Topic: Biblical Verse: John 17:20–26
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
June 1-2, 2019
The month of June is upon us, school is almost over, and we are about to enter the summer season of travel and vacation. Meanwhile, candidates for political office are already on the campaign trail. As we all know, next year is a presidential election year and things are already heating up for this. Although I am a native of Iowa, I give thanks to God that I do not live there because of all the political ads that saturate radio, TV, print, and every other media outlet. Because my home state is the first state to hold a presidential caucus, all of those ads start very early and they are everywhere. Family members who live in Iowa sort of learn to tune this out as best they can, but it is absolutely overwhelming. For good or for ill, this is how our political process works. What is very lacking at present in our life as a nation is unity. The political divides among us seem as big as the Grand Canyon, and the hoopla of an election year will highlight this all the more. Where is the unity in our United States? This is a sermon, not a campaign speech, but we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend that we, as Christian citizens of this country, have nothing to contribute to the discussion. Research indicates that people are increasingly choosing where they will worship – if they worship at all – based on their politics, not necessarily on theology, doctrine, or teachings of the faith (https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/choose-your-church-before-your-politics). Is this what it has come to? Though unity may be sorely lacking at this particular point in time, it is our duty as Christian citizens of this nation to be aware of and involved in the political process for the sake of our life together in this land. Unity – this is what Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel lesson, a portion of his High Priestly Prayer in John 17. Jesus is not talking about political unity, but spiritual unity that flows out of Jesus’ own unity with the Father. On this Seventh (and final) Sunday of the Easter season, the message for this day is entitled, “Unity.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, our confession of faith is the Nicene Creed, which dates back nearly 1700 years to the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Part of this confession reads, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” When we look around at the Church today, we may struggle to see the unity for which Jesus prayed. There are so many separate denominations within this only holy catholic and apostolic Church,” that it can all be very confusing. Different denominations can seemingly be at war against other denominations. Perhaps this may be warranted at times, if the Gospel is compromised, for example. But other times it seems we are bent on emphasizing the things that divide us, rather than the things that unite us. At any given moment, it may look like the Christian Church is more divided than united. Where is the unity for which Jesus prayed? When all is said and done, our unity does not come through formal pronouncements, external structures, and visible organizations, but through the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). This is what transcends denominational boundaries. This is the invisible Church, made up of believers of every time and place who call upon the Name of Jesus for forgiveness, life, and salvation. This is where unity in Christ begins.
Note the opening verse in today’s Gospel lesson: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20). “All those who will believe in me through their word” – Jesus is here praying for you and me, and for every believer in every time and every place who has come to know that spiritual unity, peace, and joy in Jesus through the teaching of the apostles that has come down to each generation. Not once, not twice, but three times in today’s Gospel lesson Jesus prays “that they may all be one” (John 17:21, 22, 23). There is a sense of fervent urgency in Jesus’ prayer for his followers. Do we have that same sense of fervent urgency in our own prayer life today? Are we praying “that we may all be one” in Jesus even as Jesus is one with the Father? I suspect that this has fallen off our radar in the midst of a myriad of other things in life. And yet, as Jesus told Martha who was so preoccupied with a myriad of other things, “There is only one thing that is needful” (Luke 10:42a). Even with electronic communication, we are often sadly unaware of what is happening around us, including fellow believers in other parts of the world. At a recent address in London, “the Archbishop of Irbil, the Rt. Rev. Bashar Warda warned that Christians in Iraq face extinction after seeing a dramatic fall in numbers from around 1.5 million at the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign in 2003, to just 250,000 today. The Archbishop said that the prospects for those who have remained in the country were not good. ‘Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest Churches, if not the oldest Church in the world, is perilously close to extinction. Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom,’ he said. Christians have had a presence in Iraq for at least 1,400 years but after the Islamic State began its onslaught in 2014, they and other minority communities came under intense persecution. The Archbishop said that their ‘tormentors’ had sought ‘to wipe out our history and destroy our future.’ ‘In Iraq there is no redress for those who have lost properties, homes and businesses. Tens of thousands of Christians have nothing to show for their life’s work, for generations of work, in places where their families have lived, maybe, for thousands of years,’ he said.” The Archbishop criticized Christian leaders in Britain over their response to the crisis, suggesting they were too afraid to condemn extremism because of “political correctness” and accusations of Islamophobia. “Will you continue to condone this never-ending, organized persecution against us?” he said. “When the next wave of violence begins to hit us, will anyone on your campuses hold demonstrations and carry signs that say ‘We are all Christians’?” Archbishop Warda said he feared that silence and inaction would lead to the end of Christianity in Iraq. “Friends, we may be facing our end in the land of our ancestors. We acknowledge this. In our end, the entire world faces a moment of truth,” he said. “Will a peaceful and innocent people be allowed to be persecuted and eliminated because of their faith? And, for the sake of not wanting to speak the truth to the persecutors, will the world be complicit in our elimination?” (https://www.christiantoday.com/article/christianity-in-iraq-is-perilously-close-to-extinction-says-archbishop/132499.htm). How do we answer the archbishop, as well as the Christians of Iraq? What do we say to our persecuted fellow believers in other parts of the world? Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one” reminds us that these are our brothers and sisters in faith. Like us, they, too, are people for whom Jesus suffered, died, and rose again, which means that we are indeed our brother’s and our sister’s keeper (Genesis 4:9).
Unity is not something which can be forced or coerced. If it is, it is artificial and short-lived because it does not come from the heart. The unity which our crucified, risen, and ascended Savior came to bring begins not with us, but with that oneness that the Savior has with the Father, and as we will celebrate next Sunday, with the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost. Rooted in that gift of God’s forgiveness and new life in Jesus, as we seek to be one in heart and mind by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ words are realized in our lives: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). May God make it so for Jesus’ sake. Amen.