Can We Be One?
A Message by Dr. Bruce Havens
ARLINGTON CONGREGATIONAL UCC
May 25, 2020
John 17:1-11 NRSV
1 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, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6 “I 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. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for 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. 9 I 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. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And 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.
“Social distancing” – that’s what we were told we were supposed to do. But if you think about it that isn’t true at all is it. First off, it isn’t what we needed to do, nor is what we want to do. We need to physical distance ourselves while we maintain a social connection. We need to actually figure out a way to overcome the “social distancing” that has been emerging more visibly with each passing year and maybe each passing day in our nation if not our world.
I can remember when we sang, “We Are the World,” and we embraced the idea that we were connected to the people in Africa suffering from drought and disease and starvation and we went to work giving and working to end those things. I remember when our family farmers here in America were losing their land, their livelihood, and their generational identity, and we started “Farm Aid,” to raise money for family farmers. I believe we need social connection now more than ever. But I am NOT discounting or arguing against maintaining 6 feet of physical distance between people to protect each other and express our compassion and concern. I am not arguing against wearing a mask, not to limit anyone’s rights except the person whose “right to life” we may endanger without knowing it. I am not arguing for opening churches to in-person worship when there have been multiple cases of that ending in sickness and death. Those things are the OPPOSITE of what I believe are true Christian values and behavior. I am arguing for seeing that we need and should seek a social connection that involves caring enough for the OTHER person, seeing the other person as Christ HIMSELF enough that we would do anything NOT to harm her or him.
Instead of that attitude I am astounded to learn there is a new concept, a new word that glorifies a malignant willingness to put others at risk for the sake of my personal privileges and so-called “rights.” It has been called out as riding to the banner of “Let Grandma Die!” The actual new word – well, 2 new words this week and new concepts, and they aren’t inspiring. The words are “vice- signaling” and “virtue – signaling. A writer by the name of Bethany Market put out on Twitter the sentiment that she was “not sacrificing my home, food on the table, all of our docs and dentists, every form of pleasure, all my kids teachers [which doesn’t make any sense what she meant? ] in order to make other people comfortable. If you want to stay locked down, do. I’m not.” In one sense her words are almost benign compared to those whose sentiment seems to be “let grandma die,” I want my freedom to get my nails done!
The writer commenting on this identifies this as a response by those who have a great disdain for what used to be called “bleeding hearts,” and such because they spoke out for the rights of LGBTQ persons, for Black Lives Matter, for women to have the right to control their own reproductive rights. They called this “virtue-signaling” as if it were simply being done to call attention to how virtuous one was. Well, in response the idea was to trumpet just how selfish one was and to express sneering contempt for anyone with concern of compassion for others. To hell with “We Are the World,” my motto is me first and if you get in the way I will shoot you with my semi/ automatic rifle.
Another writer, analyzing those who burst into the capitol building of Michigan brandishing weapons and threatening legislators, said the goal isn’t just freedom. It is freedom to intimidate anyone they disagree with, or dislike, or think is limiting their freedom to ignore everyone else’s freedom but their own. “Farm Aid?” Forget it Farmer John, you are slowing down the great god of America, Economic Darwinism. If you can’t keep up, shut up!
And Jesus prays, “That they all may be one.” What? How quaint. How 70’s. Let’s have a “love-in.” How ridiculous. Why? Because to love anyone – including yourself, actually – requires that you love others enough to willingly limit your privileges to allow, to encourage, to enable the other to be, to be blessed, to become more. What an odd, and almost lost concept in the public discourse in our culture which seems to have a COVID19 pandemic level commitment to hate and conflict and disregard for anyone else but one’s own “rights.” I have to admit the picture can look bleak if you look at it through these lenses. “That they may all be one?” When will that ever be a reality?
To really answer this though let’s walk this passage back from that last line to what it says from the first verse on. Let’s look at its context and its content and see if there is any reason to hope.
Karoline Lewis, [workingpreacher.org, 6/1/14], writes that in John’s Gospel Jesus is not off in a garden alone with a few sleeping disciples when he prays to the Father before his arrest. He is “sitting at a table, after a meal and an extended conversation, with the disciples hearing every single word that Jesus says.” She asks us to consider, “What difference does it make to overhear Jesus praying for you?” As an example for us this prayer tells us something about what we can know about God and how we can know God.
Is it possible that we discover that prayer is one way we come to know God? If so then think about this. In this prayer, John tells us Jesus said knowing God is eternal life. He doesn’t say it is salvation from sin or life after death or resurrection. He says “and this is eternal life: to know God and his son Jesus.” Karoline Lewis writes, “Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. What if it is that simple? How would that change what we imagine in this life? How would it affect our thoughts about and beliefs in our future life with God? How does this alter even our picture of God? Of course, what it means to ‘know’ God is key, and to know God in the Fourth Gospel has no connection to cognitive constructions, creedal consents, or specified knowledge about God. Rather, knowing God is synonymous with being in a relationship with God.
