment. Jesus prays that they may be one, because in their unity of spirit, they collectively will have what they need to be fruitful and advance the reign of God in the world.
A splintered body of Christ does not reflect the resurrected Jesus. When we break our relationship with one another, we project his body broken but not healed.
I’m not sure that we fully appreciate how much Jesus prioritized the relationship of his followers. It was the complete subject of his final prayer (according to John). What if our response to splits and divisions in the church was abiding love? I’m not suggesting submitting to or endorsing abusive environments, doctrine, or theology. But, what if we pursued unity, mutuality, love, and compassion within the body as we do beyond the body…and vice versa? What if the resurrected life applied not only to us individually but also collectively?
I have the privilege of pastoring a church with a long history. Early on, the church split due to disagreement over abolition. The abolitionists kept the name, the assets, and their location in the community. Unlike most splits, eventually the splintered church reunited. Those who left returned, and those who stayed welcomed them back. I’m sure it was not an easy process. I’m sure that multiple times, the process of reconciliation required picking of the cross of radical compassion and unfailing love. The testimony is that because they committed themselves to unity, our faith community still remains a trusted part of the village in which we are situated. The testimony is that God answered this prayer through this particular church, and God will answer this prayer in the church universal if we would pray it with our lips and our lives.
What if we believed in the aspirations of this prayer? What if we embodied this prayer?
I in you. You in me. As we are one.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.”
― Gwendolyn Brooks
For Further Reflection
“A choir is made up of many voices, including yours and mine. If one by one all go silent then all that will be left are the soloists.
Don’t let a loud few determine the nature of the sound. It makes for poor harmony and diminishes the song.” ― Vera Nazarian
“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” ― Gwendolyn Brooks
“One love, one heart . . .
Let’s get together and feel all right” ― Bob Marley
“Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer! We must not let that happen here.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
Köstenberger, Andreas J.. John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2013.
Park, Kyung-mi. “John.” Daniel Patte, Ed. Global Bible Commentary. Nashville: Abington Press, 2004.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the gathered community to consider the question: How can we embody the love and unity of Christ among us and beyond us?
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Acts 1:6-14 • Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 • 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 • John 17:1-11
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=46