Text: John 17-20-26
The story is told of a preacher who was shaking hands at the door of the church after the Sunday morning sermon. One outspoken member of the congregation thanked the pastor for both messages. “But I only preached once this morning,” the preacher gently corrected. “Well, pastor, I meant the one you preached and the one you prayed.” I hope that will not be your response this morning.
Six times the gospels record words that Jesus spoke in prayer. In both Matthew and Luke, we find the prayer Jesus prays as his frustration builds over who gets his message and who doesn’t. He prays: “I thank you, Lord, of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” In this short but to the point prayer Jesus shows his preference for those who are “infants” – the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted, all who Jesus calls blessed; the sick and the lame, the lepers and demon-possessed, the tax collectors and sinners, who come to Jesus for healing of body and spirit. It is these, over the wise and intelligent and important ones – the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders and those who hold places of power and privilege that Jesus thanks God for. I love this honest prayer: Jesus giving thanks to God for ignoring the know-it-alls and the elites and sending him some ordinary, down-to-earth, broken people who get what he is trying to do and say. It is a prayer that the church would do well to keep in its lexicon.
Moving on, three of the gospels record a prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, each giving their version of the prayer, “If it is possible, let this cup pass me by.” Those same three gospels – Luke, Matthew, and Mark – also record Jesus’ prayer on the cross, again each offering their version: “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Prayers, gut-wrenching prayers, uttered by our brother Jesus.
Characteristic of the writer of the gospel of John none of those prayers are included in his narrative. Instead, he makes note of three other prayers that Jesus prayed. First, the writer of John’s gospel records Jesus praying before the raising of Lazarus. Then in the following chapter, chapter 12, Jesus prays again, as he announces to his disciples that his hour has come. “Now,” he prays, “Now my soul is troubled.” (I don’t know about you but I find myself praying that prayer often these days.) And then in John 17, just before his betrayal and arrest and crucifixion, we read the longest recorded public prayer that Jesus prayed. It is called the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. Following in the tradition of priestly prayers, he prays for himself (reminding us that it is okay for us to pray for ourselves). Then he prays for his disciples and finally, he prays for the oneness of those who will become his disciples for all generations to come. And that’s us!
I want to spend a few minutes with you this morning thinking about this prayer, and specifically the oneness that Jesus prays for and what a “oneness theology” might look like.
The past several months, and especially the last week, have felt like an obstacle course in oneness challenges. As our congregation moved through an emotional conversation about our denominational identity, our oneness – our unity – was challenged as we listened to one another give witness to the desires of some to stay within the America Baptist denomination and the desires of others to leave. While listening to the conversation, I would often think: “How do we stay united when divided on such matters of importance?” And then this past week, as Bryan Lee, our youth minister, raised concerns about the social and academic culture at one of our high schools and the flurry of diverse responses that followed, I asked again, “How do we stay united when divided on matters of such importance?” As a diverse people our oneness, our unity, is always being challenged – sometimes in very visible ways but most often in less visible, less hot topic ways. Whether it is about mission, leadership, money, facility use, worship style, speaking out on social justice issues – name any aspect of our life together as a church – we are constantly trying to figure out how to stay connected and united as one people who hold different views and ideas and needs.
And it’s not just a question within the church. Our oneness as a nation is being challenged in profound and complex ways. Our oneness as family units is being challenged on unprecedented fronts as politics and religion divide us in ways never before felt. And maybe because we are feeling the challenge on such a national and global level we feel it all the more keenly within our faith community. So reading about Jesus praying for our oneness seems quite relevant for today. And so I ask this morning, “What does this oneness that Jesus prayed for mean, and what (maybe just as importantly) does it NOT mean?”
In Pullen tradition, let me start with what I think it doesn’t mean. I don’t think this oneness that Jesus prayed for means sameness. It seems to me, though, that we often confuse oneness with sameness. I know I have fallen into that trap on many occasions. As good caring people, instead of celebrating our differences, we often allow our differences to divide us. We get sideways with one another when we give voice to differing opinions. We personalize our differences thinking and feeling that if you don’t think the same about an issue as I do, or if what you believe is not the same as I believe, or if you don’t vote the same as I do then you don’t like me. And if we don’t think the same or believe the same or stand for the same issues then we are not one, we are divided. It is a dangerous trap – one that our nation is caught in. But oneness does not mean sameness!
Nowhere in scripture can I find where it says everyone must be the same – must think alike, look alike, believe alike. Rather, everywhere in our sacred text there is affirmation for difference and uniqueness, beginning with the very first verses of our sacred text: there are heaven and earth; light and darkness; waters and land; plants of all varieties; sun and moon; creatures that swim in the water, creatures that fly in the sky and creatures that crawl on the ground; creatures with four legs and creatures with two legs. There’s not just one tribe but 12 tribes of Israel. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians “to one is given the utterance of wisdom, to another knowledge, to another the gifts of healing, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy. Yet, Paul writes we are one in the spirit. Obviously, at least from a biblical perspective, oneness does not mean sameness.
