One For All and All For One
Scripture: John, chapter 17
Preached on May 21, 2017
@ Trinity U.M. Church, Lafayette
By Tracey Leslie
This morning’s scripture is prayer; a prayer prayed by Jesus on the night before his crucifixion. Now, you might find that to be an odd choice this time of year; you might think it better suited to the season of Lent. But two weeks from today, we will celebrate Pentecost, the religious holiday that commemorates the birth of the Church. And so, this morning’s scripture from the gospel of John is very appropriate because it is a scripture in which Jesus prays for his disciples; in other words, this is a prayer that Jesus prays for us, his Church; a prayer that we might become completely one so that others might come to know God through our oneness or unity.
In the gospel of John, on that final night of his earthly life as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and they shared a meal around the table, Jesus took advantage of that time for some final teaching and to pray to his heavenly Father on behalf of those who sat around him; those who had been an integral part of his life – day in and day out through the mundane and the miraculous – for the three years of his public ministry. He prayed a special blessing over those who loved and trusted him AND on all those who, as a result of their ministry, would also come to love and trust him. So now you see why I say that this morning’s scripture is a prayer for the Church; for disciples throughout history and around the world who love and trust Jesus and share that good news with others.
And I’m hoping you may have noticed that the portions of this prayer that I read focus around this central theme within Jesus’ prayer: the theme of unity or oneness. Jesus prays: “may they be one as we are one.”
Years ago at my church in Gary there was a young man who lived near the church and – on his own – walked to worship nearly every Sunday. He was a thoughtful young man and one day asked me why there were so many different kinds of churches. If we all worshipped Jesus, why did we need so many different denominations? I imagine that’s a question lots of people ask. But frankly, I’m not sure it’s a question of much importance in our current culture. From an historical perspective, denominations were the result of schism and disunity. But I doubt many of us today, as we head to church on Sunday, give much thought to the differences among Catholics or Presbyterians or Baptists. Research tells us many church members can’t even tell you the reasons or the differences that caused those historic schisms. So I don’t believe that denominations in today’s culture are a demonstration of disunity. They’re more about personal preference in styles of worship, location, architecture, what ministries are offered, where one’s friends attend, etc.
But I think the unity for which Jesus prays is something very different: “may they be one as we are one.”
Of all our gospels, the gospel of John employs the most intimate language to describe the relationship Jesus shares with his disciples. Jesus is more than their teacher, their rabbi; Jesus is their friend. He says so on this last night of his life, just shortly before he prays this prayer. He says, “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”[i]
And this concept of unity, I believe, is inexorably linked to this intimacy. Let me say that again: I believe the unity for which Jesus prays isn’t about ideological or even theological uniformity; but rather, it is about intimacy, a relational closeness. Jesus prays to the heavenly Father: “may they be one as we are one.”
As Jesus sat at the table with his disciples on that fateful final night of his earthly life, he employed a metaphor to describe the nature of the relationship he shared with his disciples. He said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”[ii] Using this metaphor of a grapevine and vineyard, Jesus describes himself as the vine, his disciples as branches on the vine, and the heavenly Father as the one who keeps or tends the vineyard so that it will be healthy and fruitful. This is a metaphor that is intimate, organic, nurturing.
We are not commanded merely to believe in the existence of a god; we are invited to enter into relationship with a heavenly Father through his Son who came to make this God known in an authentic and personal way; a Son who prays “may they be one as we are one.” As Jesus unpacks this vineyard image, he is clear – frankly blunt – in describing that branches yielding fruit do so because of their connection with the vine. If they are disconnected from the vine, the branches wither up and die. And so the concept of unity is not so much about theological propositions or concepts as it is about being bound together relationally. Because we are bound to Christ, we are bound to one another. The intimacy of our relationships with one another should be reflective of the intimacy shared between God the Father and God the Son.
Friends, the unity that Jesus prays out upon us is not about us being like robots that always think and act and speak the same. Unity is not the same thing as uniformity. We can disagree over concepts and ideas and still be unified because unity is about relationship. It is about how deeply and firmly we are relationally bound to Jesus AND bound to one another through Jesus.
