Sermon for Seventh Easter A, June 1, 2014 on John 17:1–11
Exodus 12:31 – 38
The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds.
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.”
I never took Latin – though I wish I had. I wanted my sons to take it, but when Ben was in school it was not even offered. Nathan could have taken it as an online course, but did not. I did not push it because of my uncertainty of the quality of an online ancient language class. So we are not a Latin-educated family. I suspect we are in good company. But one phrase you cannot get through school in America without learning is “e pluribus unum,” “out of many, one.”
That phrase is written on the banner held in the beak of the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States. That Seal shows up on our money, so we all carry around this Latin phrase all the time.
It is a fitting phrase for our country: we are one nation out of many nations. One people out of many different ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds. It is both literally true – we are one nation made up of people from across the globe – as well as being an aspiration which is never fully achieved. Our differences divide us.
Nevertheless we all want to affirm that aspiration to be “e pluribus unum;” one out of many. That means we share this basic commitment to live together in this country as one people, even though we have obvious and deep differences. We share a commitment to overcome our impulse to prefer “us” against “them;” our kind of people against the other kind of people.
Unity like this is difficult to achieve. It runs counter to our impulses. It is always much easier to break down unity than to create it. In fact the easiest way for a person who wants be a leader to get followers is to convince people that there is a an enemy they need to fear and to fight – in other words, a scapegoat – and that enemy is usually near, not distant; often inside the group itself, not outside.
So unity is broken in order to fight off the supposed dangers from from within, like the Jews, according to Hitler and Mussolini, or the subversive “wreckers,” according to Stalin, or the Communists according to McCarthy, or the Croats and Muslims according to Milosevic – it is a tired old formula. Breaking unity is an age-old path to power. Wasn’t it Caesar who said “divide et impera” – “divide and rule”?
It is difficult to get people who think of themselves as different to live and act in unity. Unity is easier if people think of themselves as the same at some fundamental level, despite surface difference. I recently heard someone say that in the second World War, because American soldiers fought side by side, black and white, it became harder afterwards for them to hold racist ideas.
But there is one major problem with the phrase “e pluribus unum” “from many, one.” We are not really many at all. We are already one. The tragedy is that we do not know it.
I recently heard the story of a Hungarian man, Csanád Szegedi, a former leader of a far-right, anti-Semitic party in Hungary called Jobbik.
Eventually, Szegedi went from being the leader of a nationalist and anti-Semitic party to embracing his own Jewishness. This story may seem weird, but I promise, this sermon is going to get weirder.
But before we get in to the weirdness, let us notice this: In some ways Szegedi’s story is potentially our story too. Not that we are covertly Jewish, but that at the most fundamental level, we are not different, but the same: not many, but one.
Let us being with an odd question: what makes a person Jewish? In the founding story of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, we read that the people who made the original journey across the Red Sea were a “mixed crowd,” meaning, descendants of Abraham and descendants of other ancestors too (Exodus 2:38). From the beginning, there was ethnic diversity.
But to further trouble the waters, scientists know that there is no such thing as race as a biological concept. There is as great a diversity genetically within any given group that we identify racially as between them. Race itself is a fiction. Skin pigmentation and hair and eye color are all subject to evolutionary change.
So it’s not really the case that Szegedi was Jewish and did not know it: it is really the case that ethnicity is a cultural concept. You may as well divide up the world into musical preferences as into racial categories. Fundamentally, we are not “many” but “one” already.
Faith and Unity
If we consider for a moment what it means that we worship a God whom we call Creator, none of this should surprise us. In the biblical story, we all descended from one pair, made in the image of God.
If this metaphor means anything, it surely means that whatever differences we perceive now that divide us are insubstantial compared to what connects us together. We are all humans, all a part of the human race – and there is only one of them.
We humans maintain the fiction of our essential difference for one reason: power. The group in power wants to stay in power, and does so by two moves: one, it distinguishes itself from other groups somehow – tribe, skin color, language, religion, accent, whatever.
For example, a huge sense of male entitlement based on power is now being unveiled by the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen. It was sparked by Elliot Rodger’s murder of six people on May 23rd in Isla Vista, California. He explained the reasons for his rage in a 140-page misogynist manifesto, proclaiming his hatred of women whom he feels, rejected him.
Women are now coming out in places like Twitter with their stories of everyday sexism at the hands of men who feel “entitled” in relation to women. Of course men feel entitled: we have always had the power. This is not just about Sudanese honor killings, this is about how, yes, in fact “all women” get treated by men.
Again, our Creation story gives us all we need to debunk the myth of male entitlement: both male and female are equally created in the image of God. We are differently gendered, but equally human.
But we have more than the Creation story to consider. Jesus himself prayed that his followers would know that they were one. Question: do you think Jesus included the women that were part of that discipleship community in his prayer for unity? Of course!
Weirdness and Unity
I promised that there was weirdness coming, and here it is. Now we know from the scientific community, that there is a further and deeper sense in which we are not “many” but actually “one.” We all share elements of the one universe we live in. We all have carbon in our bodies that was formed in the Big Bang.
In fact, to go even deeper, it is not at all clear what the difference is between the material world and (what we have been used to thinking of as) the non-material world. Matter is simply one form of energy.
For people of faith this is interesting to mull over. If, as we say, God is the ultimate source of everything that exists, then the universe itself really is one at its core. God is the ultimate source of everything, and so, we could say, everything exists “in God.” “In him we live and move and have our being” as Paul said, quoting a Greek poet affirmatively.
So this opens our eyes too see more clearly what Jesus actually said in the text we read. It is not only that the disciples, men and women, should see themselves as one with each other. More to the point, they should all come to know that they are one with God, just as Jesus is one with the Father.
Let us hear it again:
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
If we could come to know and to embrace our true identity as children of God, one with God, alive in and through God, moment by moment, it would transform our lives. If we could grasp our union with Christ and with God the Father, and live into that identity, think of what that could mean.
Finding our identity in oneness with God would mean that we would feel loved and forgiven instead of alienated and guilty. It would mean that we knew in our deepest hearts that God was for us, not against us. It would mean that we could relax and trust that God is in control. It would mean that we could accept our mortality and the fact that we do not live forever in this world.
Knowing ourselves as one with God would mean that everything else that defines us really doesn’t. It would mean that we do not have to be defensive about who we are as defined by the roles we play and titles we wear – the externals that make up what Rohr calls the “false self” or the “small self”.
It would matter less and offend us less if someone didn’t like our identity as Protestant or as American or as a Republican or Democrat or Independent, or a Caucasian, or even as a man or woman, because we know who we are in God is most essential and most true.
And, knowing our true identity as one with God would mean that we could see though the illusion of our separateness. We could embrace each other as equals; Caucasians and non-caucasians, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and even atheists as humans, with no claims to entitlement, no will to power.
If we knew this, we men would have to start treating women better.
We whites would have to start looking at discrimination and immigration from a new perspective.
We middle class Protestants would have to examine all the ways we feel entitled to the privilege we have enjoyed all our lives, and we would have to consider what it would mean to live on the other side of those descriptors.
The same with straight people in relation to gay people.
We would have to look across our generational divisions from both sides in more compassionate and understanding ways – older to younger and younger to older.
In short, to know ourselves as one in God would mean to finally get what Jesus was demonstrating and talking about – inviting us to live in the Kingdom of God with a Heavenly Father as the one in whom we trust, and the one to whom we pray, as Paul said:
“one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:5-6)
So, not “E Pluribus Unum:” but rather, total unum without the pretense of pluribus.