Neither does oneness mean always agreeing with one another. How boring would it be to live in a world where everyone always agreed with one another? Yes, on occasion, I would like for at least a couple of people to occasionally agree with me? Sure. But this I know, over the last 27 years I have grown spiritually, mentally and emotionally in oneness with this congregation because of our places of difference in thought and ideas. Our differences have stretched me, encouraged me and helped me to clarify who I am and the values I hold. Pullen, at least for me, has always been that place where people could agree to disagree and maintain oneness as a community. We would be wise to pause here and pray, asking God to help us to hold on to and deepen our commitment to being a community where we agree to disagree and still remain one in these times of great division in our nation and world.
No, oneness does not mean sameness. And neither does oneness mean always agreeing with one another.
The oneness Jesus prayed for, I believe, means making space for the other – the other who is different from us – while holding together the single purpose of loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Oneness, as a person of faith, means respecting the religious convictions of another even though they do not represent my own. At the very heart of oneness is being able to see the divine presence of God in another when they don’t look like you, think like you, believe like you, worship like you, speak like you. If we peeled back the layers of oneness, at the very core – at the very center – we would find that space that celebrates and honors our differences. Indeed, it is in honoring and celebrating our differences that we discover the unexpected path to oneness. Nothing has taught me this lesson more than my interfaith work.
I am a Christian. And I have oneness, a profound oneness, with my Jewish sister, Rabbi Lucy Dinner. I am a Christian. And I have oneness, a beautiful oneness, with my Muslim brother, Imam Abdullah Antepli. I am a liberal Christian. And I have oneness with my theologically conservative biological sister. I am a Social Democrat. And I have oneness with my conservative Republican father. It is not always easy to see that oneness, especially if I’m just looking at controversial world issues or political positions or theological arguments. But if I am looking into the face of another human being or another living creature with an open heart willing to see the face of God in the person before me, oneness, I have found, becomes not only a possibility but a high probability.
I know. I know what you are thinking. I know because I’ve asked myself the same question, “Can I have oneness with the person who occupies the highest office of our nation?” My conclusion is this.
While oneness does not require sameness and while oneness does not require agreement; and while oneness DOES require making space for differences, I must conclude that as a Christian I am compelled to consider the possibility of having oneness with the person who occupies the highest office of our nation, even though I disagree and hold disdain for his every word and his every action. And just to be clear, I am not talking about a kum ba yah oneness or a cheap grace oneness. I am talking about a oneness that often requires repentance and reconciliation.
Oneness does not require me to be silent in the face of hate. Oneness does not require me to forego my values and passions to “keep the peace.” Oneness does not ask me to go along with the majority when the majority is choosing fear over compassion and walls over hospitality and actions that have no regard for loving my neighbor. No, oneness simply requires me to keep my heart open to seeing God’s divine reflection in that which is different and in those who are different, even when I deeply disagree with every aspect of their being.
John 17 is a prayer in which Jesus prays for oneness among those who call themselves his disciples for all generations to come. This week, Franklin Graham, who I struggle to feel any oneness with, has asked Christians all across our nation to take this Sunday and pray for our president. In his words, prayer is the only way to save our nation and our president. And so today, in the spirit of oneness that Jesus prayed we might have, I offer this sincere prayer.
To you God, who broke open the hardened heart of Pharoah,
To you God, who wrestled with Jacob until he heard you calling
To you God, who called forth Esther and Miriam to actively liberate their people,
To you God, who opened the ears of Moses to the cries of his
To you God, who raised Lazarus from the dead to life again,
To you God, who welcomed home the prodigal child,
I pray that in your grace and mercy the President of the United States of America would break open his hardened heart, that he would wrestle with his better self until he is blessed with your presence, that he would open his ears to the cries of those suffering and in pain, that he would allow himself to be raised from the death of fear to a life filled with compassion, and that he would know that you stand ready to welcome him home with grace and mercy, and even with celebration.
And God, I also pray that if this president continues the path of hateful and divisive rhetoric, if he continues to stand on the side of fear, if he continues to create hostility toward immigrants and refugees, if he continues to refuse the truth, if he continues to promote white nationalism, if he continues to undermine the democracy of our nation, I pray that the people of this nation will rise up and call for his removal.
God of all mystery and miracles, for the soul of our nation, for the wellness and oneness of her people, I pray that the President of the United States would find his moral compass and set his face toward justice – toward loving you with all his heart, mind, soul and strength and his neighbor as himself. And if he can’t or if he doesn’t, then I pray for his removal from office.
And it is in your spirit of oneness I offer this prayer. Amen.
Oneness does not require us to be silent in the face of hate. Oneness does not require us to forego our values and passions just to “keep the peace.” Oneness does not ask us to go along with the majority when the majority is choosing fear over compassion and walls over hospitality and actions that show no love for one’s neighbor. Oneness simply requires us to keep our hearts open to pray that we may see God’s divine reflection in that which is different and in those who are different, even when in profound disagreement.
Jesus prayed for us that we might know oneness with God and with each other. May we set our minds and hearts to such oneness.