So, let me cut to the chase. As a Church, if we fail to foster authentic relationships with one another, we disregard – even disrespect – the prayer Jesus prayed on our behalf. This prayer is what Jesus desires for us; what he seeks for our lives. Remember, this prayer encompassed more than the disciples in the room that night. It is about subsequent generations of disciples; season after season of fruitful branches. Jesus desires for us to be as close to one another as he is to his heavenly Father. “May they be one as we are one,” he prays. That is how we live eternally. Eternal life in John’s gospel isn’t about going to heaven when we die. It is about being drawn – right here and now – into a deep and intimate relationship with God because of and through our relationship with Jesus AND… AND with one another. That is eternal life.
In other words, if Trinity is your church home, but the people in this room with you this morning aren’t the people you are living your life with day in and day out; then something has gone wrong, terribly wrong. Too many people today believe that religious faith is a private thing; but it’s not. Faith is communal; it’s about relationships and faith can’t exist independent of a faith community. It involves more than our relationship with Jesus; it involves our relationships with one another. The depth of our relationship with Jesus and the depth of our relationships with one another are not two separate things; at least not according to Jesus. We are called to live as one, in unity, a living organism, a body, a fruitful vine. “May they be one as we are one,” Jesus prays.
I’m concerned that many folks today define “church” as a not-for-profit organization. Now, it’s true that for the sake of legality and tax code we are categorized as an NPO. But Church is much more than an organization where we serve on committees or show up to put in our volunteer hours. Church is, first and foremost, about relationship.
Some of you know that my dad died from Alzheimer’s. By the time of his diagnosis, my mom and brother were already deceased. It was left to my sister and me to care for my dad. My dad and my sister lived back in Johnstown, PA and so about four times a year, I would take almost a full week and go back to Johnstown to help my dad and sister with doctor appointments, his living arrangements, his bills and finances, assessments of his health, etc. Those were important tasks. But I didn’t go to Johnstown because there were important tasks to be done; I went because I loved my dad and I love my sister. Hard as it was, I wanted that time with my dad. I wanted to keep as much of a connection with him as was possible. I wanted to support my sister and encourage her. She was the one doing the heavy lifting; being there day after day, year in and year out. At some point on each visit, she and I would go out to dinner together to just enjoy some time with one another. We could laugh; we could cry; we could just be together. My sister and I were joined together through this amazing man who’d given us life and raised us so well and taught us how to live. Those trips to Johnstown included tasks and duties; but they weren’t about those tasks and duties. They were about relationships. And that’s what Church is about.
Yesterday morning a bunch of us showed up for the garden planting. By 10 o’clock – our formal start time – it was raining. I got there late… ‘cause it was morning and I’m not a morning person. Folks were down in the Friendship Room sitting around the tables eating donut holes and we sat there for about 45 minutes and talked. Was it because we didn’t have anywhere else to go or anything else to do? No; we’re all busy people. But we sat around the tables and talked because that’s what friends and family do; we share our lives.
Brothers and sisters, just this week Trinity received notice from the conference that we were awarded a grant to fund some new outreach initiatives and those initiatives are all about relationships; relationships with Jesus and with one another. That little song we learned in Sunday School is good theology: the Church is not a building, the Church is not a steeple; the Church is a people… people whose lives are sustained not only through our relationship with Jesus but also through our relationships with one another.
Jesus didn’t pray that we’d show up for worship 3 weeks out of 4 each month. He didn’t pray that we’d show up each month for our committee meetings. Jesus wants for us something far more important than “showing up.” He wants us to be united to him and to each other. That’s why he prayed, “May they be one as we are one.”
Now, I’m not saying you need to show up every time the doors of the church are unlocked. Some people are introverts and they need a little time for themselves. Likewise, there are seasons and situations in people’s lives that might make it difficult to be as engaged at church. But if that’s been the story of your life for more than a couple of years, then something’s gone amuck… ‘cause here’s the thing: if, for example, someone is missing out on being here because they’re caring for a sick spouse; well then, from time to time, we ought to be calling them and saying things like, “Hey, I’d like to sit with your husband/ your wife this Sunday so you can go to church and then out to lunch and have a chance to connect with folks.” That’s what Church is about. For the Church to truly be the Church, we need to do life together because Jesus desires for us to be as close to one another as he is to the heavenly Father.
Jesus prays, “May they be one as we are one.”
So, I thought I’d end my sermon this morning with just a few practical applications for how to live out our life together; to live into the kind of unity and oneness Jesus prays for us.
[i] John 15:15 b
[ii] John 15:5a
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