A Transforming Oneness (Sermon)

“Transforming Oneness”

John 17:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/24/20

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

6I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (NRSV)

         Today’s reading begins with a transitional clause: “After Jesus had spoken these words…” The words to which John refers fill four chapters. They include: Jesus’ teaching as he washed the disciples’ feet, his foretelling of betrayal, his command to love as he has loved, his promise of an Advocate, his warning about the world’s hatred, and his promise of lasting spiritual peace.

         When reading these words, knowing that they are the words of a man whose mysterious and solemn “hour” is arriving, we feel the pathos building like an incoming tide. Jesus’ hour has to do with his own and God’s glorification. It also has to do with Jesus sending the disciples out to continue his work. As Jesus prays for his disciples, he reaffirms their call: God, they were yours, he says. You entrusted them to me. I’ve taught them, and they know the truth. They’re ready to follow me, to love each other, and to glorify you. I give them back to you.

         To love, to follow, to glorify God—in John’s gospel, this is the very substance of believing in Jesus. That’s great Sunday school material, but between Thursday and Sunday, and even beyond, the disciples seem anything but ready for an apostolic commission.

         How does Jesus do it? How does he project confidence and hope knowing that his beloved disciples will betray and abandon him? To begin understanding that question, let’s remember this line: “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”

         In John’s gospel, Jesus knows that, in the unfathomable depths of the Creation, his being is inextricably confluent with the eternal and universal Flow of Holiness and Purpose we call God. This is the oneness Jesus refers to when he prays, “Holy Father, protect them…so that they may be one, as we are one.” In his Thursday night prayer, Jesus is actively loving everyone, whether they oppose him, forsake him, or crucify him.

         The capacity to love those who oppose and oppress is not something we can achieve on our own. That gracious strength arises from our own oneness with God. It arises from that place of confluence between our individual human being and the eternal Being-ness of God.

         When Jesus loves and blesses his disciples, knowing that they will turn their backs on him, he receives their brokenness, baptizes it in his oneness with God, and transforms it into genuine discipleship. That’s how he transforms Peter’s denials into compassionate leadership.

         Peter do you love me?

         Yes, Lord.

         Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)

         By receiving the hatred and taunts of those who crucify him, Jesus loves his enemies as they are loved by God, and, with his life, he prays for those who persecute him. That’s the point of the resurrected Christ transforming Saul’s scorched-earth hatred of Christians into a zealous commitment to love all whom Jesus loves, especially those who don’t know that they are loved. (Acts 9:1-22)

         We expect all that from Jesus, but taking up our cross and following him can feel impossible. And it is impossible when we’re not seeking oneness with God through Christ. When we lose that connection, we tend to look for and find opponents rather than companions. When connected only by externals—political loyalties, racial/ethnic identities, doctrinal precepts, economic class, and so forth—we lose sight of the humanity of both self and neighbor. At that point, we’ve reduced love to alliances between like minds, alliances that are always conditional because when one ally’s thinking changes or evolves, the deal is off. Many marriages fail because at least one partner considers the relationship an alliance rather than a holy union.

         When Jesus prays for his disciples, he is praying for the well-being of men who have yet to learn that Messiah transcends the label of ally. As the Incarnate Word of God, eternally one with the Father, Jesus can do nothing less than love, even when facing blind and brutal opposition.

         Last week, my wife and I watched “The Best of Enemies.” While this 2019 film received mixed reviews and underwhelmed at the box office, the real-life story is worth remembering. In Durham, NC, in 1971, the city was dealing with integration. Two people, C.P. Ellis, a white man and leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater, an African-American woman and community civil rights leader, became the faces of the two sides of the debate. In time, the two not only overcame their mutual disgust, they discovered their deeply-connected, holy and human beings. Without that discovery, the two sides may have hammered out a compromise, but Atwater and Ellis would not have found the enduring friendship that transformed their lives.

         I was moved by that relationship, and as much so by Bill Riddick, the man who led the series of interactive meetings through which the community explored the issues and voted on an outcome that didn’t please everyone, but which everyone agreed to accept.

         Riddick, also an African-American, had a profound dilemma. On the one hand, he had to deal with Ellis’ overt racism. On the other, he began to see that Atwater’s all-too-understandable fury at and suspicion of Ellis also threatened to derail the process of integration. After the first session, Riddick went home realizing that he had the same issues as Atwater and Ellis. He told himself that “until I’m able to harness my own feelings and have greater respect for these individuals, then I’m not going to be successful.”1 Unifying Ellis and Atwater was the key to bringing the community together.

         It wasn’t until years later than Riddick had the language to speak of that experience spiritually. All those “years ago,” he said, “I really thought it was me. As I have become more God-fearing…I realize that the Lord gave me a grace and helped me.”2

         Riddick’s grace was the same grace Jesus demonstrated on the night of his betrayal and the abandonment by those who claimed to love and follow him. That very grace is available to us when we confess our selfishness, pride, and fear. To lay aside that brokenness is to begin opening ourselves to the deep, God-given oneness we have with all things through Christ.

         As our culture becomes more deeply divided, God’s call to spiritual communities within the wider community is all the more urgent. As followers of Jesus, our specific call is clear: Jesus prayerfully summons us to seek a oneness with each other that bears witness to the Son’s oneness with the Father. What oneness we embody is never our own doing. It’s always a reflection of God’s oneness with the Creation.

         What, then, can you and I do to help all of us claim our holiness, our oneness with God so that, together, we embody the oneness that, through the power of Resurrection, grants us the freedom and the will to love as Christ loves us?

1https://www.guideposts.org/better-living/entertainment/movies-and-tv/the-inspiring-true-story-behind-new-movie-the-best-of-enemies

2Ibid.

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