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That they may be one. 

Easter 7, Common Lectionary Year A

John 21:11

©2014 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Audio file

It’s on the Crest of the United Church, “Et omnes unum sint” That they may be one. Not merely the high hopes of an ecumenical dream in 1925, when the United Church of Canada was formed out of the union of Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Methodists of Canada’s vast land, this  motto, this maxim, this prayer, has its origin in the Gospel passage we just read.

As Rod indicated, a good way to read this Gospel passage is to see it as Jesus’ “Last lecture” – a phenomenon that went viral  in 2007, when Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, dying of pancreatic cancer, used the academic tradition of delivering a last lecture, to gift his children and students with the parting words of a father and mentor, wisdom distilled words to live by to fulfill their own potential.

So too with these chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus’ own culminating, parting, legacy, words. Although couched as a prayer addressed to God, it is, as one commentator wryly remarks, one of those prayers uttered loud enough for others to hear, and take note. Rather like my Grandma’s dinner grace, often said with a gusty sigh, “Bless this table, bless this food, bless these children, make them good.”

So, what is this last lecture/prayer of Jesus? Not so easy. God and Jesus, it seems, have developed a prayer language only they understand. All the stuff about “ glorify me, I’ll glorify you, mine is yours and yours is mine” is so-called “Johannine Christology” that leaves plenty of scholars in the dark, let alone the rest of us. It’s the last  10 words of Jesus’ prayer, the words on our crest, that capture our attention today as we celebrate the 89th birthday of the United Church, and the 115th anniversary of the start of this congregation. “That they may be one, as we are one.”

Forgive me if I get right to the point, not beat about the bush, but really? The history of Christianity shows that Jesus’ last prayer has been honoured in the breach more than the observance…. at last count the world’s 2. 18 billion Christians are not “one”, but divided into 41,000 identifiable Christian denominations.[1]  That’s both mind-boggling, and disturbing. It’s a clear sign that although collectively 32% of the world’s population professes some faith and allegiance to Jesus Christ, we have fallen far short of his prayer and hope that we be, “One in the Spirit, One in the Lord.”

Being one, as God in Christ is one, has proven to be so difficult, as we see Christians  not merely divided, but openly hostile to one another over politics, social ethics, scripture, vestments, sacraments, bread and wine, women in ministry…. the list goes on from the sublime to the ridiculous.

If we reduce the field of our vision just to our own denomination, this United Church of Canada, we can see just how fraught with difficulty it has ever been to fulfil Jesus’ prayerful dream. At time of Union, there were many who simply could not imagine a marriage of Presbyterian with Methodist, the dream was only partially fulfilled. Since then we’ve faced fracture over pacifism, and gender justice, the interpretation of Scripture and the place of  LGBT people in lay and ordered ministry.

No wonder it has taken the prayer of Jesus to hold us together!

And that’s the real key to this. It takes prayer. To be one, to be united in common purpose and mission takes more than we can muster through strategies, and plans of Union. New planning and strategies for being the United Church in the 21st century won’t succeed based on discussion documents and deliberations alone. For all we want them to be, those are not the means of our unity at all. They are merely the consequences of a prayer,  prayed by none less than the Son of God, to which we must add, with open hands and hearts, our fervent “Amen.”

It takes prayer, and it takes vision. It’s taken me a while to see this…. The prayer is “that they may be one”, The vision, is tagged on at the end, easily missed, “as we are one.”

What sort of holy imagination does it take to see, what Jesus meant by “as we are one”?

Can we begin to imagine that? God – known to us through the life of Jesus – compassion, passionate piercing of evil’s disguises, justice embodied in healing, and prayer and feasting at the banquet of grace …. God – Creator,  known to us in spider web and an expanding universe, God- beyond our capacity to imagine billions of light years, billions of stars, billions of microbes, billions of water droplets coalescing into icebergs, rain showers, sweat on a human brow, water of the womb? God – known to us as inspiration, the gut-stirring compulsion to acts of courage, or mercy, or kindness, Spirit- inspired music to stir soul, art that makes us gasp, drama, theatre, groundswell of just outrage, and genius at play in the playground of creation….. All this and more, contracted to four simple words “As we are one.”

Jesus’ prayer that we be one, just like that….! Now that’s so pie in the sky, it can only be the dream of God!

It’s a tall order, for I dare say until we manage to be captivated by this holy imagining of what being one as God is one might be like for us, our efforts will be the fractured and fractious  failures of unity that have plagued the planet for so long.

But if we can, say Amen to the prayer, and if we can imagine, just for a nanosecond being one, as God in all God’s vast, beautiful, intricacy is one, then… well, then…… Just imagine….!

[1] Pew Forum on Religion and Public  Life 2010,  Centre of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Seminary, cited on accessed May 29, 2014.

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