Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A
21 May 2023
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
A very dear brother would occasionally say at Bible study, that if he were ever put in a position to save his life by denying his Lord, that he hoped and prayed he would not apostatize. What he had in mind were places where Christians were and continue to be persecuted for their faith.
In the same way we may have asked ourselves whether we, had we lived in Nazi Germany, would have had the moral courage to stand up for those who were persecuted, regardless of the consequences to our own life. And taking this thought a little further, we might have wondered what it would take to produce people who remain true to God and their neighbour no matter the circumstance.
Of course, the Church produced and produces many lives like these, for that is the history of the martyrs. Martyrs are people who are willing to pay the price their convictions demand. And it is instructive to study the lives of the martyrs.
And yet Jesus had said just a few verses before today’s reading, “‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’” (13:36) With this Jesus was not denying that the disciples would become martyrs, but was saying that they could not redeem the world. In this way we understand that Jesus’ going away is both to the cross and to the Father (i.e. his ascension) as Jesus had said in chapter 12, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” a statement that identifies his cross and his glory.
We know that we cannot save the world, as much as we try. Saving the world is something only God can do. Where Jesus goes his disciples cannot follow now. And so it is good for Jesus to remind us that where he is going we cannot come.
In fact, it is probably true that much of what plagues the world are our own messianic aspirations, aspirations we can only have if we consider ourselves, or at least humanity, the measure of all things.
That all our technological progress has brought our own specie to the brink of extinction, because that is what climate change is about, is perhaps the best evidence. Think of how many things we have celebrated as progress but did not truly understand until much later.
This is both anthropocentric and expression of a materialistic world view. You don’t have to be against science to not be able to say that you believe in it. Saving is God’s work, not ours.
This does not leave us without moral agency or mandate, but we must be careful that our moral engagement in the world is not primarily about making others think what we think, because that would not only be an expression of our own anxiety, but also a sign of intellectual poverty.
In chapters 13 to 16 Jesus has prepared the disciples for his departure. In chapter 17 Jesus prays to the Father. Twice Jesus prays for the unity of the disciples, “… protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”1
In a time of hundreds, if not thousands of Christian denominations, this verse has served as a prime witness for the work of ecumenism, for bringing Christians of different denominations together, because it is what Jesus asks.
But who does Jesus ask? Does Jesus ask the disciples, or bishops, or other leaders in the not quite yet existing church? No, Jesus asks the Father, his Father and our Father. And a little while later Jesus prays, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one as we are one.” (v.21)
That means that the unity of the disciples is not created by the disciples, but is rooted in the unity of the Holy Trinity. Jesus prays, “that they may be one a we are one.” Jesus is one with the Father, in faith we are one with Jesus, and through him with the Father. The unity of the church is found in the unity of the Holy Trinity. For the disciples to be one means for the disciples to be in Jesus.
This does not mean that theological, ethical, and structural differences that separate us from one another are indifferent. It does not mean that we should not argue for the right theology, and the right action, it only means that unity does not come about by argument because on the deepest level we do not convince each other, only God breaks down barriers and walls, which seems almost self-evident in an age of tribalism and culture wars. Shouting at each other – not matter how right we may be – will not convince, nor will it lead to unity.
Jesus begins is his prayer with these words, “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 in the next sentence Jesus tells us what it means to have eternal life, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
This is neither only about life after death, or only about life before death, rather eternal life is to be in communion with God. God is eternal and we are not, and being in communion with God who is from everlasting to everlasting makes us become, and becoming is what we are destined to, and by becoming in the sense that God is, God lives in us and we in God.
And that brings us back to the unity of the disciples which is founded on the unity of the Holy Trinity. It also brings us back to our insufficient materialist world view in which humanity sees itself as the centre of the universe, and it brings us back to the question how we can become agents of change, for the unity we find in God is the basis for unity among us. And by posing the question in this way it moves the church from activism, in whichever form and for whatever purpose, to knowing God’s fullness who is all in all. And by activism I mean our attempt to change the world, not our attempt to serve, God, neighbour, and creation. Being in God means lives filled with the Spirit, willing to become bread for the hungry.
Dorothy Day, the pacifist, labour supporter, founder of houses of hospitality for the poor, once said, “The older I get, the more I meet people, the more convinced I am that we must only work on ourselves, to grow in grace. The only thing we ca do about people is to love them.”
In the first letter of John we read, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” That is the source of our unity, the source of our witness, and the strength of Christ’s Church. Martyrdom does not come by accident or will but by the grace of God.
1 17:11 and again in 17:21