Lectionary sermon for June 2, 2019 (Easter 7 C)on John 17:20-26

Human Beings into a Unity of Doers!  

If you have ever prayed a prayer that remained unanswered you are in good company. In this morning’s gospel reading, the writer of John’s gospel records Jesus doing precisely the same thing. His prayer is call for unity…. yet ever since his followers have acted as if this was an unattainable goal.

The writer of John’s gospel has been criticised by many Bible scholars both for contradicting some key detail about Jesus in the other gospels (usually referred to as the synoptic gospels), and for John’s enthusiasm for oblique mysticism.

Certainly a first encounter with the gospel writer John gives an initial impression that he, or perhaps an apostle he used as his primary source, had been with Jesus for his mission – and he reinforces this impression by attributing the gospel detail to “the beloved disciple”, There are of course problems with this.

You may have noticed John implies a two and possibly three year ministry for Jesus and records Jesus at three separate Passovers. The other gospels present a one year ministry and only mention one Passover. The Synoptic gospels highlight the baptism of Jesus, but John has Jesus meeting John the Baptist yet not being baptised by John. The other gospels report Jesus’ parables and miracles as for helping people, John leaves out the parables and sees only signs in the miracles.

John also gets some of the contemporary history quite wrong – or at least out of step with the work of other writers of the day. For example for the apostles and for the first few years of the Christian Church, Christianity was understood to be a sect of Judaism, yet for John, Jesus is portrayed as setting up a faith in opposition to traditional Judaism. Furthermore, the other great work often (mistakenly?) attributed to the same John, namely the Book of Revelation, is written in a different style of Greek. Many scholars currently claim John’s gospel is widely accepted as the last of the gospels chosen for the Bible, written we are told, by an unknown first century writer working from second hand sources.

Having said all of that, many scholars would insist that this gospel provides the most compelling theological presentation of all the gospels, and that includes gospels that did not make the final cut into the canon of the New Testament. John’s work, sometimes described as an extended essay on the centrality of love, is rightly praised for selecting phrases and metaphors which get to the heart of Jesus’ teaching. One of my friends calls John a portrait painter rather than a biographer and I can see what he means.

Today’s gospel lesson written in the turmoil that followed the Christian Church being splintered and cast adrift from its Jewish seizes on one of these critical ideas which still have profound implications for current challenges to the current members of the still divided Christian Church and a deeply divided world community. This is of course Jesus’ extended prayer for inity amongst all who would follow his teaching.

As a prayer to produce a guaranteed result, thus far it appears a failure. But when Jesus says he is praying that there shall be unity, it is a prayer of the sort where some very human responders, including Christians of our generation, still hold the key to the answer.

Nor should we think of Jesus calling for something he was able to accomplish easily with his own disciples. Even in his own mission, Jesus encountered James and John competing to see who was worthy to sit beside Jesus in heaven – and another time, disciples who argued who among them was the greatest.

Remember also Matthew the collaborator publican who had a record of working alongside the Romans as a tax collector, becoming a member of the same band of followers that included a zealot who was committed to getting rid of those like Matthew. Don’t forget too, according to the gospels, Judas was prepared to betray his master despite many months of being on the road with Jesus. Nor as it turned out, were things better after the events of that first Easter. Paul, as a newcomer to the faith, was still to have his falling out with Peter and James.

However in Jesus’ prayer He was not simply focusing on his fractious and divided disciples. In verse 21, we find him praying for the disciples, He then prayed for all believers. And as self-claimed followers of Jesus we don’t need to look far before we encounter reason for embarrassment. Clearly, Jesus’ followers are still divided, just as they have been through the centuries, sometimes bitterly so. It would take a particular form of myopia not to notice today’s lack of unity?

Here I am not, as you might suppose, talking of joining the denominations into one unwieldy conglomerate. My concern is more for the lack of identification with others, an absence of identified unity offered to those who don’t share a common background. Jesus himself had modelled an acceptance of difference. He did not choose disciples for uniform background and nor did he accept traditional exclusions. Touching lepers, talking to the rejected of society, noticing the good in traditional enemies of Judaism; these things showed he was open to a unity of spirit and not just a unity of re-jigged Church superstructure.

I remember some years ago putting some Teachers’ College students through an exercise whereby those not in the know were pressured by students in a set up situation, to agree with statements that were demonstrably untrue. For example I would draw two lines on the board and tell the class who were already present that they should pick the longest line as being the shortest when late comers came into the room. I would then wait for an unfortunate latecomer to arrive and ask the class to vote on the shortest line. Almost invariably, the latecomer on seeing the show of hands would uncomfortably agree with the nonsense option.

Imagine the nonsense of claiming to follow Jesus yet pretending not to see the governmental non-forgiving option when it comes to foreign policy. And what about remembering a communion meal at which Judas was a guest, by celebrating the Eucharist in a form that could not be shared with some guests because they were not of exactly the local version of faith.

