Salem Lutheran Church

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Gathered to Be One

It is the night before he will be crucified and Jesus is with his disciples. As we know, he has been preparing them for his departure and assuring them that they have what they will need to continue his work, the work his Father sent him to do. He has done all he can do and it is now time for them to carry on. The problem is, this work isn’t exactly work that will get one rewarded in this world. As the disciples had already seen and experienced, the work Jesus had done had upset his family and his close friends. This work had upset the religious leadership, secular leaders, as well as many of his fellow Jews, and now, it is because of this work that Jesus will be crucified. So, as Jesus prepared to leave this earth, he prayed. It was clearly a farewell prayer, and it tells us what was most important to him. Even though he knew what was about to come, his crucifixion, Jesus’ thoughts and concerns were for his disciples and all the believers yet to come. Jesus thought about you and me the night before he was killed.

Jesus knew the suffering the disciples would endure because they had come to believe in him and would follow in his footsteps. There was no way to get around what was to come. Jesus knew these things could not be prevented, but that wasn’t the point of his prayer.

The truth is, being in this world means bad things will happen to us. The cross is not some “lucky charm” that keeps evil away from us, and wearing one, as I always do, won’t keep us from being harmed. But it is a reminder that we are not alone and we have one with us who has promised to let nothing, not even death, separate us from him. Tragedies will take place, people will get sick, bullies will victimize others, and the innocent will get blamed. The bottom line is there are no magic words that will prevent hardships or disasters. The theology of glory that teaches if one just has enough faith, or if one just prays hard enough everything will be fine, is a theology of fools. When Jesus prays for the Father to protect his followers, he isn’t asking God to keep those bad things from happening. He wasn’t asking for some kind of force field to be placed around his followers to protect them. No, instead, Jesus acknowledged the reality of their life to come and asked his Father, our Father, to protect us by assuring us eternal life and by making us one. Now again, I want to clarify something, when Jesus asks that God grant us eternal life, he wasn’t talking about some future afterlife. He was talking about this life. In this prayer, Jesus told us what he meant by eternal life, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Jesus’ prayer is one that asks God to help us understand that eternal life, is a life lived in the presence of God. Eternal life is not a reward for knowing God, rather it is a gift that assures us that our God is with us and walks with us in both the good and bad times.

So, as Jesus prayed for his followers that night, he prayed for eternal life and he prayed for one more very important thing, And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11). Jesus prayed that God’s people “may be one.” Now, Jesus wasn’t talking about not having differences. He wasn’t talking about whether we should, or shouldn’t, have different denominations. No, Jesus was asking that we not allow division and disagreement to prevent us from faithfully following God and God’s ways.

Jesus doesn’t care if we have different worship practices, or differing views on the sacraments, or even differing views on his divinity. But what Jesus does care about is how whether or not we follow in his ways and how we live our faith. Jesus does care that we are one in continuing his work. What is this work? It is that of bringing good news to the poor, giving sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free, and standing with the stranger who is in a foreign land. Jesus’ work is that of offering forgiveness and healing to all in need. These are the things in which Jesus seeks that we be one. Jesus’ prayer was a way of asking God to help us not separate ourselves from each other. We gather each week to help us be one.

In his book, The Shaking of the Foundations, first published in 1948, theologian Paul Tillich defined sin as “separation.” That is to be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation. I share this because I believe this is what Jesus is praying about. Jesus knew that through our sinful actions and our attitudes, we human beings often separate ourselves from each other, from God and even from our own best interests. Instead of living as God created us that is in community with each other and with God, too often we prefer to live as “Lone Rangers.”

We are too willing to let all kinds of things divide us. We allow our politics to divide us into “red” and “blue” states. Today, it is almost impossible to hold a civil conversation with anyone, even loved ones that have differing political views. We have come to allow ourselves to be separated by things like language, gender, race, religion, and cultural heritage. When we identify our differences, instead of celebrating them and using them together, as one, as God intended, we are quick to self-segregate. Instead of getting to know those who are different from us, we prefer to spend time only with those who look like us, talk like us, and agree with us. In the name of self-preservation, and even in the name of God, we prefer to put up barriers and walls that discourage conversation, and that makes it impossible to listen to one another or try to bridge the gap. All too often, we refuse to work together because we allow differences to define us instead of allowing our love for God and God’s ways to shine through us as one. Jesus prayed we might be one, but all too often we refuse to let that prayer come true.

Jesus knew that divisions would threaten unity among God’s people. Throughout the ages we have witnessed example after example of this; Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, and North and South Korea all are constantly teetering on the verge of war. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are constantly fighting with each other over theology, instead of celebrating each other and working with each other to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

Jesus prayed that we would allow God’s power, mercy, and healing presence unite us in our faith. Jesus knew that when God’s people can unite to do good, that they are unstoppable. My prayer today is that do not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by bickering and petty disagreements. And on this weekend, when we as a country pray for all those who have died serving this country, may we seek ways to serve as the one people of God because when we can do this amazing things can happen. Amen.


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