7th Sunday of Easter, Year C
“Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!" (Psalm 133). Amen.
Last week Mother Liz talked about the New Jerusalem appearing in the clouds, a vision of heaven coming down to earth, a vision found in the book of Revelation.
Thematically, this week we find ourselves caught between the Feast of the Ascension (when Jesus went up to heaven after his Resurrection) and Pentecost (when the Holy Spirit visited the Apostles). It is the last Sunday in Easter, but our Gospel passage brings us back to just before Jesus’ arrest. Here we find ourselves at a precipice.
Today’s Gospel reading from John comes at the end of what is often called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. He is teaching his disciples one last time, and it seems as if he is trying to squeeze in as much wisdom as possible before he goes. In the section we heard today, Jesus is “pray[ing] for his disciples” (v. 20). He urges the disciples to live together in unity, not only with God and with Jesus, but with each other. The disciples are charged with spreading the Good News of God in Christ. If they are going to be successful, then they need to swallow their pride, overcome their differences, and work together. Otherwise, all anyone will see is a bumbling, bickering motley collection of Jesus’ closest followers; they will distract from the message of peace and love they are trying to convey.
Before we get too comfortable, a closer look at the passage reveals that we’re not off the hook. Jesus even includes us in this message: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (vv. 20-21)! We are called to live in unity as well.
So what does this unity look like? Humans are predisposed to putting things into categories in order to process information better. There’s a sense of comfort in identifying as American, mid-western, Christian, and specifically Episcopalian. We can feel a sense of unity in situations where we feel we belong, when we are surrounded by people we identify with and understand, and who similarly understand us. But, as the Rev. Canon Anthony Jewiss said, “Unity does not mean sameness. It means similarity of purpose, of intention, of allegiance and of behavior towards one another. It means accepting. For those who believe, it means gathering under the canopy of creation and being part of a great singleness of purpose” (quote found here).
Last weekend at the Tween Retreat, the 5th and 6th graders explored what it means to be the Body of Christ. During the Bible Study, we discussed how believing we are all part of the Body of Christ influences the way we treat people, both those we like as well as those we do not like. In reflecting on how we treat people we don’t like, one of the youth said, “It’s like that song from Pocahontas: ‘You think the only people who are people are the people who look and think like you, but if you walk the footsteps of a stranger you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew’” (“Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s film Pocahontas). Clearly the deeper meaning behind Disney songs is not lost on younger generations. And this youth was right. Christians don’t have the luxury of choosing who to be in unity with. Jesus calls us to be in unity with all people, even people with different thoughts, beliefs, or political leanings. Unity can be a glorious and beautiful thing, but if everyone involved in the unity thinks and looks and believes the same, then unity can become dangerous. It can cause us to look at people not part of the group as different, less than. Think of the fighting between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Of the ethnic violence and genocide in Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, and lately, Myanmar. Or, in our own neck of the woods, fighting between gangs. Unity that shuts out people who are different is not the kind of unity Jesus is talking about.
A famous example of unity in the midst of differences came in the winter of 1914 (history.com). On a muddy battlefield in France on Christmas Eve, German and British troops were exchanging fire. At midnight some of the Germans stopped shooting and began to sing Christmas carols. The Allies, hearing the music, put down their weapons and joined in the singing. Incredibly, by the morning, both sides had come out of their trenches to celebrate together. They held a soccer match and even exchanged gifts! Although the experience was fleeting (they started fighting again the next day), it provided a glimpse of the kingdom of God. They certainly had differences, but for a short while they recognized each other’s humanity.
Another way unity can be dangerous is when we think that only people who deserve it can be included. Jesus was constantly hanging out with the outcasts, the people others rejected because of their profession, social class, gender, or diagnosis. He was famous for dining with outcasts and sinners, after all (Mark 2:16; Matthew 9:10-12)!
An example of living in unity and demonstrating Christian love happened more recently. In the wake of the Boston bombings, the Tsarnaev family was looking for a place in Boston to bury their son Tamerlan, who we know as Bombing Suspect 1. None of the cemeteries were willing to let him be buried on their premises. After three weeks of searching, however, a complete stranger came forward and offered his cemetery plot to the Tsarnaev family. According to news reports, the stranger gave this reason for his offer: “This person, I don’t care what a pariah he is, everybody deserves a burial, so I’m willing to make this offer. I also think it would be a nice thing to do in memory of my mother, who did teach me to love thine enemy” (New Haven Register, May 6, 2013). Wow. Now this is more of what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of unity!
Today’s Gospel and the examples just mentioned provide us with an opportunity for reflection. Where in our own lives are we failing to live in unity? Where are we looking down on others? Where are we excluding rather than including? How can we demonstrate the type of unity Jesus is praying for in school, at work, at home, and at church? It’s not an easy way of life (after all, the glory of Jesus was most fully realized in his death and then resurrection). Unity is often countercultural. In an era of extreme political polarization, and in the face of a heated upcoming election, unity can even seem impossible.
But you and I, we know better. We know that unity is possible. In fact, it happens every week! Each week we have the opportunity to put aside our differences and join together in Communion. We listen to words telling us the story of Christ, who loved us so much that he gave his life for us. “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you.” We remember that we are fractured like Christ, but also like Christ, this brokenness doesn’t last forever; the Body and Blood are a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. We approach the altar knowing that despite our differences and what we’ve done or left undone in the past, God loves us equally and unconditionally.
Out of his love for us, Jesus says that he will be with us. He ends the prayer for his disciples and us with a promise of love: “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (v. 26). In that spirit of love, I leave you with a poem by Edwin Markham, entitled “Outwitted”:
He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle and took him in!