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Sermon ~ That we may be one

John 17.20-26
That we may be one
12 May 2013
UCSA Glengowrie

1.

The Gospel of John. When I studied Theology, way back in the 1980s, I had a mighty respect for this Gospel and his author. I am not a man of many words, and certainly not ideas as those used by John, who was possibly the most beloved apostle of Jesus. You probably all remember the first few words of his Gospel:

(1) In the beginning, the Word existed.
The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

(2) He existed in the beginning with God.

(3) Through him all things were made,
and apart from him nothing was made that has been made.

(4) In him was life, and that life brought light to humanity.

(John 1:1-4 ISV)

John knows how to speak and write. He may have been influenced by the movement of the Essenes. They were a Jewish sect of the Second Temple period between the 2nd century before the Christian Era and the 1st century after Christ. Being much fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees (the other two major religious movements at the time), the Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including (for some groups) celibacy. Many separate but related religious groups of that era shared similar mystic, eschatological, messianic, and ascetic beliefs. These groups are collectively referred to by various scholars as the “Essenes.” Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judæa.

In modern times the Essenes gained fame as a result of the discovery of an extensive group of documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are commonly believed to be part of their library. These documents include preserved multiple copies of the Hebrew Bible untouched from as early as 300 BCE until their discovery in 1946. Some scholars, however, dispute the notion that the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So, our author of the fourth Gospel seems to have been a well versed man. His account of the story of Jesus is full of details showing that he was familiar with Jewish tradition and teaching. At the same time, John describes Jesus with passion and as a passionate man. John was fully aware of the historic moment of time he was describing and — if the author and the man loved by Jesus were the same person — he had witnessed personally. But his is not a historical account — in his Gospel, John tries to point the spot light at a series of events around Jesus who was God and became man for the salvation of all mankind.

 

2.

I pray not only on behalf of these men …” (17:20)

Our sermon text today is clearly part of a longer prayer of Jesus to God his father. Indeed, in my personal study bible, The New Jerusalem Bible translation, our sermon text concludes a long section of five chapters, the chapters 13-17. They are headed with a summary title “The hour of Jesus. The Passover of the Lamb of God. And: Jesus’ Last Supper with his Disciples.” The section begins with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and it concludes with the final words of our sermon text:

I made your name known to them,
and will continue to make it known,
so that the love you have for me
may be in them
and I myself may be in them.
(17:26)

There are other highlights in this section:

  • … a servant is not greater than his master,
    and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him.
    (13:16)
  • I am giving you a new commandment
    to love one another.
    Just as I have loved you,
    you also should love one another.
    (13:34)
  • I am the way, the truth, and the life.
    No one comes to the Father except through me.
    (14:6)
  • In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.
    Because I live, you will live also.
    (14:19)
  • I am leaving you at peace. I am giving you my own peace.
    I am not giving it to you as the world gives.
    So don’t let your hearts be troubled,
    and don’t be afraid.
    (14:27)
  • I am the vine, you are the branches.
    The one who abides in me while I abide in him
    produces much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
    (15:5)
  • And once more:
    This is my commandment:
    that you love one another as I have loved you.
    No one shows greater love
    than when he lays down his life for his friends.
    (15:13-14)

These are some of the sections that I have marked with a red highlighter in my German study bible. There are more in these five chapters.

For instance the “The Coming of the ‘Paraclete’”, as my bible titles part of chapter 16. Jesus tells his followers that they should not be sad, but rather rejoice that he is leaving them. “If I do not go away the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” “Helper” here is the translation of the Greek word paracletos in the International Standard Version of the Bible that I have been using for this sermon.

But the “paraclete” is much more:

  • one who consoles or comforts;
  • who encourages or uplifts;
  • he refreshes and may intercede on our behalf as an advocate in court.

The word for “Paraclete” is passive in form, and originally signified “called to one’s side”.

And so Jesus can say about the Paraclete

When he comes, he will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment —
of sin, because they do not believe in me;
of righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me;
and of judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.

(John 16:8-11 ISV)

 

3.

And then, in our chapter 17, Jesus begins this long prayer, concluded by our sermon text. It is a true intercession: Jesus is praying for those to whom he had made known the name of His Father. “They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word … they have believed that you sent me” (17:6.7). His followers were hated by the world but he protected them. “I am not asking you to take them out of the world but to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (17:16-17).

 

That’s us who Jesus is praying for.

We, who claim to follow his teaching, his life, his faith.

Jesus places a responsibility on us in his prayer to his father preceding our text:

Just as you sent me into the world,
so I have sent them into the world.
It is for their sakes that I sanctify myself,
so that they, too, may be sanctified by the truth.
(17:19)

This is where we are: sent into the world, this world — not the eternity.

 

The reading of Revelation Chapter 22 this morning gave us a glimpse of the world, those people inside and out, the good and the bad. While written by the Elder John, he is not the author of the Gospel of John. This John, the author of the Book of Revelation, had been exiled on the rugged and barren Turkish Island of Patmos, at the end of the 1st century, for preaching the Gospel. There, in a cave on the island, he received his vision reflecting many images of Jewish prophecy of his time. The Book of Revelation is a book of controversy, of conflict, of Good and Evil, of destruction and resurrection.

