Sermon for May 24, 2020, Easter 7A
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
In our Monday Morning Seekers class we have been recently discussing Celtic Christianity. We have been reading John Phillip Newell’s book, “Listening for the Heartbeat of God.” In it, he describes the way the early Celtic Christians put more emphasis on right living than on right belief. Unlike the Roman church, they were more practical than theoretical. But historically, Roman Christianity prevailed, and right belief has been the dominating center of attention for centuries.
Believing the right things, for example, about the Trinity made all the difference between who was considered orthodox and who was a heretic.
There is a great irony there when we think about Jesus and where he placed the emphasis. Jesus never spoke of the Trinity or asked us to believe in that difficult doctrine.
Another irony, at least in my opinion, is that there are things we are asked to believe that are much harder than the Trinitarian co-equal status of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How about what we are asked to believe in the text we just read, that we all should be one, like God and Jesus are one?
On one hand, nothing is more obviously not the case. It never has been the case that humans have considered themselves one with each other.
In fact, the bizarre truth is that the worst conflicts seem to happen from those who are most like each other, save in minor details: Hutus against Tootsies in Rwanda, Serbs versus Croats in former Yugoslavia, and this past week, I just read of the deaths of hundreds of people in South Sudan because of inter-communal conflict. Having a conflict during a global pandemic ensures that even more people will die.
People simply do not consider themselves one, even with their ethnic or ideological cousins. We tend, instead, to be tribal: viscously tribal. They say that this is how we learned to survive, back when we all wore animal skins and had bones in our noses. We are good at being one with our tribe, but only with our tribe.
So what do we do with texts like this? Well, let us look at it together. First, we remember that this text came from a community of Christians, living at least six decades after Jesus walked the earth. They revered Jesus.
Jesus epitomized for them the possibility of living with a transformative God-consciousness. The historical Jesus attracted many followers, partly because people who were with him experienced the presence of God when he was present. He seemed to exude a confident trust in God.
He spoke of God in intimate terms, calling God, Abba, Father, or more like, “papa.” Jesus had an uncanny ability to see beyond petty and socially-constructed divisions between people, welcoming and loving people who were considered uncouth and undesirable by society.
So the community that the Gospel of John comes from revered Jesus. When John wrote his version of the Jesus-story, he used Jesus to represent God. It is admittedly a bit hard for us to grasp, but in John’s gospel, Jesus literally represents God. So, Jesus and God share the same “glory” which is a word that literally means a brilliantly shining God-ish-ness.
And, to make it clear, John breaks the rules of grammar, portraying Jesus speaking of himself in the third person, not as first-person “me,” but as “Jesus Christ” as Jesus describes “eternal life,” saying, as he prays,
“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
The Mysticism of Jesus and the Early Church
Even though the grammar is weird, the meaning is clear. John’s community experienced a transformed life, by getting to know God through knowing Jesus. Jesus led them to a spirituality of oneness with God.
This is the essence of mysticism, which was clearly practiced by Jesus and by early Christian communities. It is a sad anomaly of history that we gave up mystical experience for theology, creeds, and catechisms.
But anyway, in the early centuries, they were still mystics, and they experienced oneness with God, just as Jesus did.
So, John wrote this section in which he presents Jesus, who stands for God, in prayer to God. So, Jesus’ prayer requests are meant to express God’s will. God’s will for people is for the healing of all of the divisions between each other. He wills for their oneness. Jesus prays,
“that they may be one, as we are one.”
In order for them to be one, Jesus prays for their protection, saying,
“protect them in your name that you have given me”.
What would they need protection from? From all of the forces that subvert God’s will for oneness. What would those be?
There are so many forces against unity. For example, I think we need protection from the forces of tribalism that make it easy to ignore, write-off, or even despise people who are not in our tribe, our race, our religion, our party, our orientation.
When former Evangelical pastor and author Rob Bell wrote his book “Love Wins,” in which he expressed doubt about the existence of hell, another leading Evangelical Theologian tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Belief in hell is a requirement for that tribe.
There are many kinds of tribes these days, with their exclusions and litmus tests. I think today we need protection from the forces of tribalism that make it impossible for Democrats and Republicans to work together for common solutions to the health and economic crisis we are in because of the pandemic.
Covid-19 could have been the common enemy that we all united to fight against together, like the way we united to fight fascism in the Second World War; but instead, we are fighting each other. Our lack of unity literally kills people.
Eternal Life Starting Now
In John, the transformed life that has experienced healing of those divisions is actually called “eternal life” that begins already here and now, in this life. Let us hear it again. Jesus prays,
“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
“Eternal life” is knowing God, and specifically, knowing God in the form of Jesus. For us, God is Jesus-shaped. In other words, although God is a mystery beyond human understanding, there are some things we can say about God.
God must be as compassionate as Jesus was. God must be as inclusive as Jesus was. God must be as responsive to human suffering as Jesus was.
Eternal life begins now, as the kind of transformed life that emulates the Jesus-perspective.
I believe that this kind of transformation comes from mystical practices, like meditation, specifically because those practices help us with the ego; the very basis of our feeling of separation and superiority to other tribes.
The ego wants to be superior and exclusive, to be tribal, but mystics know that that is an illusion; a dangerous, destructive illusion. Meditation, which reduces the ego voice in our heads, is what nearly all mystics practice because it is so effective.
People who have the kind of mystical insight into our essential unity are not in it for themselves; they naturally reach out to help others. John says that God “sent” Jesus into the world.
But, lest we think that this kind of sending happened only once and only to Jesus, let us remember that that was only the first step in the sending process. Later we will hear Jesus say to the disciples,
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”John 20:21
So, a sense of mystical unity leads naturally to a sense of mission. We are one, sent on a mission from God to overcome all the forces of division that separate us.
How? For the historical Jesus it meant having table fellowship that broke down those divisions. It meant conducting his ministry in non-Jewish territory. It meant having conversations with people who had been marginalized, like lepers, women, and Samaritans, and with people who were responsible for marginalizing his people, the Romans, even with Roman soldiers who were implementing the repression.
How about us? It is specifically our mission to reach out to all kinds of people with the belief that, at least in God’s perspective, we are all one.
This fundamental belief draws us to participate in the Interfaith Fellowship. We believe that beneath our external differences, we are all one.
This is also what opens our hearts to the poor among us, as we participate in several feeding ministries like Second Sunday Salvation Army Suppers and weekly collecting canned goods.
We are not above people just because we have been blessed with material resources. At root, we are all one, and we have been sent on a mission in Jesus’ name.
This sense of our foundational oneness opens us to people who have been marginalized in every way, including people with disabilities, people with mental illness, and people who have non-heterosexual orientations.
Before this pandemic hit, we were formulating plans to create a safe space for LGBTQ youth to come for fellowship, for education, and for connection to community resources, like counseling and medical resources.
We have become aware of the huge problem of homelessness and suicidality among those young people, and as people of faith who believe we are essentially one, we feel the call to minister to them.
We will probably never achieve the kind of oneness we seek. The world will never be fully healed of its divisions. There will probably always be tribalism and war, just as there will always be poverty and hunger.
But we are here because we have embraced Jesus’ vision. We believe we have been sent with a purpose to be part of God’s mission of compassion and healing.
We will continue the kinds of mystical ego work that keep our hearts in tune with God’s heart, and leads to transformation. We will affirm together, that despite appearances to the contrary, we are one.