In the so-called farewell discourse occupying the mid-teen chapters of the Gospel of John, Jesus gives his disciples, shall we say, his “famous last words” to them. I would take these instructions to be of particular importance. These words must be received as we would from a coach giving players a pep talk prior to a championship game, or the speech of a politician to the nation on the eve of war, or the erudition of a military general prior to leading his troops into battle, or even the words spoken at the death-bed of a loved one.
Perhaps more so the latter because Jesus knew he was leaving them shortly. Following his death, resurrection and ascension, he will no longer be present in the same way with those on earth. A significant shift is about to take place in the manner with which Jesus will relate to his disciples for the rest of time — no longer in bodily, physical form but through the Holy Spirit and in the Sacrament of the Holy Meal.
A certain urgency therefore accompanies a reading of John 17, known as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus; and hence we need to pay particular attention to these words. What Jesus prays here drives straight to the heart of his essential teaching and message.
Jesus knows that his impending departure runs the risk of dividing the on-earth communion of believers — or at least setting a divisive tone in the community of faith. Therefore Jesus prays for their unity, “that they may be one”. This is decidedly a corporate blessing; Jesus prays for the community to be united. A significant point.
Jesus, as well as his successing leaders of the church on earth, address their words not to individuals but to a community.
When the Holy Spirit came to the disciples in Jerusalem, the text from Acts 2:1 is clear to state that they were “gathered” when the flames of fire descended and the wind rushed in. While certainly God can inspire us through the Holy Spirit when we are by ourselves (God can doing anything God wants!), Jesus’ prayer binds us into community. The Holy Spirit that proceeds from the Son (Nicene Creed) brings us together in the love of Jesus. While inspiration from God may come to us when we are alone, that gift is expressed, validated and empowered for the sake of God’s mission only in the community of faith. Remember, the letters of Saint Paul — the vast majority of them — are a word to a community, not to individuals (eg. in Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, Thessaloniki, Colossae, Philippi, etc.). Even Peter connects faith in Jesus as being expressed within community: He refers not to a chosen human leader, but a chosen race; not to a royal priest, but a royal priesthood; not to a holy city, but a holy nation; not to one person who belongs, but God’s own people. (1 Peter 2)
We still belong, even though tempted from time to time to leave the community and strike out “on our own”. We still belong, even though at times disillusioned and disappointed with the church, needing a “time out” for a while. But let us never forget that any individual decision we make in good faith will also affect the community. We are never an island unto ourselves; we are affected by, and affect the church with all our decisions to leave or to stay. In other words, it’s not about us, individually. It’s about something much greater than the sum of individual parts — much greater than the sum of individual opinions. We are after all a church without walls, a church not defined by building but by bodies — living bodies. A church is people, defined by relationships of love in Christ Jesus.
An important question of faith, I believe, is to ask: Where do I belong? Where is my faith demonstrated in acts of grace, love, kindness, and compassion according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ — with and to others? Where do I belong?
The message inbedded and relevant to us today from John 17 is precisely that in the prayer of Jesus — we all belong. Despite our differing opinions. Despite our diverse ways of interpreting Scripture. Despite all our differences — we belong to the church, the Body of Christ. Our unity for which Christ prays does not depend on us but on the blessing of God which we have already received.
What is the basis of our belonging? Many of you got up very early in the morning last month to watch live the wedding of the royal couple, Kate and William. The pomp, expense and vast, public exposure of the event did not subdue, I believe, what many observed in the quiet exchange of vows between them. Despite the excessiveness of their clothing, the scrutiny and destraction of the media, and caricature nature of the event, what people commented on afterward was the authentic, common, heartfelt mutual expressions of love between the two of them.
Love knows no hierarchy nor division. Everyone has the capacity to love, everyone. And this is the only qualification for priesthood in the church. We are all priests. Martin Luther first coined that phrase that has come to be a doctrinal hallmark of the Reformation: we are in Christ a “priesthood of all believers”. We have all received grace and hold in our hearts the capacity to love. We can love one another, each and everyone of us. That is how and why we belong. This is the basis of our unity.
Let us take seriously the “famous last words” of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Let us remain united because we already belong, and because we are a chosen race, a royal preisthood, a holy nation, God’s own people!