May 21, 2023
A Community of Believers
It has been suggested that Jesus’ prayer for the church in our John passage this morning is one of the preeminent prayers of Jesus that never gets fulfilled. –In fact one theologian has said that this prayer, which ends with “that they may be one as we are one” is likely to get the answer Jesus wants in that proverbially time “When hell freezes over!” While there was some ecumenical movement towards unity in the 50’s and 60’s everything in Christianity is going the other way these days. The United Methodist Church, the largest protestant denomination in the country is being torn apart over the Gay & Transgender issues. There are also strong pressures of divisiveness in the Baptist, & Episcopal churches as well as some other smaller denominations. And, of course, there are also tensions within the Catholic Church between conservative and more liberal factions only held in check by the power of the Pope.
The truth is, from the very beginning there were differences within the church. Luke records that early argument between Peter and Paul and James, with Paul’s more inclusive and accepting position winning out. By early 300 AD Emperor Constantine, when he converted to Christianity, felt there was too much diversity of belief and practice in the church. To eliminate haggling over differences he called the Council of Nicaea to iron out official doctrinal stands. The result, of course, was that some wound up being branded heretics. Constantine also wanted the church to be a unifying force in the Empire.
Jesus’ prayer, as John records it, is both an expression of John’s theology, and an expression of hope and blessing for the church. John’s gospel starts out telling us that Jesus was preexistent with God, “In the beginning was the Word” John 1 says, and “The Word made flesh” in John’s language. Here in the prayer Jesus puts emphasis on his unity with God. They are to “Glorify” each other. Knowing Jesus lets us know God in a more personal way. This, ‘Knowing’ is the basis of, and the meaning of, Eternal Life as John understands it. It is a life that begins here and now as one lives with a deep connection to God and Jesus. It is not about knowing about God, but living in communion with God through this deeper personal understanding. Eternal Life in John’s gospel is a quality of life lived with peace and love infused and born out of this relationship to God and Jesus.
Out of that affirmation and hope, Jesus prays for the church and its unity of purpose and commitment. He will be gone, but the church is to be an expression of his life, and God’s love for the world.
I’m guessing John has already seen a fragmenting of the church into diverse theologies and practices as he writes his gospel, and he wants to underscore the hope of Jesus for a deep unity among his followers. I imagine the memory of that little band that Luke tells about in our Acts passage, you know, those early disciples so committed and together they held everything in common, they must have had a strong nostalgic pull on the church by the end of the First Century. Christianity had by then burgeoned into a diverse group spread around the Roman Empire. We know there were different interpretations of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, & Resurrection on the scene by the end of the first century. So it’s not surprising that John wants to spark a remembrance of the founding hope of unity and community, that special sense of cohesion and purpose that bound them together.
There have been lots of covenantal community movements within Christianity over the years trying to get closer to the early church model. From monasteries in the Middle Ages to the proliferation of groups in the 17 & 18 hundreds such as the Amish, the Shakers, the Amana community. There were actually 80 different utopian communities established in the US in the decade of the 1840’s alone. These were spurred on by reactions to the beginnings of the industrial revolution, the religious fervor aroused by the Great Awakening, as well as the a general dissatisfaction with the way society was going. From groups like Brook Farm near Boston, which was a more secular offshoot of the Transcendentalist movement, to Fruitlands, down the road in Harvard, to Oneida further west in New York. Some were stricter than others. Fruitlands, was so strict it didn’t last long, -you could eat no meat, use no animals to do physical labor, use no artificial light, like oil lamps, take no hot baths, or drink anything more than water. It’s not hard to see why that Spartan life style lost its luster pretty quickly. Some groups like the Amana Community and the Shakers lasted well into the 20th century.
Sadly, there have also been some of these groups more recently that have become self-destructive. –There was Jonestown, in 1978 -where a group that started out with noble sounding ideals embraced the paranoia of their leader and some 900 hundred of them drank the poisoned cool-aid. Or there was the Adventist group in Waco Texas back in the 90’s that wound up in a destructive standoff with the FBI. And just recently there was the Christian cult-like group in Kenya where over 200 starved themselves to death, fasting, waiting for Jesus.
John writes to Christians that were considered part of a cult by many in that day. He writes with the hope of encouraging and comforting them, but also wanting to hold them true to the teachings and principles of Jesus. John validates the church as those called out to live differently than others, but never in a way that rejects the world or dooms us to a negative view of the future or the world the world. He writes to Christians who have reasons to be afraid but are called to be faithful. He sends this prayer from Jesus but also that bold affirmation that “God so loved the world” he sent his son “that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”
A church that follows Jesus is in covenant, with God, with Jesus and with each other. But it is never an outpost seeking to estrange itself from the world or reject those outside its walls. It is bearing witness in the world God loves. It is not a bastion of negativity but of hope. It is not a place of disdain for those outside – but a place that reaches out and welcomes in!
We still need the church. The world still needs the church! And the church still needs to be a covenant of faithful people, serving in Christ’s name.
One of the big problems in American society, researchers tell us, is loneliness, lack of community and a sense of belonging. The church, John would tell us, embraces all those human needs. A covenant group that serves as a witness to God’s redeeming work in the world. And because it belongs to Jesus, the church seeks to bring justice and wholeness to human life, and universal blessing to all God’s creation.
The late Lin Yutan, a Chinese American philosopher and scholar tells about his conversion to embrace the Christian faith in his mid-60’s. He says, “Below the surface of my life, a disquiet began to set in. It was born both of reflection and experience. I saw that the fruit of the humanistic age of enlightenment was an age of materialism. Man’s increasing belief in himself as God did not seem to be making him more godlike. He was becoming more clever. But he had less and less of the sober, uplifting humility of one who has stood in the presence of God. Contemporary history seemed to indicate how dangerously near the savage state man may be even while he is more advanced technologically.”
The insufficiencies in the modern world in terms of caring and community have made us a more frazzled people. It seems to have put us more on edge and made us more likely to strike out in anger, more forgetful of simple human kindness. The church, as a covenant community faithful to Jesus, was never more needed, even if never more pushed to the sidelines.
Jesus’ prayer for the church and his call for unity is both a critique of the persistence of human divisiveness, and a reminder of who we are supposed to be. It calls us to faithfulness and service.