President Jennings preached this sermon on July 6, 2018 at the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.
In the Name of God. Amen.
In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah imagines a world in which “not even fools shall go astray.” In the next ten minutes I may provide you with ample evidence that this world is not yet with us. But I hope not.
People who study the Bible closely, and that probably includes most of the people in this hall tonight, are at risk of developing an understandable but unhelpful habit. And that is, we can be a little too diligent for our own good. My brother and sister preachers, which of us, when wrestling with this evening’s Gospel, hasn’t fretted about what we want to say about Christian unity in the face of deep divides among Christians in the United States? Bible students: Which of us hasn’t been confused by the multiple meanings of the word “world” which occurs eight times in fewer than 225 words in today’s gospel and even more in the longer discourse from which it is taken?
That’s important work, and may God guide our efforts, but you can’t spend so much time digging that you miss the shimmering jewels that are right on the surface. So this evening, I’d like to remind you of one undisputed and underappreciated fact: According to this gospel, Jesus prays for us. Jesus prays for us.
It’s right there in the first part of verse 20. “I ask not only on behalf of these” meaning those in the upper room with him, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”
That’s you. That’s me. That’s everybody in our churches back home. Jesus is praying for us.
I’ll get to what he’s praying for in a minute, but let’s just sit for a moment with the fact that the Son of God is praying for us. You and I live in a culture that hungers for affirmation and is consuming a lot of empty calories in an attempt to satisfy this need. Motivation Mondays. Hashtag: Transformational Tuesdays. We are urged to think better of ourselves by posters on corporate walls and verses on mugs of coffee. We can go online and learn ways to “banish negative self-talk.” And while I don’t doubt that these practices can be helpful, the fact that we are constantly being told that we are worth something suggests that we don’t entirely believe it.
So the next time you need to “silence your inner critic,” remind yourself that Jesus is praying for you. It’s a pretty solid rejoinder.
Now, since we are talking about the gospel and not a self-help manual, I should say a little bit about what Jesus meant when he prayed “that they all may be one.” Unity is important. More about that in a minute.
But what strikes me most in this passage isn’t just what Jesus says, but the earnest vulnerability with which he says it. These aren’t the words of someone who is checking in with headquarters and letting the boss know that it is time to activate the next phase of the plan for divine salvation. This is someone imploring, interceding on behalf of people whom he loves and—let’s be honest about this—for whom he fears. Because you don’t ask God to protect those who aren’t danger.
Why does Jesus fear for his disciples, and, by extension, for us? The world will misunderstand and persecute us. We’ll be vulnerable to the evil one. And, let’s face it, Jesus knew these people, and he knows us. We are kind of a mess. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we can resist anything except temptation. And when the temptation to turn on one another, to seek advantage, to prevail in matters large and small overtakes us, it fractures the unity for which Jesus prays.
Now, we might legitimately ask ourselves why unity is so important. The church was divided by factions for decades before the gospel of John was written, as we learn in the Bible itself. In Christian history, two different schisms have vied for the title of The Great Schism, and if you spend any time researching ecumenical matters online, you will learn that each side has partisans willing to argue their positions late into the night. Also, our beloved church was born of a) the English Reformation and b) colonialism, neither of which was characterized by unity or charity.
Christians have significant internal disagreements. I don’t find that a scandal. But the disagreements keep us from working together. That’s where the scandal lies.
To understand why, we only need to turn to our first reading. Isaiah shows us a vision of a redeemed Zion in which a desert blooms and dangerous places are made safe. I think it is important to note, in terms of what God is up to in the world, that it isn’t just humanity that is redeemed in this vision, but creation itself. Isaiah endows creation with emotions. The wilderness and the dry land “shall be glad.” The desert “shall rejoice.” And God’s people will be full of purpose.
So how do we get from here to there — from our current reality to that magnificent vision? Our reading tells us the Lord put things right, coming with “terrible recompense.” That’s family-friendly phrasing. The previous chapter of Isaiah has rotting corpses and mountains flowing with blood and some business about rams’ kidneys that I will not go into tonight.
But we don’t need to delve too deeply into what you might call Isaiah’s theory of change to understand that transformations of that magnitude does not come without a struggle. We know that the powers and principalities of our time need to be resisted, that a world of false values will not fade away unless they are opposed by people who to quote, um, Jesus, have been “sent into the world” and “sanctified in truth.”
And remember: That’s you. That’s me. That’s everybody in our churches back home.
And how are we to carry out this work God has given us to do? The author of our reading from Ephesians “begs” us to go at it “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
I don’t know about you, but when I am in the midst of resisting principalities and powers, acting with humility and gentleness are not my first impulses. Yet this is what we are called to. But notice one thing: the person offering this advice refers to himself as a prisoner. Someone who did something for which he got arrested.
We are not being urged in this passage to be submissive, we are not being asked or advised to avoid conflict, we are not being advised to refrain from speaking dangerous truths. We are being advised on how to comport ourselves when we speak those truths and—perhaps most importantly for those of us gathered here today—we are being advised on how to behave toward one another so as to remind ourselves of what our truths are and how we can best express them.
Our readings give us a vision. They give us a commission. And they give us work—work that we cannot do without God’s help and that will not be completed in our lifetimes. But they also give us perhaps the greatest encouragement we can possibly have: Jesus is praying for us.