A Journey Toward Oneness (John 17:20-26)
Our Gospel reading today is part of a larger unit that begins in 17:1 as a prayer of Jesus to the Father. Though it’s cast in the form of a prayer, it is intended as instruction to the church. Keep in mind, as in almost all of the discourses in John’s Gospel, these are the words of John as he and his community try to imagine what the living Christ would say to them.
This part of Jesus’ prayer casts a vision for oneness that extends beyond the first disciples of Jesus to embrace those who would come to be disciples after them, and eventually to embrace the world. This prayer nurtures a vision of oneness, which is not limited to Jesus’ disciples, and that shouldn’t surprise since “God so loves the world.” Jesus says that he prays for the oneness or unity of his disciples so that the world may know that God had sent him to be a definitive revelation of God’s love, and so that the world would come to know that God loves them just as much as God loves the unique Son who was sent to incarnate God’s love. That’s what this text says, “The glory that you have given me [the glory here is the glory of a loving relationship, it’s the glory of belonging, of unity] I have given them so that they may be one, as we are one . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me and have love them [the world] even as you have loved me.” Think about this for a moment. What this text is saying is that God loves the world as much as God loves Jesus. What this text is saying is that God loves all God’s children (the world) as much as God loves God’s unique Son who functions as the definitive revelation of that love to the world. Let that sink in sisters and brothers. Jesus beautifully lived out this relationship of oneness, of unity between himself and the Father, God in him and he in God. Now, according to John’s understanding of this relationship, we are invited to share in this very oneness – this special relationship that the unique Son enjoys with the Father. The same relationship Jesus had with the Father is available to you and me. It’s available to the world – to all people everywhere. We are invited to experience the same kind of love. I have no doubt that if many Christians actually understood what this Gospel is saying here, they would accuse John of heresy. How many Christians do you know who think this is possible or think that God loves all people as much as God loves Jesus.
I have shared with you before the story that Tony Campolo tells of being on a landing strip just outside the border of the Dominican Republic in northern Haiti. A small airplane was supposed to pick him up and fly him back to the capital city. As he waited, a woman approached him holding her child in her arms. The baby was emaciated – his arms and legs were like sticks and his stomach swollen from lack of food. She held up her child to Campolo and began to plead with him, “Take my baby! Take my baby!” she cried, “If you don’t take my baby, my baby will die. Please take my baby! Campolo tried to explain why he couldn’t take her baby, but she would not listen. No matter which way he turned, she was in his face, crying, “Please, mister, take my baby! Save my baby.” This mother was desperate. She had no food to give her baby. She could not take care of her baby. She knew that her child’s only chance of survival would be with someone who could provide for her child.
Campolo breathed a sigh of relief when the Piper Cub airplane came into sight. The minute it touched down he ran to meet it. But the woman kept running after him screaming, “Take my baby! Please, take my baby!” Campolo boarded the plane as fast as he could. The woman ran alongside the plane as it started to take off, the child in one arm and with the other banging on the plane. Halfway back to the capital, Campolo says it hit him with a great force. He thought of Matthew 25, where Jesus says to the just, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . in as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” Then he realized that the baby was Jesus.
When we hear Campolo say that the baby was Jesus it would be easy for us to accuse Campolo of being overly dramatic, of stretching the truth. And yet what John is suggesting in this text is that God loves that baby dying of hunger as much as God loves Jesus. Jesus prays that the people of the world will know that God loves them as much as God loves him.
There’s no possibility of oneness, there is no hope for unity in our world around doctrine or agreeing about particular beliefs about God or Jesus or how we understand and interpret the Bible or any other belief we have in our heads. Jean Vanier in his book, Becoming Human, points out that when religion closes people up in their own particular group, and puts belonging to that particular group and the success of that group above love and compassion and good-will toward others, then religion [read that as Christianity] neither nourishes or opens the heart. It simply becomes an ideology that encloses us behind walls. On the other hand, says Vanier, when religion [read that as Christianity] opens our hearts in love and compassion toward those outside our group to help them find the source of freedom in their own hearts where they can grow in love and compassion toward others, then religion is a source of life. I so wish and hope and pray that more of us, especially we who claim to be followers of Jesus, would become sources of life – wellsprings of living water.
