(A sermon based on John 17:20-26 for the Seventh Sunday of Easter)
When a family manages, through all the turmoil and calm, through all the bad and good, through all the change and the sameness, to hang in there and still be a family, what is it that holds that family together? On Mother’s Day, we naturally expect the answer to be “Mother” or “Mom” or “Mama”—or whatever your family’s preferred title is. And that would be an accurate answer for many of our families, although for some it would be “Father” or “Grandparent” or “Big Sister or Brother” or “Foster Parent” or someone else. There often is a person who functions as the family’s “glue.”
The real answer to the question, though—and it’s an answer for which those other answers can and do stand—is “love.” The glue that holds a family together is love, and such love is selfless love, self-giving love, and self-sacrificing love. And such love leads the one who has it to offer a lot of prayer for the family.
The Church is a family, too. We are a big, spread out all over the world kind of family; we have millions of sisters and brothers that we have never seen and that we will never meet. We love each other and show that love by praying for each other.
But the Church is also a local, right here with each other kind of family; we have dozens of sisters and brothers that we see all the time both in the church building and out in the community. It’s remarkable that the universal Church has held together for two thousand years and that this particular church has held together for over a hundred years. The church universal and the church local have many problems and struggles and even divisions but nonetheless we can still affirm that there is indeed “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
Jesus loves us, this we know. Because loves us he prayed for us. Our staying together is an answer to our Savior’s prayer.
Today’s text is the last part of a prayer prayed by Jesus on the night that he was betrayed and arrested. In the first part of that prayer he prayed for those who had followed him during his life while in the second part he prayed for all of those who would believe in him through the words of his apostles—and that includes us. So here we have a prayer that Jesus prayed for us! And in that prayer he prayed that we would be together—that we would be one.
When we are a unity we are an answer to Jesus’ prayer; when we are a unity we are experiencing and expressing the life of Jesus—indeed, the very life of God—in our life as a community, in our life as a church.
Unity is not the same thing as uniformity, though. We are united but we are not alike. We walk together but we do not walk in lockstep. Jesus prayed that we would be one as the Father and he are one. Now, while the relationships between the persons of the Trinity are complex, this much is clear: for the Father and the Son to be one does not mean that they are the same; if they were, it would make no sense for Jesus to pray to the Father, which he did regularly.
And yet the Father and Son are one and Jesus prayed that we would be one in the same way; indeed, he also prayed that we would be one with them!
There is something powerful and mysterious about all of this. It is awe-inspiring and challenging.
Still, our text points us toward an answer to this important question: What kind of unity can we share with God and with each other? The answer is that we can share the unity of love that leads to the glory of sacrifice and giving.
The love that the Father has for the Son caused the Son to give his life away; that same love will cause us to give our lives away. Love leads to glory but the way to glory leads through the cross.
This is the miracle of being the Church; this is the miracle of being Christian; this is the miracle of being united with God and with each other.
We are a unity with God and with each other when God’s love leads us to give ourselves away. The Christian life is not about saving ourselves; it is about giving ourselves away. That is the key to being a Christian family and it is the key to being a Christian Church.
This week I saw a poem that said very well what I’m stumbling around trying to say. It’s called “Are You Saved?”
All this talk of saving souls,
Souls weren’t meant to save,
Like Sunday clothes that
give out at the seams.
They’re made for wear;
they come with a lifetime guarantee.
Don’t save your soul.
Pour it out like rain
on cracked, parched earth.
Give your soul away,
or pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out,
or laugh it up the wind.
Souls were meant for hearing
breaking hearts, for puzzling dreams,
remembering August flowers,
These folk who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies
who blow out candles before you
sing happy birthday,
and want the world to be in alphabetical order.
I will spend my soul,
Playing it out like sticky string
Into the world…
So I can catch every last thing I touch.
Next time someone asks, “Is your soul saved?”
Say, “No, it’s spent, spent, spent!”
Mothers are mothers because they don’t try to save themselves; they give themselves away.
Christians are Christians because they don’t try to save themselves; they give themselves away.
The Church is the Church because it doesn’t try to save itself; it gives itself away.
And when the Church does that, we are sharing with God and with each other in the love and glory of God. We are united with God and with each other in love, in service, and in sacrifice …