Imagine celebrating a man who told the story of the Good Samaritan by pretending not to see the worth of the Red Crescent (the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross). Or bringing it closer to home, imagine coming this Sunday to celebrate one who prayed for unity in his followers and following this with total lack of interest in serious attempts both to seek unity of spirit and failing to be finding good in those who dress and worship differently.

It is a poor excuse to say in this we are no different to others. I suspect the meek acceptance of bad majority opinions continues to confine and shape thinking which a moment’s reflection might reveal as nonsense.

Ralph Milton tells an oft quoted story about how John Henry Fabre, a French naturalist did an experiment with some Processionary Caterpillars.
In Milton’s words:

These poor little beasties will follow the next caterpillar ahead of them, no matter where that caterpillar happens to be going. Fabre arranged a bunch of his fuzzy friends in a neat circle, each one touching the one just ahead. Faithful to their DNA, each one followed the next one.

In the middle of the circle Fabre put some of the caterpillars’ favourite food. So would they stop following, even for a moment, just for a bite of lunch?

Not on your life. The food was there within inches, but they just kept on following each other in circles until they collapsed and died from hunger.

In the traditional Church, there is evidence that even now, processionary caterpillar thinking can dominate.

Jesus’ teaching is clear enough. There we find Jesus’ prescription for living in his way, his call for unity for his followers, his wish for total and generous forgiveness of enemies, compassion offered to neighbours ( even those who differ in belief), not building up treasures on earth and so on – all clear directions to those who might listen. Yet because we are bound by group traditions, we lose sight of the real food on offer. Time after time, woolly group thinking trumps our independent judgement about how we are progressing towards these goals.

If we felt free to choose from first principles, I suspect we would know to choose more helpful paths. Surely a society built on principles of unity, compassion and love would not only be true to Jesus’ prayer as recounted by John, but it would make more sense than the divided realities we are taught by our institutions to preserve.

When John defined God as Love, I believe this was a moment of great insight. When he records Jesus as saying 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.” He is also putting us in touch with a method to act on his call for unity.

Whoever first coined the expression “Human Beings” was perceptive. I have heard it suggested that there are really two types: be-ers and doers. The be-ers are simply content to let things the way they are and trust that everything will turn out alright in the end.

“Beings” certainly conjures up this common way of thinking. The do-ers take an active part in working towards what they believe to be the best form of action. I wonder if “human being” is the most positive alternative expression. What about calling the peace-making form a “human doing”? But whatever the case, I suspect that this two-form classification is at best an over-simplification. Many of us are capable of being a continually changing mixture of the two. However, if you asked me which form I saw dominating, I would have to admit the evidence is clear that the Human being dominates, and our lack of unity is the consequence.

The Dalai Lama once suggested: “the whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, and forgiveness”.

Unfortunately in practice it seems to be an unrealized ideal. This is not typically how most religions turn out in practice. Like the consequent ideal of unity, achieving the Dalai Lama’s purpose of religion assumes that the human do-ers will overcome the inertia of the be-ers. The resulting outcome is as likely or unlikely as how much we with faults or frailties like ours are prepared to make it become.

To focus on the expression of love for those who are different to us would seem an extraordinarily persuasive way of bringing about unity. When an individual or a group is kind to us we automatically warm to them.

Conversely when they ignore us or worse appear to be waving a big stick in our direction it is probably human nature to respond with antagonism and suspicion. So why through history have our ancestors been found waving sticks? Time after time, it is the socially isolated who become anti social in response, as many of the killing rampages in the US have demonstrated. Even internationally, nations like North Korea or Iran only threaten those who have threatened them or isolated them in the past. That should suggest to us a way of encouraging trust in others. Perhaps we might reflect on the current US foreign policy (or even dare I say our own foreign policy!) and ask how it would measure up.

Human beings we may well be. The question is: as potential do-ers are we like processionary caterpillars to remain focussed on our communal previous path to leave Jesus prayer unanswered?

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2 Responses to Lectionary sermon for June 2, 2019 (Easter 7 C)on John 17:20-26

  1. Greg Morgan says:

    Very helpful! Your emphasis on the theological nature of John reminds me that the prayer was of course not transcribed by some loyal hearer at the time but is a piece created to explain that our identification with the message of Jesus is an invitation into/recognition of the realm of the divine. As earlier verses note, ‘… the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.’ To be aware is the step from being to doing, or – put another way – the enlivening and fulfilment of being. The I AM, if you will.

    • peddiebill says:

      Ever since I reflected on the number of stories in the Bible recorded in the form of eyewitness events where no eyewitnesses were recorded as being present I started to realise just how many Biblical events were probably intended to teach theological truth … (and presumably some were more helpful than others). The deeper I dig the more like the story of scientific discovery it begins to resemble…many blind turns, yet many unexpected insights and a gradually emerging impression of mystery and wonder!

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