Weekly Seeds: Know God

Sunday, May 29, 2022
Seventh Sunday of Easter | Year C

Focus Theme:
Know God

Focus Prayer:
God of Community, reveal yourself to us so that we may know you and inspire us to be curious about one another. Ignite unity among your created beings so that we may manifest your love and glory in the world. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 17:20–26
20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 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. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 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. 24 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.
25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 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.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 16:16–34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20–21
John 17:20–26
Acts 1:1–11
Psalm 47 or Psalm 93
Ephesians 1:15–23
Luke 24:44–53

Focus Questions:
1. What is unity? How do we experience it?
2. What presents a barrier to unity?
3. How do you understand unity among the Trinity?
4. How can that sense of unity inform your understanding of Jesus’ prayer for our unity?
5. What is the impact of knowing one another and God on unity with one another and with God?

By Cheryl Lindsay

“That they may all be one.” (v. 21) The words are found anchoring the crest of the United Church of Christ and point to the fullness of this week’s gospel passage. It is situated within what is commonly known as the Priestly prayer that Jesus lifts in the garden. It certainly wasn’t unusual for Jesus to remove himself in order to commune with the rest of the Triune God. We don’t typically have access to the content of those prayers. In John’s account, this prayer time precedes his entry into the garden on the night of his betrayal. Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. This prayer, while lifted to God, is contained within the Farewell Discourses. The prayer does not deviate from or pause that activity; it approaches it from a different perspective and transitions from the farewell (preparation) to the beginning of Jesus’ passion (departure).

It should not surprise us that Jesus marks that transition with prayer. In fact, we might even consider these words more in the form of commissioning than intercession as has traditionally been the case. The Priest is needed as an intercessor because the people are not equipped or sufficiently prepared to approach the Holy One. That does not describe the position that Jesus has placed his disciples. He’s spent all the time they have had together preparing them to assume the work and to continue the mission. As his closest companions, they have enjoyed full and intimate access to the divine. At the point of his death, the veil in the temple will be rendered in two. That place where only the priest may enter will be dissolved.

That imposed separation between the people and God no longer has its power. But that isn’t what Jesus prays about. Jesus expresses concern about potential walls that may emerge between his disciples–among themselves and with the world. His prayer is not for the to be reconciled with the Parent, but rather for them to enjoy unity for and among themselves.

This unity is special. In fact, it may most properly be described as glorious. Just as we often substitute a diminutive version of peace for God’s vision of shalom, our concept of unity can benefit from re-evaluation. In some ways, I think our view of unity is similar to that of peace. If peace is the absence of conflict, then unity is the avoidance of it. Yet, we can note instances, during the passion particularly, where Jesus and the Parent experienced some conflict. We have to turn to Luke’s account for his plea in the garden to be relieved of the terrible cup that awaited him. We have to read the accounts of Matthew or Mark to hear Jesus cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We also aren’t privy to the conversations that Jesus held among the Triune God when he retreated in the wilderness or any number of times when he went off in solitude.

It’s clear that Jesus did not avoid the conflict. He addressed it–with the source–squarely. He demonstrated that in his interactions with his disciples, his birth family, and religious rulers. Even in encounters with strangers like the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus responded in a forthright and transparent manner and remained true to his integrity. He prays his disciples will do the same:

Jesus does not ask the Father to provide the disciples with metaphorical biohazard protection suits, so that they may remain unaffected and untouched by the problems of the world. Instead, Jesus asks the Father to ready the disciples for mission and engagement so that they will be equipped to bear witness to Jesus despite the conflict that this will provoke. At the same time, even though the disciples will remain in the sphere of the world, living within the political and cultural context of a world system that does not acknowledge the sovereignty of God, their primary allegiance has shifted. Thus, Jesus’ prayer for the disciples is not intended to introduce an “absolute cleavage of communication” between the disciples and the world, but rather to strengthen them to live counter-cultural lives of mission. (Kate Tyler)

At the same time, unity does not mean uniformity. It connotes deep connection and mutual reliance. It’s helpful to consider this prayer for unity in light of the vine and branches imagery of John 15. In his teaching, Jesus declares the branches are connected to the vine. That is secure. In his prayer, Jesus prays for the branches to maintain and sustain their connection to one another. That is in his last expressed concern before his passion begins.
Church history would bear out that concern was warranted, and Christian unity remains elusive today. With the progression of the United Church of Christ alone, we can affirm our history as a united and uniting church, but much of that union has been marked more by dissonance than harmony. True and lasting ecumenism clearly exists only among denominations with shared history and theological leanings. Even those relationships are limited in scope and nature. We struggle to agree on issues of doctrine, praxis, and theology. Our beliefs about what it means to be Christian are so divergent that some Protestants still express surprise that Roman Catholics are also Christians. Some fundamentalists Christian sects discount anyone who does not hold their exact same views. The branches are separated, which means the body is broken.