Now, in John’s understanding, it’s our mission as followers of Jesus and as a Christ- filled, Christ-centered, and Christ-empowered community to show the world how much God loves the world. It’s in this Gospel where Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And he gives the disciples whom he sends the same authority he had received from God to proclaim acceptance and forgiveness. Our mission as a Christ-centered community is to show the world, to show all the folks with whom we have contact the magnitude of God’s love for them. Period. Before they do or say anything, lest they think they have to earn God’s love by believing the right things, or by doing the right things, or by joining the right group. Our mission is to show the world just how much God loves them right where they are, no strings attached. That’s unconditional love. That’s God’s kind of love.
So how do we do that? How do we demonstrate to the world how much God loves them? One way we do that is by welcoming, accepting, and affirming all people as our brothers and sisters, even though we may be very different religiously, socially, racially, and culturally. We show them by our words and actions that we all belong regardless of our differences. And if we will open our heart to the Spirit of Christ, in our better moments we will know this indeed is true – that we all belong.
It should be the goal of churches and faith communities like ours to both proclaim this oneness and model this oneness, so that those we touch, those we serve, will know they are accepted and loved by God. If we can somehow give the world a glimpse of what this might look in all our diversity, perhaps we could draw more people into it. Who doesn’t really want to be accepted and loved as they are? It is this kind of love that motivates us to become more – to want to grow and enlarge our ability to love.
Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister and a great spiritual writer, says that when the United Nations Conference on Women was scheduled in Beijing, people began to argue that, given the status of women in China, a woman’s conference should not be held there. Sister Chittister took the opposite position. She felt that the low status of women in China was exactly the reason why the conference should be held there. It was not because the messages of the conference would change the Chinese women, for the Chinese government wouldn’t even permit an official delegation of Chinese women to attend it. Rather, argues Chittister, it’s what the Chinese women would see and experience that would change things, at least eventually. They would see women from all over the world walking freely down their streets, being interviewed on their television sets, holding press conferences in their hotels. Such experiences would plant seeds of reformation in their hearts. They would see women, just like themselves, walking free, alone, and proud. Then they would learn who they are, who they could be, without a word having been said.
We have to help people see/envision a new world. That’s our mission. We are not going to reason people into loving and accepting others. We are not going to argue people into a vision of equality and justice. As important as our words are, we are not going talk people into a vision of oneness. Lord knows how hard I have tried. We certainly have to keep preaching and talking, because words do make a difference, but most of all, we need to embody oneness in action through works of compassion and justice.
I so wish more of our churches would let go of their exclusive claim on God. When I look around and see how few churches actually have an inclusive vision the task before us seems almost overwhelming. Most Christians think their mission is to get everyone to believe what they believe and practice their faith the way they do. I think many Christians today are blind to the sexism, racism, exceptionalism, and exclusivism still in our churches and in our own souls, just the way I am sure I am blind to some of my own biases and weaknesses. In our blindness we project our biases and our neediness and our egotism onto God. We imagine God in our image. We make God conform to our human prejudices and limitations. All of us do this, myself included, to some degree. The biblical writers did this. No one is immune to this – we all project our values onto God. If hate is in our hearts, we will read and interpret the scriptures in hateful ways. If love is in our hearts, we will read and interpret the Bible in loving ways. So we must go about this task with humility realizing and admitting our own sins and faults as we try to live out a vision of oneness.
Our mission is to create a spark. Now whether or not the spark ignites into a flame is not up to us. That’s not under our control. Our mission is to plant a seed. We have no control over its growth. Much will depend on the fertility of the soil or should we say soul. Much will depend on the openness and receptivity and condition of the person and community who hears the vision proclaimed and sees the vision embodied, though be it, imperfectly.