On this final Sunday of the Easter Season, our gospel reading is the end of the prayer that Jesus offers after washing his disciples feet at the Last Supper. Immediately after these words Jesus and his disciples leave the Upper Room and cross the Kidron Valley in the darkness of night and come to the garden where Jesus will be taken captive.
It may seem out of place to consider this prayer so late in the Easter Season, long after Holy Week. Here we are, after all, in that period between the ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But the content of this great high priestly prayer has everything to do with what is about to happen on Pentecost.
Jesus prays for his disciples that they might be one even as he and the Father are one. He prays that his followers in every generation will be unified, for it is by this unity that the world will come to believe that he has been sent by the Father. These are themes about which Jesus prays on the night before his death. And they are themes about which he prays as he makes intercession on our behalf.
Jesus wants his disciples to be one. This seems like a safe request, until we consider it closely! Jesus wants his disciples to be one in a world marked by countless divisions of one group of people over against another. The division of Christians is contrary to what Jesus wants and to what God desires.
We have here a mandate for the abolishment of all divisions within the Church which set one group of people against another. Christian unity is not intended by Jesus to be simply an in-house issue. It is essential to our witness in the world. The Church's mission, so the Catechism of the Episcopal Church says, "is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ."
The Church is God's own unity movement. Because of this, we cannot fault the world if it looks to the Church to demonstrate in itself the unity that the Church is pledged to achieve. We cannot fault the world when it asks the Church to practice what it preaches.
I believe that when God looks at us, God desires for us to see others as our family, not as isolated individuals, but as persons in community with one another. God desires for us to not only live in harmony with one another, but that we might be one as God is one, in loving community with one another.
If that is how God desires to sees us, then maybe that needs to be the way we see ourselves. St. Paul caught this message when he declares in his Letter to the Galatians, that in Christ there is "neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one", he tells the Galatian Christians, "in Christ Jesus."
Paul is insisting so much on the unity of Christians that he declares they are no longer separated from each other by three causes of separation dominant in his world: ethnicity, social status, and gender. He does not claim these characteristics are abolished, but he insists that for Christians these are no longer factors that separate people into antagonistic sides. In the Christian community, Gentiles and Jews find themselves one, as do slaves and masters, women and men.
The old order is dead. The resurrection of Jesus brings with it a new world in which those once at odds are now reconciled and united. Paul is announcing what God desires, and inviting his contemporaries to see it that way also, and to live out the consequences.
I believe that Jesus prays for his disciples to be one because he knows our human nature is to try protect ourselves by isolating ourselves, but that is no protection at all. Isolation leads to self-delusion. It is only in relationship with those who hold differing perspectives, who are in fact different that we can see the whole picture of who God desires us to be.
Our unity is not uniformity, reducing everybody to a dull and flat sameness. Instead, the differences are to be barriers no longer. The diversity is not a cause for antagonism. It is to be revealed as what it is: an enrichment for everyone.
The categories mentioned by St. Paul are still causes for concern today.
• Are people in today's world sometimes divided by ethnicity?
• Are people in today's world divided by social class?
• Are people in today's world divided by gender?
Yes, women make on average 70% of what a man does.
Jesus praying in the Upper Room that his disciples may be one is dangerous business. No wonder he gets nailed to a cross.
St. Paul delegitimizing the prejudices of the ancient world is dangerous business. No wonder his head was cut off.
Today's Church recognizing how Jesus calls us to be one, and rejecting all barriers, old and new, that prevent unity in Christ: this too is dangerous business.
It means we're challenging somebody's arrogance, even our own.
But as Jesus himself prays, only by our unity, our no-nonsense embrace of one another, will the world come to see who God truly is as revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
May we be one as he and the Father are one!