16th May, 2010

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

by The Rev. Fr. Ian Elliott Davies

Jesus’ prayer in this week’s Gospel reading is a stinging reminder of his Body’s continued disunity. But what can and should be said about this obstinate, obvious reality? How does one preach this familiar text in ways that signal urgency but not despair, that convey the gravity of our predicament while also offering a word of hope?

I have no idea. But here are a few thoughts . . .

1. The oneness for which Jesus prayed is rooted not in human achievement but in the life of the triune God. The unity between the Father and Son, which is their mutual self-giving (perichoresis) in the Spirit, is the same love by which the ekklesia exists (“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”).  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must realize [actualize]; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”

2. The unity of the Church does not subsist invisibly through “faith” or by assent to propositions, but is to be visible and material. The reason for oneness is “that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Unity is shared witness not intellectual agreement.

3. It is the Eucharist that constitutes this unifying witness in the world. Through the sacramental gifts of Christ’s body and blood, the community receives itself—it becomes the body of Christ, blessed, broken, and shared. As the Great Thanksgiving says, we are made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” In this act the Church is united across time and distinctions between the global and the local are collapsed, for in every local assembly is the whole body—“the world in a wafer,” as Bill Cavanaugh has said. The Church is–there and then, here and now–the visible body of its Lord. And this visible body does not express or evince the Church’s unity; it is the Church’s unity.

But the Church is divided. Still. John probably included Jesus’ prayer in his Gospel because of doctrinal strife in his own community. Discord then and now. Yet while the scandal of disunity persists, Jesus prays for us still. This is the good news. But it does not relieve us of our responsibility to practice the unity that is the triune God’s and that is God’s gift to us.

How will Christ’s body, divided by differences both petty and consequential, receive this gift and bear visible, material witness to God’s own life and love?

Today’s Gospel reminds me of this. As death approaches, Jesus speaks to his disciples of the deepest meaning of his life and of what faces them. This chapter of John has been called variously “The Testament of Jesus” or “Jesus’ High Priestly or Intercessory Prayer.” It is really both. The literary form of the testament was a well-recognized convention at the time of Jesus (e.g., the farewell speeches of Moses in Deuteronomy and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs). These comprise reflections on the meaning of life and parting advice to loved ones. Actually, all of John 13-17 comprises a testament, so it is easy to forget that the setting remains Jesus’ final meal with those he now calls “friends.” Earlier commentators have compared it to the eucharistic preface preceding the memorial of the Passion.

Jesus’ farewell discourse is in the solemn language of prayer, John 17, from which all three liturgical cycles present excerpts on this Sunday. In the first part Jesus prays to the Father for his own glorification, in the second that his disciples be unified and protected amid opposition from the world. In today’s reading the prayer is “not only for them, but for those who will believe in me through their word” (Jn. 17:20). Love appears five times in three short sentences. Jesus prays that believers will be one, united by that very same love that unites him to the Father, and that this unity be a sign that will bring “the world” to belief so that all may come to know God and the depth of God’s love. God’s glory is to be visible not in magnificent edifices or in structures of power, but in the love that unites Jesus’ followers among themselves and to God. Through the disciples, Jesus will continue to reveal God’s name so that “the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.”

This final prayer for love arches back to the very beginning of the extended supper discourse, in which Jesus “having loved his own in the world, loved them to the end” and bequeaths them a new commandment: that they love one another as he has loved them. Now the disciples and the readers know just what “as I have loved you” means. Jesus goes to his death as a model of love, and through his death his followers will live in the very love that unites him to his Father. Later theology will adopt the category of sanctifying grace to describe such love.

Jesus’ prayer for love and unity inspired Pope John XXIII in his desire to call a council to help break down divisions among contemporary followers of Jesus. In his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (1995), Pope John Paul II cites Jn. 17:21-22 at least five times, stressing that the unity “which the Lord has bestowed on his church and in which he wishes to embrace all people…stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission” (No. 9), and he urges common prayer to overcome the “painful reality” of Christian division (No. 22). The “Ecumenical Charter” issued in April by the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences states, citing Jn. 17:21, “If we are to be faithful to this prayer, we cannot be content with the present situation. Instead, aware of our guilt and ready to repent, we must strive to overcome the divisions still existing among us, so that together we may credibly proclaim the message of the Gospel among all people.”

Though vital during the 1960’s, the ecumenical movement today is beset by problems. Individual churches are facing massive demographic and social changes that cause them to look inward, and religious divisions within ecclesial bodies are a scandal and consume great time and energy. Landmark agreed-upon statements are the fruit of ecumenical dialogues, but often with little effect on church life. The time is ripe for dramatic moves that may respond more faithfully to Christ’s prayer that love characterize his followers and that they may be “one” so that “the world may believe that you sent me.”

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