By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
On this final Sunday of the Easter Season, our gospel comes from the lengthy prayer that Jesus offers at the Last Supper in the Gospel according to John. Today’s passage appears at the end of that prayer.
Immediately after these words, Jesus and his disciples leave the Upper Room and cross the Kidron Valley in the darkness of night, and come to the garden where Jesus will be taken captive by a detachment of soldiers and police who are guided there by the traitor Judas.
The prayer that Jesus taught and which begins “Our Father” has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer. It is the Lord’s prayer in the sense that he offered it as a model for his disciples to use. But we have no record of Jesus every praying that prayer himself.
We do have this other prayer which Jesus offers shortly before he is taken captive, subject to manifold indignities, and finally crucified. This prayer, which occupies Chapter 17 in John’s Gospel, is the Lord’s prayer in the sense that he himself offers it, and does so at the most critical juncture in his life.
It may seem out of place to consider this prayer late in Easter Season, so long after Holy Week. Here we are, after all, in that period between the ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Here is a time when our hearts may well turn to Jesus as he is seated at the right hand of the Father following his ascension, Jesus as he lives for ever and always intercedes for us to the Father.
But what is the content of his prayer? I dare to suggest that the intercession he offers for us in heaven remains one with his intercession for us that he offered here on earth, and that today’s gospel goes far in making known to us the great themes of that intercession.
Let me mention only a couple of these themes. In today’s gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples that they might be one even as he and the Father are one. He prays that his followers in every generation will be thus united, for it is by this unity that the world will come to believe that he has been sent by the Father.
These are themes about which Jesus prays on the night before his death. And, I would submit to you, they are themes about which he prays even now, as he makes intercession on our behalf.
Jesus wants his disciples to be one. This seems like a safe request, until we consider it closely! Jesus wants his disciples to be one in a world marked by countless divisions of one group of people over against another. The division of Christians is contrary to what Jesus wants.
We have here not simply a charter for the ecumenical movement, but a mandate for the abolishment of all divisions which set one group of people against another. Christian unity is not intended by Jesus to be simply an in-house issue. It is essential to our witness in the world. The Church’s mission, so the Catechism of the Episcopal Church says, “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
The Church is God’s own unity movement. Because of this, we cannot fault the world if it looks to the Church to demonstrate in itself the unity that the Church is pledged to achieve. We cannot fault the world when it asks the Church to practice what it preaches.
I believe that when Jesus looks at Christians, he does not see us as isolated individuals. He recognizes us as persons, certainly, but as persons in community with one another. He does not see us as apart from each other. His vision indeed is that we are one.
If that is how Jesus sees us, then maybe that needs to be the way we Christians see ourselves. St. Paul caught this message, and he echoes it when he declares, in his Letter to the Galatians, that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one”, he tells the Galatian Christians, “in Christ Jesus.”
Paul is insisting so much on the unity of Christians that he declares they are no longer separated from each other by three causes of separation dominant in his world: ethnicity, social status, and gender. He does not claim these characteristics are abolished, but he insists that for Christians these are no longer factors that separate people into antagonistic sides. In the Christian community, Gentiles and Jews find themselves one, as do slaves and masters, women and men.
The old order is dead. The resurrection of Jesus brings with it a new world in which those once at odds are now reconciled and united. Paul is announcing how Jesus sees it, and inviting his contemporaries to see it that way also, and to live out the consequences.
I believe that Jesus prays now for his disciples to be one, and that he sees us as one already. If Jesus sees us that way, there’s a mighty powerful implication here that we should see ourselves the same way, and live out the consequences of this unity which is the prayer of Christ.
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Again, we’re not talking about uniformity, reducing everybody to a dull and flat sameness. Instead, the differences are to be barriers no longer. The diversity is not a cause for antagonism. It is to be revealed as what it is: an enrichment for everybody.
The categories mentioned by St. Paul are still causes for concern today.
• Are people in today’s world sometimes divided by ethnicity?
If you don’t think so, ask an African-American to explain how in some localities it’s an offense to be caught Driving While Black.
• Are people in today’s world divided by social class?
If you don’t think so, then do some research into the growing gap between rich and poor right here in the United States.
• Are people in today’s world divided by gender?
If you don’t think so, talk with women involved in history’s largest class action suit, which seeks damages from a major retailer for sex discrimination.
Jesus praying in the Upper Room that his disciples may be one is dangerous business. No wonder he gets nailed to a cross.
St. Paul delegitimizing the prejudices of the ancient world is dangerous business. No wonder his head was cut off.
Today’s Church recognizing how Jesus sees us as one, and rejecting all barriers, old and new, that prevent unity in Christ: this too is dangerous business.
It means we’re challenging somebody’s arrogance, even our own.
But as Jesus himself indicates, only by our unity, our no-nonsense embrace of one another, will the world come to believe.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.