The Gospel according to John, the 17th Chapter.
20”I ask not only on behalf of these disciples, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I 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.”
One of the opportunities I have as a pastor, from time to time, is to be interviewed by a student in high school or college who is working on a class assignment on religion. I really enjoy that. For any students here today, keep me in mind if such an assignment comes along. However, I’ve found that there is one particular challenge in this kind of thing. When interviewed for school projects, I typically wish I had a lot more time to discuss the kind of topics that are brought up.
As an example, I remember getting an email from a student once who introduced himself as the nephew of a friend of a friend of mine, and he wanted to set up an interview for class. It would take a half hour, he said. He just had ten questions. We sat together in my office, he set up his video camera, and started out with question number one: “tell me about your faith tradition.”
Well, there were things I wanted to say about Lutheran history, about who Martin Luther was and what led to the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, as well as how the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches have come a long way in healing divisions since that time and have found ways to work together. There were things I wanted to say about this congregation of Holy Trinity, about our worship and life together in community and engagement in the issues of our neighborhood. There were things I wanted to say about the ELCA and our church’s response to God’s grace through service to others and working for justice and peace throughout the world. At least ten minutes passed before I figured I’d better stop. My interviewer nodded. And then he asked the next question: “How do you explain evil and suffering in the world?”
These were really great questions, and he was right to ask them. But I realized that this would not be the time to explain everything I had ever learned or thought about related to a given topic. I needed to get to the heart of the matter.
This is often the case, it seems to me. When talking about our faith in God, there is so much to say. That’s true for any of us, whether we’ve taken theology classes or not. A life of faith is shaped by countless factors. How would you tell the story of your faith, as it stands today? How much time would you require to say all that needs to be said about the people and events that have helped to shape it?
I’m convinced that the biblical writers faced a similar challenge. Even though the Bible is a big book, keep in mind that it is essentially 66 letters written to various communities telling a story of faith. But in any story, choices need to be made. You can’t say everything, even in the Bible. I love how the writer of John puts it at the very end of his Gospel, saying, “I’d like to tell you about all the other things that Jesus did, but if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” This isn’t meant literally, of course. The point is there’s just so much that could be said about God’s love revealed in the life of Jesus, and John wants us to know how big and very important this message is.
Sometimes the biblical writers try to pack everything in. The passage from Revelation today, for example, the culmination of this great and mysterious letter to seven churches, makes use of multiple symbolic images for Christ. Who is the living Christ? The alpha and the omega, the first and the last. But Jesus is also like that tree of life in the garden, with fruit offered for the health of all. But that’s not enough. He’s also the morning star, a light in every darkness. But that’s not all. He’s also a river of life that can pervade every nook and cranny of need, quenching the thirst of any who drink. No image alone is enough, so Revelation includes several for us to draw upon, even in this one short passage.
When it comes to matters of faith, there’s always more to say.
There’s nowhere in the Bible I see this struggle more than in the 17th chapter of John. The setting is the last supper Jesus had with his disciples before being betrayed and crucified. It’s known as his “farewell discourse,” but I’ve also heard it described as a long Minnesota goodbye. At least in my family, goodbyes tend to start in the kitchen, move to the living room, and then out to the street. It’s longer than necessary, but it’s all meant to communicate love. That’s true for Jesus and his disciples as well. Much of what he says is formally a prayer, but at the same time there’s so much that he wants to communicate to his disciples before he leaves them. This discourse is admittedly difficult to follow at times, but there’s a hard to miss, passionate invitation into life with God. That’s what Jesus keeps coming back to, and maybe it’s with a passion that simply transcends words, this strong desire he had that they would deeply know the love of God in a way that transforms them and their world.
It can’t all be said. But Jesus leaves them and us with an important lesson. To experience this life in God, this deep love of God, you will need each other. You will encounter God through loving one another and through listening to the multiple experiences of faith among you. You’ll start to really know God’s love through listening to and believing the testimony of the women as they come from the empty tomb. Our church today still has room to grow in how we listen to and believe and celebrate the unique experiences of women on matters of faith and society. The followers of Jesus then and now will come to know the wideness of God’s love when we listen to one another and share our lives together.
When Jesus prays for unity, I don’t think he was praying that just that we all would get along and certainly not that we would all act or think the same. He was praying that we would experience God through our interactions with one another. And when we love and trust others who are different than us, we may start to learn that God is more than we ever expected.
Two Sundays ago I missed being in worship with you all as I was on vacation visiting family in California. I noticed that there were many things this Episcopal church shares in common with us: passing the peace, sharing communion, a liturgical order. But as I’ve reflected on it more, it occurs to me that it was in the differences where I saw God that day: their excitement to welcome our children since it had been months or even longer since there had been kids in their church, the kindness of the priest and the way she so warmly blessed several members of the church who were preparing for a vacation, the enthusiasm that was present in such a tiny congregation. Experiencing and knowing God doesn’t come just through our familiar and comfortable faith practices; it comes even more through opening ourselves to what is different.
And I don’t think Jesus had just the church in mind when he prayed this prayer because if we can encounter God in one another, that can happen anywhere. This prayer of Jesus is as important now as ever, when there seems to be a growing culture of mistrust of people considered different somehow: immigrants, Muslims, people of different abilities, and the list could go on. This prayer can bring us back to the heart of the matter: we need each other if we want to know God. We need each other to know the wideness of God’s love for the world.