(Acts 16:16-34; Ps. 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21)
I’m going to tell you a little story about recent church history. There is a point to it; just please bear with me a little while.
About fifteen years ago, the Anglican Communion (of which we, the Episcopal Church, are one of 46 member churches around the world) went into something of an uproar over issues of sexuality. These issues had been brought to a head by the actions of several members of the Communion, chiefly us: through our consideration of same-sex unions, our ordination of gay clergy, and especially, in 2003, our consecration of the first openly gay person as a bishop (Eugene Robinson, in New Hampshire.)
All this made a lot of churches in the Communion angry. They thought our actions were contrary to a biblically based faith, they thought we’d done things they couldn’t tolerate as faithful Christians and way overstepped our bounds as members of the Communion. It all landed in the lap of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England and one of the principal sources of authority in the Communion. Over a number of years, his office created a commission which wrote a report and finally issued something called the Anglican Covenant, which established certain rules about what member churches could and couldn’t do, and could and couldn’t say, and were all asked to sign. This was sent out to the churches in late 2009, and was expected to take a while to wrap up. Only a handful of churches actually ended up signing it; some (including the Church of England) flat-out rejected it; most just let it sit there.
But in 2011 it was still a front-burner issue. That year I was taking classes at General Theological Seminary. There’s an annual series of talks there, called the Paddock Lectures, which they choose a distinguished churchperson to deliver on the subject of his or her choice. In 2011 the speaker happened to be the Canon Theologian to the Archbishop of Canterbury, a brilliant man, a couple of whose books I’d read. I don’t remember much about his lectures, but I do remember that the first was mostly about the critical importance of the unity of the church, and how because of that, we, the Episcopal Church, needed to sign the Anglican Covenant.
I also remember the look in his eye, and the tone of his voice. He was angry. He didn’t say this, but I felt he was scolding us for having been responsible for the whole mess (as he saw it) in the first place, and for not yet having signed the Covenant. And there was a distinct whiff in the air of the Crown speaking to the colonists, telling us we’d better start behaving ourselves and get back in line. And I remember the feeling in the audience, which was a growing urge to get up and start heaving crates of tea overboard.
We managed to avert a second American Revolution, and his lecture series concluded in polite peace; but over the next couple of years, the Anglican Covenant died the slow, quiet, unremarked-on death it deserved. And here we are, nearly a decade later; and the disagreements that other churches had with us still exist (though they’re gradually diminishing); and we’re still the Episcopal Church, in the Anglican Communion.
This is so because, in truth, what that lecturer – and what the Anglican Covenant – was asking for was not unity; but rather uniformity: a mask, which would look like unity. We didn’t have unity on the particular issues which divided us (we didn’t then, we mostly don’t now.) Time has revealed that, in truth, those issues really don’t have anything to do with our true unity as Christ’s church.
So why have I gone on so long about all this? What’s the point?
It has everything to do with today’s gospel; which is all about the unity of Christ’s church: what that unity really is, and why it’s essential to our lives as Christians.
The passage we heard, from chapter 17 of John’s gospel, is Jesus Christ’s prayer for Christ’s church: that’s to say, us: you, and me, and all of us around the world who follow Christ. These verses are at the very end of John’s telling of the Last Supper, a long section of the gospel, takes up five chapters: Jesus prepares his disciples, his nearest and dearest, for his death, for the fact that he’s not going to be physically present among them any more, which he knows is going to be extremely traumatic for them, and is going to happen the next day. In chapter 17, he turns from speaking to them to praying to God, asking for God’s protection and sanctification of them, ending with: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” And in the first verse we heard today, Jesus says, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they all may be one.”
Well, in the first place, that’s us. Christ is praying here for us. He spoke the word – the word of truth, the gospel - to his disciples; they spoke that word to the world around them; that word spread literally around the world and down through time, to us right here, right now; and to every Christian community on the face of the earth. We have all of us heard the word, each in our own way. We would each describe it in at least a slightly different way; but that word is why we’re all here. Christ is praying for us.
And what is it that Christ prays for, for us? “I ask…on behalf of those who will believe in me…that they all may be one.” He says further, as we heard (again, praying to God): “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….”
This is our true unity. This is the unity that we should be striving for, that we should be praying for. This is the unity that in truth we already have, have we but the eyes to see and the ears to hear. We have been given this unity by Christ: Pual makes this clear in the famous verse in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The knowledge of the presence of God in and among us is what unites us as Christians: is our oneness.
And the last two verses we heard – the last two verses of the chapter, the very end of Jesus’ prayer to God - reveal the purpose of our unity: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” That’s our mission: to make the love of God known to the world; every day.
This is our unity, and why it’s so important. It’s not that the issues we wrangle over are meaningless. But compared to this oneness they are nothing. That’s why when Desmond Tutu, the great South African Archbishop, first became aware of the controversies that resulted in the Anglican Covenant, his response was essentially, What’s all the fuss about? He knew what our oneness really is, and what it calls us to. Let us pray, with Christ, that we always keep that oneness alive. It is both the duty, and the joy, of the Christian life. Thanks be to God.