Scripture: JOHN 17:6-19
Many years ago, Mary and I were vacationing one year on Cape Cod, in a small town called Wellfleet. Some of you may know it. We were eating a delicious meal in a restaurant called Robert’s. It was the first time I ever had duck. At the next table, a man was telling his dinner companions a joke. I can still remember the joke, and sometime I’ll tell it to you. What strikes me today, though, is that the man at the other table wasn’t telling the joke to Mary and me. He was telling it to his dinner companions. Mary and I just happened to overhear it.
It’s not uncommon to overhear what someone else is saying. Sometimes it’s a loud story-teller at the next table. Or maybe a spouse quietly planning what they had hoped would be a surprise get-away for the two of you. Or your parents arguing tensely about whether to stay married. Or a piece of gossip from the next office that takes you aback. Or your child scheming to get some drugs or alcohol. We overhear things, don’t we, some of it disturbing, some fun, some inconsequential.
This is what we’re doing with today’s scripture passage. As Jesus’ imminent death casts its looming shadow, he’s been talking intently to the disciples, letting them know what matters most, and what might guide and shape them after he’s gone. And suddenly, inexplicably, Jesus shifts his audience. No longer is he talking to the disciples. Now he’s talking to God. For an entire chapter of John’s gospel, we listen in on a prayer of Jesus. Jesus isn’t talking to those first-century disciples. He’s not talking to us. He’s talking to God. And we overhear it. A prayerful valedictory.
At the end of Winston Churchill’s life, his last words were, “I’m bored with it all.” The reggae musician Bob Marley’s last words were, “Money can’t buy life.” And the last words of the actor John Barrymore were, “Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.” And all of those are, in some strange way, memorable last words.
As Jesus approaches the end of his life, though, he knows there are bigger fish to fry, more crucial matters to attend to. He doesn’t speak about these things to his friends, though. He says them to God. The urgency of the moment drives him to prayer.
And it’s a prayer it turns out we all need to overhear. As it happens, what we overhear in that prayer is somewhat rambling and circuitous. It repeats itself and weaves in and out of several recurring themes. You shouldn’t feel inadequate if you find it difficult to follow Jesus’ line of thinking here. It doesn’t grab us the way a compelling story does. But that doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important. In fact, seldom have Jesus’ words been more crucial for us to hear. Or rather, to overhear. These words are a plea from Jesus for God to watch over him, and those first disciples, and all of us.
One of the central themes of that prayer is a plea for oneness. Jesus asks God to let his followers be one, even as Jesus and God are one. And if you’re like me, maybe you think, “Is that so? You want us to be unified, do you? You want us to see ourselves as some sort of indivisible whole? To be frank, Jesus, I really can’t see how that’s going to happen.”
Just how unlikely does true unity seem, in any setting? Be one with the Taliban? With Russia, China, North Korea? Be one with cultures that stand for values we wouldn’t be caught dead upholding? And what about here in this country? In so many corners, we despise what some of our compatriots stand for. Can we ever envision a day in which Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez see themselves as one? Bernie Sanders and Josh Hawley? Buckeyes and Wolverines? And maybe worst of all, you and your obnoxiously pontificating brother-in-law, your conniving neighbor, your morally unscrupulous parent? Unity, really? I’m afraid not. We camp out with our own tribes at our opposite poles. Oneness? Sorry—not remotely possible.
What does Jesus pray for, though? He prays for our oneness. Wildly out of touch though he may seem, let’s pretend for a moment that that sort of oneness is really possible. What would it look like? For us to really see each other as one, the pressing need is to see beneath the surface, isn’t it, and to see the humanity of the other person. In our balkanized and broken world, it’s so easy to forget that that person who grates on my nerves is also someone who loves and hates, who’s scared of losing what’s dear to them, who may well be afraid of dying. It’s easy to gloss over the fact that they have known both transporting ecstasy and knee-bending sorrow. It’s easy to overlook that they have laughed and danced and hoped and thrilled, and that they have been felled by failure and numbed by shame. The psychologist Edith Eger says “all therapy is grief work. Of the many things that connect us, there is nothing more real or raw than that: you and I have both been laid low by loss that is all-but-overwhelming. If we don’t see that in even the people we can’t stand, we are failing to see something crucial. Something that connects us at our core. Something that binds us together across all our differences.
If we want to bridge our differences, there is no better, or harder, or more deeply satisfying way than to listen to each other’s stories. Some of you know of the organization Braver Angels. It started after the 2016 election, and made it its point to bring people together across all the lines that divide us, not to convert each other to our own points of view, but instead to enable people to tell to each other the stories of their lives. It’s an organization that some here are eager to bring to Federated. It provides a way to connect across all the lines that divide us—political, economic, racial, religious. And it’s a way we can talk to each other not just in organizations, but in our families, as well. Listening, refusing to judge, seeing beneath the façade to the vulnerable core that lies in each of us. This is a good part of what it is to be in unity with each other.
