Seventh Sunday in Easter 2016

Gospel: John 17:20-26

Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. “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. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
“We pray as Jesus prayed for his disciples, saying, ‘I in them and you in me that they may become completely one’, ‘So that the love with which you have loved me be in them’… ‘So that all may be one’.” Amen.

Such a prayer that is! It is such a complete expression of Jesus’ desire to make God’s love available to all creation. Jesus is asking that the love that he has experienced from God be known by everyone…So that all may be one. It is a prayer of unity, of commonality, of universal love.

I’ve been trying to understand why we in the United States, a country where more people attend church than in any country in the developed world, have such a difficult time grasping that concept. It may be that the focus that Americans place on the individual can help explain why a prayer like this seems so foreign to our experience. American individualism may be responsible for making the United States the powerful and wealthy country it is today. But this emphasis on the individual is also responsible for a grave distortion of what it has, historically, meant to be a Christian. The spirit of individualism has so pervaded Christianity that the notion of referring to Jesus as, “a personal savior” seems perfectly acceptable. It’s like you can slip this little Jesus in your pocket and pull him out when you need him. A personal Jesus, at our immediate disposal, like a cell phone or an iPad.

Historically, the choice of religion was far removed from the individual. When the Emperor Constantine chose to embrace Christianity in the 4th century, the entire Roman Empire was expected to follow his lead. When the religion of a European monarch changed, the religion of his country changed as well. After the Reformation, whether you were Protestant or Catholic, largely depended on the religion of your king. As the United States came into being, freedom of religious expression became one of the hallmarks of our liberty. Americans could choose their faith or be free to choose no faith at all. Surely this was a positive development.

But I wonder if the emphasis we have placed on individual choice has caused the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction: Awhile back, I spoke with a friend who is a Nazarene pastor. The Nazarene church considers itself Wesleyan. They claim descendence from Charles and John Wesley, Anglican priests, who as students embraced the Oxford Methodist movement and, as such, are considered the founders of Methodism, although the brothers remained Anglicans throughout their life. The Nazarene Church, as I understand it, left the Methodists when a group felt that the Methodist Church as a whole had veered too far away from its Methodist roots. Then, as my friend the Nazarene pastor told me, in the 1950’s a group left the local Nazarene community because they disapproved of television and the use of wedding rings. And now a group has abandoned the anti-television and anti-wedding ring denomination and started a new church because they are opposed to the internet.

Episcopalians are no better. We have had groups leave the church because they were opposed to the presence of African Americans in the congregation, because they opposed civil rights, because they were opposed to the ordination of women, because they liked the language in the 1928 prayer book better than the 1979 edition, and because we ordained a gay bishop. And all of this in the context of Christ’s teachings of unity, his oft-repeated prayer that all may be one.

From a very early age I continually felt a stirring of the Holy Spirit within me. And I responded to that stirring with a prayer that I prayed for decades, “God, show me your will for my life”. I wonder if I could have saved myself a lot of trouble, if I could have avoided a number of missteps along the way, if instead I had prayed, as a part of a community, “God, show us your will.” Many of you have spoken to me of a heartfelt desire to find the path that is right for you. I wonder if we are so imbued with this sense of American individualism, that we are led to ask the wrong questions. Perhaps our prayer to show me the way, should instead be a prayer asking that it be revealed, to us as a community, how we can effectively embody the life of Christ.

However, unity, especially in churches, is a concept far more easily expressed than realized. Finding unity in the midst of diversity is even harder. It doesn’t help that we all come to church wanting our individual needs met. For a church to try to meet the desires of individuals is exceedingly difficult, and in the end pointless. Because we live in a society focused on creating desire and then satisfying that created desire with just the right consumer goods, we expect the same thing from our religion. We are accustomed to worshiping at the Church of Starbucks. We expect our religion made to order. But we can’t order up our religion like we do our iced vente mocha latte, half-decaf, skim milk, with whipped cream and a shot of caramel.

As you might imagine, I regularly talk with people who are church shopping – what a telling term that is. Sometimes I feel like I’m standing behind a fast food counter and the church shopper is placing his order, “I’d like a medium sized church, thinly sliced preaching, go light on the demands, cut the politics, could you make it friendly, and, if you’ve got’em throw in a side of good business contacts. But I’m as guilty as anyone else, an innovative church I was drawn to in California was known by my friends as “The Church of What’s Happening Now… Baby.”

The famed Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, in his book No Man is An Island, speaks of a person’s salvation as “the full discovery of who he himself really is.” For Merton, this is also the discovery that a person “can not find himself in himself alone, he must find himself in and through others.” This idea is expressed fully in the gospel, “If any man would save his life, he must lose it,” and “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Rabbi Zusya, a short while before his death proclaimed: “In the world to come I shall not be asked, “Why were you not Moses?” Instead I will be asked, “Why were you not Zusya?” Our salvation is not dependent on our becoming someone else. Our salvation depends on our discovery of who we really are. And that quest doesn’t take place in isolation. We may meditate, we may pray, we may walk miles on the labyrinth, but the realization of our true self, the attainment of our salvation, takes place in community.

In what I think is a misreading of the essence of Christianity, but an accurate observation of what we have become, Martin Buber says that Christianity differs from Judaism in making each man’s salvation his highest aim. “Judaism regards each person’s soul as a serving member of God’s Creation which, by our work, is to become the Kingdom of God; thus no soul has its object in itself; in its own salvation.

It’s a working out of our salvation, in and through community. It’s the central role of the church. When we think of the church as the body of Christ, we rediscover that the gospel is also incarnational. Jesus Christ represents the historical fleshing out of God’s love for humanity. What God wants to do is to duplicate that once-in-history manifestation of his love throughout all history by putting the same life that was in his Son into groups of people – a collection of individuals learning to love one another. Teaching our children the same. Welcome to the School of Love.

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