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“Jesus’ Prayer for Jesus’ People”
Ascension of the Lord Sunday, The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide
Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, I am asking on behalf of those you have given me . . . that you will protect them, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church throughout the world, those words from this morning’s gospel lesson. And, every time they roll back around, Jesus is still waiting for Jesus’ prayer for Jesus’ people “to be one” to be answered.
As you will, no doubt, have noticed, even in the New Testament, we were not exactly one, if one means united to, and in harmony with, one another. Remember the rift in Rome over whether or not we should eat meat, and the conflict in Corinth over speaking in tongues? (Not to mention those fractious disputations which tattered Paul’s relations with his once beloved Galatians.)
And, those divisions were only harbingers of greater battles yet to come. Take, for example, the Council of Nicea in the year 325, where a roomful of bishops chose up sides behind Athanasius or Arius; Athanasius insisting that Jesus was the same as God, Arius contending that Jesus was the Son of God; a conflict so fierce and public that the emperor Constantine convened a council of bishops at Nicea to settle the matter, once and for all; Athanasius with eighty-something Bible verses in support of his view that Jesus was the same as God, Arius armed with more than a hundred in support of his view that Jesus was the Son of God; these verses versus those verses; bishops taking sides and hurling charges of heresy back and forth, until, in the end, Athanasius won because, while Arius had the most verses, Athanasius had the most votes.
And then, in the fifth century, came another great Christian conflict; this one over the question of what constitutes a valid and proper ordination and baptism. Known as “the Donatist controversy”, this debate actually escalated to violence and bloodshed; as marauding bands of Christians attacked the churches of those who did not share their views; a crisis which prompted Augustine to develop what we now know as the “just war” theory; an effort, on Augustine’s part, to give otherwise peace-loving Christians theological permission to take up arms against their Christian brothers and sisters who were physically attacking them.
I could go on, but you get the point; division among Christians is not a modern development, but rather, a perpetual condition. (Jesus’ prayer for Jesus’ people to “be one,” notwithstanding.)
I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I think about all that, a lot. On the one hand, our many divisions and denominations probably bear witness to our failures at achieving the oneness for which Jesus prayed. And yet, on the other hand, what are we to do with real differences, not of style, but of substance, conviction and belief?
Differences of style are not dividing lines among Christians. To the contrary, they give the church the beautiful gift of true diversity. For example, in my four years away from you, 2003 to 2007, my ministry on the streets of our city included a weekly worship service at the now demolished Maple Street Housing Project. We met at three o’clock on Sunday afternoons, in an abandoned apartment furnished with twenty metal chairs and two mostly missing windows. We sang and prayed and preached, and though it could not have been more different from this beautiful space and liturgical pace, I experienced the presence of God as powerfully there, as here, because, in both places, the thing that mattered most was what Jesus said matters most; that we love God with all that is in us, and that we love others as we love ourselves.
Which, in my experience, is where the oneness, for which Jesus prayed, is to be found. People who have given their lives to that which Jesus said matters most; loving God with all that is in us and loving others as we love ourselves, do become what Jesus prayed for Jesus’ people to become; we become one, because loving God with all that is in us and loving others as we love ourselves eventually comes to determine everything else; our ethics, our welcome, how we see the world and how we look at all people, especially those who are most different from us.
Being content to let what Jesus said matters most, matter most, makes us one with Jesus, one with God and one with one another; which was, as you will recall, Jesus’ prayer for Jesus’ people.