That they may all be one
Acts 16.16-34, Revelation 22.12-end, John 17.20-end
Our Gospel reading today, like those we have heard over the last few weeks, is taken from John's account of Jesus's words to his disciples on the night before he died – words which we can imagine those disciples returning to over and over again as they waited anxiously in Jerusalem after the Ascension, not knowing what might happen next. Today's verses are the culmination of what we might call Jesus's last sermon: his prayer for those he has travelled with through the three years of his ministry. But not just for them; this prayer is also, explicitly, for us as well. 'Holy Father, I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.' And the heart of Jesus's prayer is this request; 'that they may all be one, as we are one.'
How can we begin to understand this, let alone put it into practice? Let's start by thinking about how Jesus and his Father are one. Without, I hope, trespassing on what Ben might want to say on Trinity Sunday in a couple of weeks' time, I would put it like this: Jesus is the human face of God. He shows everything that we, as human beings, can know and need to know about God. 'He is the image of the invisible God', writes Paul in his letter to the Colossians. 'In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.' Or, in the lovely words of Bishop John Taylor, 'God is Christlike, and in him is no unChristlikeness at all'.
In Morning Prayer at the moment, we are ploughing through the Book of Numbers, where God is often shown as terrifying, capricious and vengeful. Nothing could be further from the God revealed to us in Christ, a God of boundless compassion and love, especially for those on the margins of society; a God who feeds the hungry and searches all night for the lost sheep, who runs through the dust to embrace the prodigal son. No wonder this radical vision of who and what God is led Jesus to the Cross, but not even death could defeat that divine and all-embracing love.
After the Ascension, the task of showing the world the human face of God was given first to the disciples at Pentecost and then passed through the generations to those of us who believe today. How on earth can we live up to this calling? The first thing to say is that we cannot do it alone, nor are we meant to. None of us is Christ, but there is something of Christ in each of us, which we bring together in our church communities. So the unity to which we are called is not uniformity. In fact, the more diverse we are the greater the image of God we can share. Paul famously describes the Christian community as the body of Christ, and also as an orchestra. Just as a body made up entirely of eyes or legs cannot function, and an orchestra composed of double basses cannot play a Mozart symphony, we need to embrace our diversity if we are to share God's love with the world as Jesus asks us to do.
The church worldwide has a terrible record of allowing our differences to divide us rather than unite us. How can we do better? Recently I came across a passage from the American Christian writer Brian McLaren about reading the Bible together, which I find helpful. This is what he says:
If we enter the text together and feel the flow of its arguments, get stuck in its points of tension, and struggle with its unfolding plot in all its twists and turns, God's revelation can happen to us. We need to put ourselves in the story, in the community of people who keep bumping into the living God in the midst of their experiences of loving God, betraying God, losing God and being found again by God. By placing ourselves in the text, I hope this approach can help us enter and abide in the presence, love and reverence of the living God all the days of our lives and in God's mission as humble, wholehearted servants day by day and moment by moment. Even now.
So I invite you to place yourselves in the text of the Bible readings we have heard today, with Paul and Silas praying and singing in the prison as the earthquake strikes; with John as he hears the voice of Jesus promise the water of life to all who are thirsty; with the disciples at the Last Supper as Jesus prays for them and for us. And may the great story of salvation in which we live and move draw us closer to one another, that together we may show the world the human face of our loving God.
Reverend Canon Judith Egar 29th May 2022 St Anne Lewes