It reflects the world of the Elder John but also our own world — the world into which we have been sent. The Elder John says about Jesus:

See! I am coming soon!
My reward is with me to repay everyone according to his action.
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last,
the beginning and the end.

How blessed are those who wash their robes
so that they may have the right to the tree of life
and may go through the gates into the city!

Outside are dogs, sorcerers, immoral people, murderers, idolaters,
and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
(Rev 22:12-15)

This is the reality of the world as experienced by the Elder John but also faced by us today. It is the wars, the deception, the betrayal, the stealing from the poor by the rich — the way of life coming with falsehood. This is the world into which we are sent by Jesus, as God has sent his son.

 

4.

Jesus prays for us who he has sent into this world, but also for those who believe his word.

I ask not only on behalf of these men, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their message, so that they may all be one. Just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. (17:21)

 

… “so that they all may be one” and “that the world may believe” …

I suppose you are aware that these words are the very foundation of the Uniting Church in Australia, following the foundation of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

In actual fact, these words are the very foundation of my standing here in front of you. Way back in the 1970s when I began to get involved more seriously with the community of churches, I was moved by the manifold expressions of faith amongst the people around me. I almost became a Roman Catholic when I was around 20, because I was deeply impressed by their community of faith. But then I was raised as, and had become too much of, a Protestant Christian, a thinker, a critic, an inquirer. . For these reasons, and for a number of years, I was visited many different Christian communities and churches, first in my home town of Frankfurt, then internationally, and then in the context of the World Council of Churches itself.

Some of my best friends of those years come from this world. We have been like a big family spread around the globe. I met people in Asia who knew my friend in Canada, had colleagues in Britain who were committed, as I was, to supporting the Minjung community of Christians in South Korea who were struggling for justice in the times of dictatorship and poverty. In South Africa, Cameroon, Hong Kong, El Salvador, Brazil, amongst First Nation people in the North of Canada, at the Ecumenical community of Brothers and Sisters in Taizé, France or in my home town Frankfurt — everywhere there were and are people moved by this spirit, crossing the boundaries of language, faith, way of life, culture and borders.

I shared communion with people of all faiths at the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey near Geneva, in bush churches in Papua New Guinea, with Catholic Christians in El Salvador persecuted for standing up for the justice of Christ — with Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Pentecostals, with non-believers.

Coming from different cultures, we spoke different languages. Our life style differed, our age, and our social and political context. And yet — we were one. Possibly, I can say: we are One. We may not longer meet as often as we did so many years ago — but the spirit is still there.

 

that the world may believe

Well, this is the challenge. Did we “succeed”? By all accounts, NO. The world believes, yes: There are the many people like you and me, who are of no relevance in the games of political and economic powers that control the world these days — the outsiders, the underdogs, the marginalised. These are the many people in so many places around the world, where God has been long before the missionaries arrived and the Word of God was spread.

In his commentary for our sermon text, the retired Uniting Church minister of the Uniting Church in Australia, David Beswick wrote:

The Octave of Christian Unity is observed in the Northern Hemisphere at a time when many people in Australia are enjoying their summer vacation, so it was decided to observe the week of Christian Unity in Australia instead in the period between Ascension and Pentecost. That was many years ago when the ecumenical movement associated with the development of the World Council of Churches held much more sway in the churches than it has in recent years, but it remains an important commitment of the Uniting Church, the union of which was one of its fruits.[1]

It is very much a pessimistic statement.

The Uniting Church was established in 1977 on the “Basis of Union”.

The uniting churches “seeking to bear witness to that unity which is both Christ’s gift and his will for the Church, hereby enter into a union … [and] declare their readiness to go forward together in sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church.”[2]

These were the introductory words on the way into union. How much has the Uniting Church in Australia opened their doors and arms to work together with those Christians and denominations that are outside our family of churches?

 

In the recent edition of “New Times” (May 2013), the voice of the Uniting Church in South Australia, the SA moderator Rev Rob Williams writes under the heading “Together”:

Six times a year our Uniting Church team meets with Leaders of Christian Churches in SA [through the South Australian Council of Churches]. In our last meeting the Lutheran team, led by [District] President David Altus helped us discover more about the Lutheran Church … As they shared with us, I was reminded that we have so much in common concerning our Christian faith …[3]

Liz, my wife, is a Lutheran, and so I get around the Lutheran church myself a fair bit. But do we celebrate our faith together, do we confess and witness and engage as one body of faith with the community in which we live? Even more, the community into which we have been sent — as the Elder John in his vision says so drastically, those outside the gates of the city, the “dogs, sorcerers, immoral people, murderers, idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood”? We don’t, or very few of us really are committed to this service.

 

Jesus Christ, in his last intercession prayer for us to his Father, before he personally faced this world “outside the gates” — into death and back again —, has given us a task:

I have given them the glory that you gave me,
so that they may be one, just as we are one.
I am in them, and you are in me.

May they be completely one,
so that the world may know that you sent me
and that you have loved them as you loved me.

Father, I want those you have given me
to be with me where I am and to see my glory,
which you gave me because you loved me
before the creation of the world.

Amen.

 

Footnotes

[1] http://www.beswick.info/rclresources/E7C95Ser.htm

[2] Bos, Robert. Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia. Sydney, NSW: Uniting Church Press, 2008, p191.

[3] New Times — The Voice of Uniting Church SA, May 2013, p4

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