Prayers of Love, Prayers of Unity

John 17:20-26

It happens. A strange letter arrives in the mail, a weird email in my inbox, a random post on my Facebook page. People I don’t know, or I may know of them, but they are certainly not close friends or colleagues. I’m invited to something–a gathering of pastors for prayer; a group of community leaders for discussion; an event sponsored by some political figure. It is more than an invitation, I find out. The more I read the fine print, the more I realize that they want me to support their cause. A prayer meeting is not just to pray; it is to express how the government is evil and things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and undocumented workers are destroying the very fabric of the U.S. So come and pray about that. Or, the community meeting is not about learning or education or even networking. It’s about money, and how much money I can give to certain lobbyist groups, causes, or organizations. And the “Christian breakfast” invites are really fronts for political rallies for some candidate that of course, is looking for my vote and all of your votes. xianSpam

Each one of these comes with strings attached. And in every request, there are many assumptions made. First, whoever is inviting me assumes that as a Christian, I am just like them. I think like them, pray exactly like them, read and interpret the Bible just like them, worship like them, even vote like them. So the organizers of such gatherings are shocked when I call or email them back with a response of no—not because I cannot attend, but because I choose not to attend. How could that be? Am I not a Christian, just like them?

It is a common theme in our world today, I think. If someone doesn’t believe or think or even look like we do, they could not possibly be connected to us. We assume separation. People who disagree draw lines in the sand, rather than hearing out the other’s argument. People with differing worldviews never share a coffee, glass of wine or a beer, or a lunch. Even those who hang out or befriend another of a different religion, political stance, or philosophical view are told that they are watering down their own beliefs and stances. It seems that all too often we have to be exactly the same, or we cannot be together at all.

That is why, in this moment, I think it extra important for us to walk through John’s Gospel. Written last out of the other three Gospels, John has a nuanced perspective. Consider that when it was written, people had formed different religious and cultural groups, identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. We call them churches now, but these groups didn’t look much like what we see today. They were communities of people who lived together and supported each other. They were people from various backgrounds. They didn’t believe the same things. They interpreted their experiences of Jesus and God very differently. They even argued and had strong disagreements about ethics and theology. All of this is in the Gospel of John if we look for it.

Consider that these stories were written long after Jesus’ death and at a time when these faith communities were already expanding; assume that contextual, relevant interpretations of Jesus’ life and teachings were being made. In other words, John’s Gospel interprets Jesus in light of the context and experience of that particular time and culture. We get a glimpse into a time, place, and culture simply by reading the words written about Jesus and even the words attributed to Jesus. You can read a novel about some historical figure like Abraham Lincoln or even see a movie, but it won’t really make sense to you unless you have some grounding in the historical context and cultural dynamics.

It’s no different with the Bible.

In the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine [and then in Greece, etc.] traditions were for the most part, passed on by oral tradition. They didn’t have email archives, metal file cabinets, videos, or audio files of Jesus. They had memory; and experiences; and stories told by one person to another and then to another, and then to another. Much later, scribes wrote it all down. In fact, John’s Gospel is particularly unique in its storytelling, because most scholars believe that various authors put it together over an extended period of time. It was a community of people called “Johannine.” In their context, Jesus’ story was often about relationship. And so it is in John 17, the longest speech attributed to Jesus—in the form of a prayer–26 verses.

 This prayer of Jesus focuses on unity, love, and relationship.

Let’s explore those three things. First, love. We have been talking about this a lot in John, and with good reason. To love is a command of Jesus. God is love. Those who love are of God. There is a direct correlation between acts of love and acts of God. If a person shows love to another, they show God to that person. Likewise, if a person refuses to show love to another, God is not present in that act and they are not of God. But this is not meant to be mere metaphysical language. Jesus was clear with the disciples about love. It wasn’t a feeling alone; it was how you lived. The disciples could love with the love of God. They were capable of it. Otherwise, Jesus wouldn’t have told them to do it in the first place!