Scholars say that John’s Gospel is all about God becoming incarnate – present in the body – in Jesus. Again and again John tells us Jesus proclaimed that he and God were one. Again and again John reports that Jesus said he did the things and said the things God told him to say. He proclaimed his relationship with God.
Again and again I have seen this lived out by people in this congregation. By you folks. Just this past week several of you have demonstrated what you know about God, your relationship with God, by being there for someone who was dying. What’s more many of you demonstrated that by being there for that person through a long difficult process of suffering and – if you will almost a several months long crucifixion. You were there demonstrating the love of God, living the relationship of God’s love for someone.
This past week this concept of incarnation, of embodying the love of God to reveal that one knows God – and therefore is living eternal life now – from the words written by one of our mission partners at JASMYN. JASMYN, as many of you know, is an organization that serves youth who are LGBTQ have been disowned, thrown out of relationship with home and family if you will, because of it.
She writes, “Let’s talk about connection. It’s the one aspect of COVID isolation that has come up time and again with friends, co-workers and family since we’ve been apart. Maybe it means something just a little different to each of us, but the basis of it is the same, that humans need each other. Our dependence on each other for even the most mundane of things, like a peek in an office door at work or an impromptu conversation among neighbors while putting out the trash, has been magnified during this time of staying in and staying put.”
She adds, “It’s been encouraging to see the creativity employed to connect during this time! Technology has shown us some new ways to meet and celebrate holidays and more together. Then there’s the human-centered kind of invention that has allowed people to be together without being infectious to each other. Just this weekend, the video of a grandmother hugging her grandchildren through a large plastic screen equipped with attached plastic sleeves went viral because every grandparent can identify with needing to hug your babies, and the babies need it too. There have been birthdays, Mother’s Day and graduation parades, with celebrants each in their own cars, throughout Jacksonville and the country because we need to celebrate together. Musicians are performing the same song all around the world on video so we can approximate that elated, magical feeling we get when listening to a concert with 2,000 others.”
She goes on, saying, “This also brings to mind reconnection. I’ve heard stories of friends who drifted apart but during the shutdown have reached out to each other to reconnect, despite maybe years of no communication. Something about the imposed isolation has made us appreciate more than ever the relationships we have and have had. There is no shame in reconnecting after months or years, there is only filling the basic human need of connecting with others to sustain ourselves, and our community.
“That same concept is important to the LGBTQ young people who come to JASMYN for support and empowerment too. Connection, sometimes completely missing in other parts of their lives, is fostered at JASMYN, among the youth, with staff and with community. JASMYN performs many amazing feats each day in our services for young people, but the one alums talk about most frequently is how they found other people who understood them, didn’t judge them and helped them based on nothing other than human kindness.”
[JASMYN is] “able to continue the work of connection and reconnection through this time of isolation, welcoming youth experiencing homelessness to our campus and providing virtual programs continuously throughout the shutdown, because of the connection we as an organization enjoy with you and this community. I cannot thank you enough for the support you’ve made available to JASMYN so we can be there when a young person with nowhere to go needs a virtual hug (we don’t have the plastic shield with armholes at JASMYN!), a kind word, some food, a clean shirt or a pair of socks. Our interdependence drives both the need and the way to fill the need most days. We are privileged to be part of this circle.” Those children – and they are really children – and they are really are part of ALL of our families – give us a chance to demonstrate the meaning of what it means to “be one.” And to “be one” with someone who is hurting, suffering, being crucified, is the way we shine with real glory, God’s glory.
We had a lively discussion of this passage Thursday night, a lot of it about what John meant/ what Jesus meant by glory in this passage. It seems very complicated. Some of us thought it had to do with signs, miracles, and magic. A few heard it speaking of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion as a paradox that sets God’s values over against human temptations for selfishness and self- aggrandizing. Some just wondered.
I don’t know for sure, but for now I am going with this: I think God’s glory is revealed every time Christians act like we ARE one. I think every time someone blesses someone else with a helping hand God’s glory shines. I believe that every time we act as if “we are the world” we are revealing God’s glory. Call me a “bleeding heart.” Call me a liberal, I don’t care. If it means being liberal with love, with serving others, with compassion, sign me up. I call it God’s glory. And you people give me hope that there are enough people in the world who know God, who know that eternal life is loving others as God loves us that I almost believe we can be one.
If Jesus is praying for us, praying that WE “may all be one,” as God and Christ are one, and if you all keep doing what glorifies God, then maybe, just maybe we can all be one. May it be so. AMEN.