Sermon: Easter 7 Year A*
May 24, 2020
The Rev. Eileen Weglarz
Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:17-11
One of my favorite biblical texts is Jesus’s deeply moving prayer for unity in the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel, which ends: “…that they may be one, as we are one.” This prayer is on his lips the night before he gives up his life for us that we might be saved (from that which is not of God), healed, and reconciled to God and one another.
There is no reason to believe that Jesus prayed this prayer, known as his high priestly prayer, just once. It wasn’t as if he said the prayer once and forgot about it. I believe this is (Jesus’s) constant intercession for us. The words he spoke two thousand years ago, he speaks to us today, and the prayers he offered then he offers now and forever.
Jesus’s prayer for unity has taken on new urgency and significance in the ecumenical efforts of the last 75-plus years. Nonetheless, its meaning extends well beyond our efforts at Christian unity. According to the scriptures, God’s design for humankind is that we recognize that all of us on this planet are, indeed, the children of God and brothers and sisters of one another. This implies that we must live in accordance with this divinely inspired insight—that we live in peace, harmony, and unity.
We need only look around us to realize that we have a long way to go to cooperate with God’s plan. This should prompt us to ask ourselves: What will it take for Jesus’s prayer for unity to be fully realized? What will bring about greater harmony and peace among nations and within our families and churches? How can we better use God’s gifts to us and build up his kingdom of peace and justice?
Friends, Jesus does more than pray for unity—he shows his disciples how to care for one another. He shows us how to achieve the unity for which we pray. We are to serve one another, to love one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord—even, figuratively, to wash one another’s feet.
In other words, to consciously, intentionally, humbly, and lovingly serve one another. And he doesn’t say anything about doing this only for people we like or people who do our bidding. Or people in our inner circle, while we build walls and fences to push away everyone else.
In response to a neighbor who routinely repeated the axiom, “Good fences make good neighbors,” the poet Robert Frost retorted with a poem:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
That wants it down.”
Today we simply have no choice—if we want to survive as a human community—but to tear down the walls and fences that divide us. If ever walls made for “good neighbors,” that time is past!
If we never got it before, the times we are now in as the human family, as we strive to survive from the COVID 19 virus, should show us our need to tear down our fences. Just look at how people rail against masks and isolation. We want to get together, be together. What does that tell you?
We see unity happening in service to one another maybe as never before. Can we personally live into the unity and MAINTAIN the unity when the crisis is over? The high fences around our individual communities have only increased our suspicion, fear, and distrust, which only threaten to isolate us from one another… destroying the harmony of our community… and the fences I’m talking about have nothing to do with COVID 19. These observations are only more relevant today, as we face new, and more complicated national and global challenges.
Jesus has shown us the way of peace and harmony and Life itself. He showed us God’s intention for humanity from the beginning of time. Will we enter in? And if so, how? When? It’s been over 2,000 years and yet we aren’t there!
What are some of the walls that we create? I remember a line from an old Richard Prior movie (but I can’t remember the movie—if you know tell me). But the line is, “Justice or just us?” Is justice for all people in your mind and heart, or is it just for those who think just as you do?
19th Century poet Edwin Markham wrote something I can’t get out of my head: “He drew a circle that shut me out—heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win; we drew a circle that took him in!”
Can we accept that kind of ego-sacrificing thinking and compassion? Can we get past promotion of selfish needs to push others out or make them look bad in the eyes of others?
Several of history’s most profound religious writers have addressed this problem of barriers that we create. Let me share a few of their thoughts with you.
Sufi poet Rumi wrote: "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all of the barriers you have built against it."
And to that I add, to seek and find why you have those barriers and then seek spiritual and psychological help to figure out how to get rid of them. Because if you do, a giant weight will be lifted from your shoulders and you will be better able to do Jesus’s bidding to build unity and please God.
One barrier most of us these days have built has to do with whether we are Conservative or Progressive— socially or politically, maybe religiously. The brilliant G. K. Chesterton, English writer, philosopher, lay theologian, and literary and art critic, wrote concerning this problem: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”
Think about that one for a while and you realize that none of us get off easy. Both sides have work to do to find unity.
And then, who can argue with the great Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author, who wrote about abuses of power and the power of love: “The first form of rulers in the world were the tyrants, the last will be the martyrs. Between a tyrant and a martyr there is of course an enormous difference, although they both have one thing in common: the power to compel. The tyrant, himself ambitious to dominate, compels people through his power; the martyr, himself unconditionally obedient to God, compels others through his suffering. The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins.”
Who are the martyrs? History is replete with martyrs who have changed history. All of the disciples were martyred. Martin Luther King began a change in this nation in our time that continues to this day. The doctors and nurses on the front lines of this pandemic are martyrs—giving sacrificial service to save others. And then, especially on this Memorial Day weekend, we remember all who have given their lives protecting our country. All martyrs!
Which takes us back to Jesus, doesn’t it? His rule began after his death, resurrection and ascension, and then most powerfully when he sent the Holy Spirit to empower the first disciples and the fledgling church to carry on his work.
Does Jesus’s death for the sins of the world still have the power to transform each and every one of us? To make us worthy to be called his disciples, the children of God? If not, he and so many martyrs have died for nothing.
About 40 years ago I remember attending a mission conference, and the missionary was an excellent speaker. The one thing I remember from his talk was the following. He said that when we consciously, intentionally sin, it’s as if we are standing at the foot of the cross and laughing in Jesus’s face as he hangs on the cross in deep pain and suffering. We are in essence saying to him, “I don’t care if you are suffering and dying for me; I’m going to do what I want!” This fear of the implication of my consciously sinning has over the years kept me from giving in to temptation. I didn’t want to make a mockery of Jesus’s martyrdom.
Let us pray: O Lord, may the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus sent never end! May all of us be willing to let God’s Holy Spirit so inform us, so transform us, and so empower us, that we will live into Jesus’s high priestly prayer for us, and for the Church, and for the coming of the Kingdom of God, “…that they may be one, as we are one.” Amen.
*Sermon portions adapted from a sermon preached by The Late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, February 9, 1986, in Chicago.