Religion and philosophy are different in ways that really matter to us. Philosophers can concentrate on thinking and understanding without giving an equal, much less greater, emphasis on conduct. Religion, on the other hand, is a way of living, a way of being and doing. Conduct is its ultimate test. We do not hear much about neo-Platonic hypocrites or phony Nietzscheans. But the behavior of religious people is a matter of ultimate interest because religion is at heart a thing done not simply agreed to. The ultimate theological question is always “So what?” We may believe that Jesus is Lord but so what? What we believe is important but what we do about what we believe is even more important.
That basic fact applies to everything we say in this service and it applies to the Gospel lesson we just heard. That passage is part of what is called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. It is unique in John’s Gospel for being unusually wordy and repetitious. (If John had an editor they dropped the ball in chapter 17.) In spite of that literary failing, the central meaning of the prayer is abundantly clear: Jesus wants people to live in unity. He wants you and me, us and them, him and her, and even those people to enjoy the kind of harmony that Jesus and the Father enjoy. He wants us to be one in the same way the Trinity is one. There is a good chance you already knew that. This unity notion of God’s has been around for a good while. I doubt you are surprised by the idea. But we are here in the interests of religion not just philosophy. Our gathering is not about ideas but actions. Our ultimate question is “So what?” Come with me for a while as we apply that ultimate question to this morning’s gospel.
The first point to mark is that Jesus is not asking God to establish an essential unity among people. That has already been done. If Jesus were saying, “God please do something to bind people together,” it would be like me saying, “Let’s make a great church for national purposes, a house of prayer for all people, right here in Washington.” I would not be saying let’s build one, because that has already been done. I would mean let’s be that kind of a place; let’s live into that calling. Jesus’ prayer is like that. He is not asking for the oneness of humanity because that has already been established. It is established in the double fact of the common cause of every human being. A double fact because we each and all were caused by the same thing: God breathing life into our chemistry. Secondly we each and all share in the common causes of humankind. Recently earthquake, ash, and oil have combined to remind us of our common vulnerability. In addition each and all of us daily touch the common bonds of devotion, compassion, competition, co-operation, recognition, kinship, love, choice, fear, and joy.
In our culture we make much of the importance of individualism. It is a central thing. The God who gave us a common life also gave us each a unique life. But our individual uniqueness is rooted in the interdependence of the human ecology. We are already bound together in a myriad of ways so there was no need for Jesus to ask that the bonds be forged. Instead he is asking that we live like connected people; that we do what connected people do. What might that mean?
In a few minutes we are going to join in the Lord’s Prayer that begins with “Our Father.” How far do you suppose the word “our” reaches? Who is included in it? Who is outside of it? Does ‘our’ mean us in this room? People like us or just people we like? Does it mean Christians? Sensible Christians, of course. Maybe it is just Episcopalians by which we mean non-homophobic, gender neutral, Rite II, Episcopalians. Is it Americans? Legal Americans that is. Or does it go beyond that? Is it everybody? Is Jesus saying that we are an US without a THEM? If that were true—and it just might be—we have to start thinking about people in terms of how we connect to them instead of just in how we are distinct from them. The language of separation, difference and distinction is important but not complete until it includes the language of connection.
The National Archives downtown has a major display on the Civil War. That means a war between citizens of the same country. To my knowledge that is the only kind of war that defines itself in terms of the connection between combatants. Usually wars are defined by disconnects such as Allies and Axis or Sunnis and Shiites. But aren’t all combatants connected? Aren’t distancing words such as foreigner, terrorist, and Islamic fundamentalist inadequate? The fact is that, like it or not, we are connected to the Taliban, to al Queda. For all of our terrible and frightening differences we share common cause with them. We and they come from the same act of God and share in the human ecology. Isn’t that an implication of Jesus’ prayer? Doesn’t that implication need to be in our minds along with everything else?
On another level, about half the marriages in this country end in divorce. The word itself and everything people do under its banner are about separation. But the process is not over until those formerly married can understand how they are still connected. The old connection may have been toxic or just inefficient, destructive or merely awkward, painful or simply pointless, so it was set aside. But connection itself is never lost because connection is built in. The divorce process is not over until those formerly married figure out how they are newly connected. That can be very hard. If it were easy I doubt that Jesus would have felt the need to pray for it.
We hear a lot about immigration laws these days. I assure you that I do not know the answers to those complex issues. But I do know some of the questions. Most of our laws, fences, border patrols, spot checks, and hassles have to do with keeping other people out of here. Those things have their place. But our laws, fences, border patrols, spot checks, and hassles are not dealing with how we are connected to them and what that connection means. The immigration debate will never be satisfactory until the issue of connection is taken up.
Jesus’ prayer calls us to consider how we are connected to people we find difficult. It also applies to people we like, love, or at least get along with. Jesus is praying that our unity be like the unity he has with the Father. In other words: perfect. That means that every relationship has some deepening, growing, expanding, solidifying, and blossoming to do. Under the sway of this prayer, no relationship is allowed to be static. Not even the good ones. Relationships have a way of finding a groove, a predictability. The Greeks called that kind of love storge, which means familiarity. It is fine for a favorite pair of jeans, a family vacation spot, or a classic piece of music, but it is not what Jesus has in mind for people.
What is the most important defining relationship in your life: spouse, partner, friend, lover, teacher, parent, sibling, mentor, coach? What is the next step to be taken in deepening, growing, expanding, solidifying, and blossoming that relationship: a dose of honesty; a conversation about the importance of the relationship; a new project? Are there elephants to be chased from the room, vulnerabilities to be tested, ideas to share, hopes to embark upon, memories to be savored, memories to be healed? Whatever that relationship is it does have a next step. Jesus is praying that we will find it and take it.
That applies to powerful relationships and to those on the edges of our life: people you go to church with; those you wave to; those you work with; those you put up with; those you admire; the children in your life; those who carry great burdens of illness or happenstance or even foolishness. Those relationships have a next step too. Be aware that Jesus is praying that you and I will take a step closer to them as well.
Jesus prayed that we would all be one just as he and the Father are one. His prayer is not about establishing a new truth but of living into an old one. We are all part of a deep and powerful oneness. Jesus is simply asking that we live that way. It makes the language of distinction and separation inadequate to express the whole truth. It gives every important, defining, and even peripheral relationship a growing edge. It is an exercise of religion, not philosophy. It is a thing to be done. By us. Jesus is praying that we will get on with it.