One of the first Lutheran churches I ever attended had a delightful surprise for me. Having grown up in the Presbyterian church, and having had a Baptist best friend who became a Pentecostal, I was aware that different denominations did some things differently, but I was fairly certain that all Christians were basically the same. So I was prepared for most of the differences when I started going to church with my Lutheran friends.
I was excited to get up and receive communion at the front of the church, curious by the continuous line and the somewhat individual experience of having the pastor and a helper give me, and everyone before and after me, the bread and the wine. In my home church, it had always been the person beside me who had given me the bread and grape juice. I would sit, holding this piece of cubed bread, talking to God and waiting as everyone else in their pews received the same, and we would eat it all together as the minister raised his bread to his mouth, saying: “The body of Christ.”
As I grew more accustomed to getting up, walking to the front of the church, taking my little cup to the end of the pew, depositing it in the basket, and returning back up the pews to my seat, I became aware of extra people. Two extra people, at either side of the communion line, tucked back slightly away from the little cup receptacle. These people, sometimes one of the pastors, but more often just a regular lay person I would often say ‘hello’ to in the narthex each Sunday, was standing quietly and idly by as people walked on. I thought it was weird and wondered what they were doing keeping watch like sentinels.
I soon found out. Some people would receive their bread and wine and then drop their cup off and turn to face the person rather than head back toward me, toward their seat.
An incredible thing, the two people would clearly be talking to each other and then suddenly they would hold hands, or a hand would go on a shoulder, and they would bow their heads. And the sentinels would come alive! They were praying, but the person praying would exude love and care and concern and joy and incredible peace. To watch seemed awkward and overly intimate, but there was something about it that was incredibly appealing to me. They’re praying!
I found a deep desire grow within me: I want that.
There is something about being prayed for that is a unique experience. I find it hard to define in words, and I have found that to be true of other people as well. When these kinds of prayer are done in love for one another, being prayed for is powerful and special and inspiring
So, today’s gospel reading is so incredible to me. In the gospel of John, Jesus prays, out loud, not for himself, but for those around him AND for those who will come to believe in him.
Jesus’ prayer is inspiring and deeply troubling. I don’t know about you, but when I hear Jesus pray:
“That they may be one;
That they may all be one;
That they may become completely one.” [John 17:21-23]
I’m immediately drawn to thinking about all the divisions of the church. All the disagreements and fights and schisms. It seems that this prayer has gone unanswered. This is why it is so important for us to remember that this prayer is not about uniformity – Jesus is not asking that we would all be the same.
Jesus is praying: “As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, so may they also be in us.” Our one-ness, our unity, is held together in divine unity. A divine unity that respects and acknowledges and advocates for The three persons exist as one God. The three person with unique gifts and talents, personalities, and relationships to one another!
Jesus is not commanding the disciples, or us, to conform into one being.
Jesus is inviting us to participate in the divine unity. More than that, Jesus is inviting the divine unity into each of us. That God may be in each of us as God is in Jesus and as Jesus is in God.
A beautiful image, but what does it mean?
Trying to explain the mystery of the divine unity is a bit like telling you to catch the wind in a jar for me. Its meaning is not in what I say to you, but in how you experience it. And it’s not about what it looks like, but about where it shows up.
This past week, I spent time with some of my colleagues at a Study Conference where there were many discussions around living mission in the world surrounded and held by the Gospel. We discovered together that living Gospel in mission to the world truly means recognizing God where God already is.
“The God in me sees the God in you.”
“I am because you are.”
Jesus prays that we may be one, and God makes it happen. We ARE one because the one love of God surrounds, permeates, and connects us to everything and everyone that God ever created. The joy of our oneness is not that we are identically alike, but that we are loved identically alike.
It is out of our recognition of this truth, this good news, that we are inevitably gathered to each other. Not just in this community of faith, but with the whole world. We are invited to participate in this divine unity. And we do this by actively choosing to listen to each other, to give ourselves to others, to serve each other, to bear witness to one another, to pray for each other, and to discover and to point to the unity in Christ that we become when we do these things.
We are not called to conformity and we are not commanded to do our best in straining to make everything work with each other.
We see the love of God bringing us together and holding us there in love. We see the Christ in each other. And we look to the Spirit to lead us in the way in divine unity.
The next time I was at church and found myself dropping the little cup into the basket, I turned around instead of going back to my pew.
And the face in front of me looked at me with respect and the unspoken words: “The God in me sees the God in you.”
To be fair, I didn’t know how the whole thing worked, so my face most likely held the unspoken words: “Why are you looking at me like that? What is really going to happen here? Why did I come here?!”
But, I remained rooted. I was greeted kindly and instructions were given as to what was held in this space and time of prayer. And I was prayed for. The wind of the Spirit stirred and our hearts beat out a rhythm of life and we acknowledged the God of love in each of us leading us unto a path of divine unity. And we prayed for each other.
Let us pray,
Holy Trinity, we are not praying only for ourselves but also for those who believe in you because of the Word. We pray that we would all be one, just as you are one. We pray that we would all also be in you as you live and move in, through, and around each of us. We pray that we would go into the world are you are going and as you are sending us. Help us to make you known in the world as we listen, serve, pray, and point out that we are because they are and that the God in each of us sees the God in each of those before us. Amen.
- Alan Brehm. “That the World May Believe.” The Waking Dreamer.
- Dr Paul Simpson Duke. “John 17:20-26” The Truett Pulpit: The Kyle Lake Centre for Effective Preaching.
- Karoline Lewis. “Resurrection is Promise.” Craft of Preaching – Working Preacher.
- David Lose. “The Power of Being Prayed For.” Craft of Preaching – Working Preacher.
- Nancy Rockwell. “A Shared Sense – Jesus’ Prayer.” Patheos.com