Seventh Sunday in Eastertide – May 16, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen
The seventeenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel is entirely devoted to what is called the “high-priestly prayer of Christ.” Although presented as the great prayer that Jesus prayed at the Last Supper, it reads just as much as the prayer that he, the great priest of the heavenly liturgy, continues to pray for his disciples, that is, for us and for all others who gather in his name. It is a fitting reading for this Sunday which falls between Christ’s departure from this earth in his Ascension and the climax of the Easter Season in next Sunday’s Pentecost liturgy when he sends his Spirit to empower and inspire the disciples for their mission in the world.
The excerpt from this prayer that we have heard should be of immense comfort to us, and of challenge as well. Earlier in this season we learned from Jesus’s words to Doubting Thomas that those who would never be able to see and to touch Christ were not at a disadvantage compared to those who were able to do so: “Thomas, you believe because you saw me: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Now we hear the same concern for future generations in this prayer. Jesus does not pray it only for his immediate disciples but also “for those who will believe in me through their word.” That word has continued to be preached and to be believed for two thousand years, until it was brought to us and welcomed by us, gathered here this morning. Jesus is praying for us, for you and me.
What is he praying for? “That they may all be one as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us.” The most intimate relationship existed and exists between Jesus and his Father, and you can sense something of it in this prayer, and especially in the last words we heard this morning: “that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.” What is the love with which the Father loves the Son? Is it not the Holy Spirit? The Holy Trinity of Persons in the one God is a relationship of love: “God is love,” St. John says in his First Epistle. The Eternal Word that the Father utters is a word of love: a word that breathes love, St. Thomas Aquinas called it. And the Holy Spirit is the love that eternally unites Father and Son in the Trinity. That we may be loved and made one as God is one in his eternal being and love is what Jesus prayed and prays for us.
Perhaps it helps to think of human comparisons. Think of the kind of presence to one another enjoyed by people who love one another. You may be one among a number of people physically present to one another, but then your husband, your wife, enters the room, and you are present to one another in a much fuller and intimate way. And the same is true of other relations: of child to parent, of parent to child, of friend to friend. I spent the last four days in Chicago visiting with a friend since childhood whom I hadn’t seen in seven or eight years. We picked up our conversation as if we had just spoken yesterday, and all the common experiences, common memories, common sensibilities, common values, common loves that constitute our friendship were restored in an instant. All such experiences help illumine what Jesus prays when he says that he is in the Father and the Father in him, that he wishes his disciples, wishes us, to be in him and him in them, that he desires that the love with which his Father loves him may be in us and we may be in him. Has there ever been a fuller sense of intimacy between God and his creatures? And it is what Jesus is praying for us.
If such love is realized between God and us, then out of it will also come the intimacy of love among and between us: Christ is praying that we be one. And why? “So that the world may believe that you sent me.” Did we not hear a Sunday or two ago: “By this shall people know that you are my disciples: by the love you have for one another”? The greatest proof of what we believe is given when we love one another as Christ loved us. “Only love is credible” is the title of a little book by one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. He was saying that only a God of love can be credible, and that his love for us in Christ needs no further validation. But Jesus is saying also that the Christian message will not be credible if Christians do not love one another: People will see that we are Christ’s disciples if we love as he loved, will see that the one who produces such disciples must have been sent by God. Don’t we have a negative proof of this when we observe how greatly the Church’s credibility, and the credibility of our faith, has been damaged by the revelations of horrible sins committed by priests and bishops?
The effect of the prayer Jesus prays cannot be hindered from God’s side. We are the only ones who can separate ourselves from such love; it is we who would do the separating, not God, and the separation from God would also entail division and separation among ourselves. “That they may be one” is a prayer that Jesus continues to pray because it needs to be continually prayed. Think of all the divisions among Christians: between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East since the eleventh century; between Catholics and Protestants since the sixteenth century; between and among Catholics of various stripes, between clergy and laity. Thinking of efforts to restore Christian unity, Pope John Paul II cited those words at the beginning of his finest encyclical: “Ut unum sint”–that they may be one. Some years ago, Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago founded an organization, the Common Ground Initiative, to promote greater unity among Catholics. In the wake of the latest scandals in our Church, there are responsible calls for overcoming the gap that often separates the clergy from the laity and gives the laity a greater say in the life and work of the Church.
We might, in this celebration of the Church’s unity in Christ, pray that this prayer of Christ come closer to fulfilment in the Church itself, in relations among Christian Churches, and in the world. Christ offers and enables an intimate relationship between us and God, and we ought to treasure and cultivate it by habits of prayer and reflection. As we become more conscious and grateful for this union with God, we will find ourselves also readier to open ourselves in love to others, and to that degree we will contribute in our own ways, great or small, to the realization on Christ’s great prayer.