All too often, of course, this may seem easier said than done. Given the culture’s fever pitch of exasperation and vitriol, you could be forgiven for wondering: how is it possible to make this happen on your own? So it’s telling, it seems to me, that this plea from Jesus for oneness comes in the context of prayer. It would be one thing if Jesus were to say to you, as you seethe about the apparent impossibility of being united with someone who has hurt you deeply, or who has stood for everything you find repulsive—it would be one thing if Jesus said to you, “You need to make this right and join together with your nemesis.” To which we might well think: Fat chance! It would be another thing entirely, though, if Jesus said to you, “I know how hard it will be for you to find a unity with that person who fries you. So I’m not asking you to make that happen on your own. What I’m inviting, instead, is for you to go to God to ask for the power to do what you likely cannot do for yourself.”
There are lots of things my will-power doesn’t do so well on its own. I’m not great at resisting that extra piece of chocolate after dinner. I’m not always so good at getting myself out of my discouraging moods. I’m less than perfect at remaining even-keeled when things don’t go the way I want them to go. My own will-power often seems not up to the more challenging tasks of life.
When I turn to God, though, something happens that I cannot make happen on my own. It doesn’t always happen, and it’s not like I can turn on this invisible switch to make it all go easily. It’s just that when I go to God and say, “God, I’m in over my head here; I could use a little help,” it’s just then that a gentle breeze may soar beneath my wings and lift me to a place I couldn’t fly to on my own. As generations of twelve-step participants and centuries of mystics have discovered, it’s when we turn things over to a higher power, it’s when we relinquish control, it’s when we “let go and let God”—it’s in that very surrender that we can find the strength and the wherewithal to do what we may well not be able to do on our own.
The reason the whole subject of oneness comes up in Jesus’ prayer, I suspect, is because Jesus knows that our frictions and divisions are some of the thorniest challenges we face. How are Palestinians and Israelis going to get past the miasma and hatred that now haunt them? How are people who disagree so rabidly about the 2020 election and pandemic mandates and the Black Lives Matter movement ever going to know themselves as one? How are estranged parent and child ever going to find common ground? My hunch is that, except maybe in rare cases, no amount of will-power is ever going to bridge those gaps. We are in dire need of a power greater than ourselves to build a true and lasting unity.
I suspect it’s as simple and radical as this: it’s about saying to God, “Please help me, God. I desperately want to break down ‘the dividing wall of hostility’ (as we read in the letter to the Ephesians, 2:14) and to find a common bond that I have been unable to find on my own. I open myself to you. Can you please work through me to make this happen?”
And what Jesus suggests in his prayer is that this sort of peace, the peace and unity that come by the hand and touch of God, is such a rich and wonderful breath of fresh air that the word we might best use for it is “joy.” In this prayer that so prioritizes oneness, the conviction is that this oneness instills the deepest sort of joy. “I’m saying these things in the world’s hearing,” says Jesus, “so my people can experience my joy completed in them” (17:13, The Message). From unity comes joy.
We’re sometimes tempted to think we’ll have joy if we can just get that new boat or that fantastic designer purse, or if we receive that promotion, or if our retirement investments finally reach the hoped-for goal, or if we find the perfect house. And maybe there’ll be some gifts in those things. But most of us, when we’re honest, know that they are pretty empty rewards. They never really give us the thing we most want.
I think what we most want is to know ourselves to be loved by the One in whose arms we always rest. I think what we most want is to live in the sort of peace that surpasses all understanding. I think what we most want is to know that we soar on eagle’s wings. I think what we most want is to be reminded that, when we fall, we are always caught.
And the startling and magnificent wonder is: all of that is true. We are loved. We are granted the deepest peace. We soar on the wings of the One who gives us flight. And when we fall, we are always—always—caught. And because of that—because of that—we are graced with the capacity to do what may sometimes seem impossible, and to make the peace that can often seem so elusive. For this is the crucial work of followers of Jesus. As the wise Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says, “the goal of God’s work . . . is always healing reconciliation” (email@example.com, March 30, 2021).
Michal Beth Dinkler is a teacher of the New Testament and a minister. She tells a story about her sister, who is a pastor of a church in Salem, MA. “And of course, that’s where the witch trials were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today Salem is a headquarters for the occult and [what is sometimes thought of as rather dubious, and even destructive, magic]. Well, a couple of years ago, my sister’s church was hosting a big dinner, and they invited a bunch of international students from Salem State University, which is down the road. And since my sister’s church doesn’t have their own building, they rented out a theater space downtown for this dinner. The night of the dinner, they arrived. The international students arrived. And they discovered that the occult had rented out the space downstairs to do their [apparently questionable] magic rituals. So my sister and her co-pastor had some choices. They could pray against evil. They could ask God to stop these modern-day witches. They could just leave, go somewhere else. But here’s what they did. They spontaneously invited them upstairs for dinner. And these occult members accepted the invitation. So they all ended up having dinner together, these Christians, college kids from all over the world, and members of the occult. My sister described it to me as a sacred time. She said it was full of joy. . .. And she said to me, ‘After all, the name of our city, Salem, stems from the Hebrew word “Shalom,” peace’” (https://vimeo.com/264851436).
Be still. Listen. This very day, just over there, there’s a whisper. It’s a whisper of peace. It’s a whisper of unity. And in a language we can just make out, it’s saying: ‘You can do this. Because I am with you. You can make peace. You can be part of a love you may never have thought possible. With my help,’ says God, ‘you can remake your world. You can find common ground. And as you do, you will know the quiet and deep and filling joy that comes as we trust in the mesmerizingly relentless love of God.’ Listen. Just there. The promise of oneness. The promise of joy. Can you hear it?