In the liturgical calendar, today is known as the “Seventh Sunday of Easter.” It is the Sunday between the Ascension of Jesus into heaven and Pentecost which we will observe next Sunday. It’s an in-between time, sort of like the time between spring and summer when you don’t know what to wear and you’re either too hot or too cold.
We are continuing to consider the last instructions of Jesus and this week we are looking at his words on “unity.” Jesus believes unity is so important that it is the main theme of this farewell prayer for his original disciples. Jesus knows that their circle will expand to include many others. Thus, he prays for us too. He wants us to experience unity with past and future generations of Christians. He uses the word “one” four times in this short passage, praying that all may be “one.” Jesus prays for unity so that the church will survive after he has ascended to heaven. The only word in the passage used more is the word “love” which is used 5 times.
Jesus prays that we may be “one” in unity, but we know that His church has many divisions, and we live in a divided world. Indeed, there seems little unity in the churches, countries, or the world. We can imagine that Jesus foresaw the squabbling and division in the church’s future. He prays for a unity that transcends differences in culture, organizations, and politics.
The gospel writer John presents a vision of unity based on the knowledge and love shared in the relationship of God and Jesus. To love Jesus is to ever expand his love to outsiders. One of my husband’s classmates in seminary was called to a church in Wallbridge, Ohio. On the church’s sign in the little town, he prophetically posted, “What Wallbridge needs is less walls and more bridges.”
Jesus’ final prayer is a reminder that we are supposed to work together to complete the mission to which he has called us. This is why this last prayer is often called the Unity prayer. Jesus knew that working together is harder but often more effective than working on our own. Researchers have found that the best teams have members who are listen to each other and respond to each other’s needs. Nothing matters more in effectiveness than creating an atmosphere of safety where members are respected and listened to and able to do their best work.
It seems the greatest power Jesus desired for his followers was unity. Why? Because our unity is proof to the world that Jesus is who he says he is.
Researchers in attachment psychology find that good relationships between children one-and-a-half to five years old and their caregivers create bonds of attachment that help the children develop trust and empathy. And even those kids who did not have early attachment can find it later in life from caregivers who provide them with safety to explore their world.
Similarly, Jesus’ oneness with God provides a secure place from which to build community. The two-way relationship between Jesus and God overflows to the original 1st century disciples and is passed on to us, making bridges and knocking down walls.
The tenderness of the relationship between God and Jesus invites us into intimacy with God and the fellowship of the church. John’s gospel reminds us that God’s love is pointed to the future. It is meant to be shared.
The challenge is that each of us is unique. Even identical twins have slight differences in their DNA and develop in different ways. In any community there will be people who do not look like you, think like you, believe like you and agree with you in every way and in every topic. Robert Frost put it this way:
If one by one, we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving. (public domain).
Living in unity does not come easily. It is hard work even with those who are most like us. If your family is like, mine, perhaps you can recall some pretty heated political discussions at the Thanksgiving dinner table or family reunion. However, working to overcome our disunity is a worthy goal.
In the classic Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn 1952 movie, The African Queen, as they float down a crocodile-infested African river, Bogart’s character gets drunk and Hepburn’s character if furious. He tries to justify his behavior by claiming that getting drunk once in a while is part of human nature. Hepburn’s character, Rose, as missionary says, “Nature.. Is what we are put on earth to rise above.” (The African Queen, adapted from 1935 book of the same name by C.S. Forester; screen play by James Agee, released February 20, 1952)
It is true. Our human nature leads us to want to associate only with people who are like us. But we, as people of faith, are called to a higher standard. And God has given us the ability to transcend our differences.
One of my Reformed church ministry colleagues, Mashona, just completed her doctorate. Mashona studied neuroplasticity and prayer. Neuroplasticity is a term for brain malleability, the ability of the brain to learn and to change. Mashona correlated the practice of prayer with measures of neuroplasticity and found that the more subjects prayed, the greater their capacity to learn, mature, and change. What this means is that God can transform you into a new person through prayer. Unity with God in Christ leads to unity with humanity.
Perhaps the most symbolic embodiment of this is our sacrament of communion which we will celebrate today. We invite “all those who believe in Christ and have decided to follow him” to our communion table. It is a multidimensional celebration of unity with God, with Christ, and with each other.
Rev. Dr. Gregg Mast explains it this way. When we come to communion, we experience the vertical connection of our souls up to God and Christ in heaven and the horizontal connection to our fellow worshipers. For a few moments we are in a liminal space, connected to the source of our being and to the unity of humanity.
And so today we are invited to contemplate our unity with God, the Creator, Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit our sustainer, as we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion. Please pray with me for this unity because prayer is the key to unity, with God, with Christ, and with each other. Amen.