Second, love is tied to that word relationship. Jesus had a unique and intimate relationship with God, who he called Abba [Father]. God knew Jesus; Jesus knew God; Jesus made God known to the disciples; they were to make God known to the world. That is a lot of knowing!

So look at the actual Greek word: ginoskoto know. Its meaning is intense. Ginosko means deep, interior perception that influences one’s emotions and actions.[1]

Knowing in John’s Gospel is not just about being aware—oh yeah, I know that guy, or at least, I know of him…

Knowing means being changed. Knowing affects your life. Knowing moves you to be. This relationship connects you to something bigger.

God knows all of us.

We are known by God.

Jesus knows God; God knows Jesus.

Jesus made God known to others.

We are to make God known to others.

And how does that happen: love.

But this leads us to the most difficult and misunderstood part of this prayer: unity. In the letters and emails and posts I get, this word unity is thought to mean the absence of disagreement or conflict. We are supposedly unified, because we believe the same things. We are unified because we hold the same commitments. We are unified by what we eat or wear or the language we speak. We are unified by our sameness. Don’t get me wrong—I am a big fan of finding people who connect with me because we share a common value, concern, or passion. I am a bridge-builder.

But being one or the idea of unity isn’t about sameness.

I mean, the colleagues and friends I have who stand with me on certain issues or share important values with me are quite different than me in a lot of ways. Some practice other religions or don’t practice any religion. Some of them speak other languages. Some live in different states, towns, or countries. Others participate in things in which I have no interest. Some don’t go to church. Some enjoy hobbies that are completely boring to me. On some issues, we completely disagree. They vote for different people or don’t vote at all. So are we unified? Are we one?

That is the question. You see, I think in American Christianity we often forget that being one isn’t about a piece of paper we sign, saying we believe the same things. It isn’t about doctrine or dogma or even some mission statement we agree upon. Unity, according to this prayer of Jesus, is based on the two things we already unpacked: relationship and love.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t mention the Apostle’s Creed or some Council in Nicaea. The disciples don’t sign on the dotted line. But they are challenged to make a choice, aren’t they? They are challenged to mirror the life-giving relationship of Jesus and God.

Be unified in your relationship: know each other by how you love each other; be known to each other by the love you receive; and then make love known to the world.

Funny enough, the unity of Jesus isn’t even meant to benefit the church.

Unity is meant to bless the world.

The phrase so that the world may know is repeated again and again by Jesus, and it’s almost annoying! But I think there’s a reason for the repetition, because we tend to ignore this challenge!

We like unity if it makes us feel better about our religion or because unity strengthens our numbers and gives us a louder voice so we can fight against others who disagree with us. We like unity if it gives us black-and-white understandings of God, morals and ethics, and salvation.

Less to think about.

We embrace unity if it allows us to avoid conflict and especially that particular issue that we have trouble with…

But this kind of unity? It’s not really about us at all!

It’s about others.

We are supposed to be one so that the world notices our love.

And this unifying love points them to the unifying love of God though Jesus.

Crazy as it may sound, churches and people of faith, if we are really interested in following Jesus, we need to be with other people who are different in order to experience a loving, unified relationship with God and in order to show love to the world. Love pushes us to widen the circle, reach out, and include. But we shouldn’t assume that they will think, believe, pray, sing, dress, talk, or behave exactly like us. In fact, we are challenged to embrace the differences, the disagreements, and the uniqueness. Why? Because in that kind of crazy, inclusive, diverse, raw community, we get a glimpse of what Jesus was praying about.

We start to get it—that God knows us and loves us as we are.

We open our minds to grasp that Jesus lived this loving relationship on earth.

We begin to know God and be known out of love–not obligation or fear.

Then, we live that love in the world–not obligating others, not causing fear.

Friends, the more we love, the more our relationship with God is real.

The more we love, the more we know ourselves better.

And the more we love, the more our relationships make a real impact.

Amen.


[1] Strong’s #1097 – γινώσκω.

 

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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