This witness to the world distorts the vision of unity Jesus describes. This unity comes not from adherence to a set of rules or even beliefs. When Jesus called his disciples, he invited them to be in relationship with him, to be his companions on a journey, and to be immersed in his mission. Yes, he taught them but the fullness of his revelation comes at the end of their journey…after they have gotten to know him:

The prayer comes to its conclusion by Jesus extending it beyond the immediate group of disciples to include future believers. In this section it is clear that Jesus’ desire for unity is not an end in itself, but is a critical aspect of continuing his mission in the world.26 The union of “I in you” and “they also in us,” is “so that.”27 The union Jesus prays for has a purpose. Jesus can only be the true revealer of the Father because of his union with the Father and it is from this dynamic unity that he can make known the essence of God. Similarly, if disciples are to continue Jesus’ mission and reveal God, then they too can only do this from within the union of Jesus and his Father. Jesus’ desire that they all be one, in him, in the Father and among themselves is for the purpose of the mission. The revelation of God cannot occur from the outside, but only from within the Father-Son-disciples relationship. Being one in God is the only way to reveal God. (Mary L. Coloe)

As we consider what it means to be part of the body of Christ, it seems to me that we can be caught up in knowledge that is quantifiable. We attempt to teach about God rather than introduce people to a God who will take them on their own journey of discovery, calling, and relationship. Kate Tyler asks a significant question that frames the challenge this understanding of belonging can present:

In a context where Christians are seen as socially compassionate volunteers at best, or as brainwashed and intolerant at worst, how might the church respond in a manner that continues to proclaim God’s gospel-faithfulness, and yet does not alienate those who do not identify as members of the Christian community? (Kate Tyler)

Tyler’s query illustrates the peril of faith communities that create students rather than apprentices. Jesus declared that the work of their followers would bring glory to God. Yet, the public witness of Christian communities often attempts to impose adherence to their particular beliefs despite the spectrum of beliefs held among the diversity of Christianity. The debate over abortion demonstrates the point. Rather than impose one’s views on abortion on those with different views, Christians who want to elimiate abortion could support and advocate for actions that have proven to reduce abortion, such as expansive sex education, wide accessibility to a variety of birth control options, and collective care including child care, parental leave, and programs offering economic stability. What if that was the public Christian witness rather than one that insists on birth but abandons those in need as soon as the baby emerges from the wound?

Francis of Assissi said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” That reflects the demonstrated ministry of Jesus, who even told stories when responding to questions of doctrine. The Protestant Bible has sixty-six books, and only one of them is filled with rules. Most of the Bible is story. These stories paint a picture of life with God, other human beings, and creation. They reflect the joys and cost of discipleship, the struggle of finding your place in the world, and the grace necessary, given and received, to carry you through it all.

Jesus knew that a path similar to his own awaited his close companions and friends. He understood the magnitude of the challenge they would face. He recognized how essential having companions for encouragement and support had been for him and would be for them.

God created us for relationship. In community, we find ourselves and we find God. God reveals themself by coming into the world as Jesus Christ but also through those who make God’s name known. We can only share who and what we know, so as Jesus prays, he emphasizes the unity of the Triune God as a model of knowing. This knowing does not come from memorizing verses of scripture devoid of contextual understanding. This knowing is not enhanced by rigid adherence to a set of rules without tethering that behavior to maintaining communion with the Holy One.

This knowing comes from embracing the identity of the branch. This knowing is built and sustained on connection that only increases, strengthens, and grows over time. This knowing has roots that run deep and is regenerative. This knowing blooms, produces a fragrant aroma, and colors the world in beauty. This knowing is awash in love so that we might even paraphrase the greatest commandment based on the prayer Jesus utters in this text.

Know God and know your neighbor as yourself. May they all be one. Amen.

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.
“Unite My Brothers and Sister”
Here we are on distant shores
Searching for love ones lost
Knowing their pain and suffering
Was an ocean of love lost.
Cant you see the sun is shining
Bringing energies of love all
Come my people unite together
Wake up stand up be the love for all
The bells are ringing it is time
To answer the call of one
Get together my brothers and sisters
It’s time you must unite as one
Unite Unite it’s time it’s time
You must unite as one
Hold together brothers and sisters
It’s time to unite as one.
by Sonia Dixon

For further reflection:
What is the impact of knowing one another and God on unity with one another and with God?
“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” ― Gwendolyn Brooks
“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”
― John Lennon, Imagine
“We are all equal in the fact that we are all different. We are all the same in the fact that we will never be the same. We are united by the reality that all colours and all cultures are distinct & individual. We are harmonious in the reality that we are all held to this earth by the same gravity. We don’t share blood, but we share the air that keeps us alive. I will not blind myself and say that my black brother is not different from me. I will not blind myself and say that my brown sister is not different from me. But my black brother is he as much as I am me. But my brown sister is she as much as I am me.” ― C. JoyBell C.

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), 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 below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.