A sermon by the Reverend Trevor Jamison, based on one preached to a United Reformed Church congregation in Essex in 2008.
The world needs praying for. Every day our attention is caught by aspects of this world’s life that cry out for prayer. We see injustice and greed at work; hunger and starvation stalk the earth. On a more intimate scale we see, or even experience family and neighbourly feuds, personal disappointments and sadness. No doubt about it, the world needs praying for.
And it’s not as though God does not care for the world. God made this world, producing mighty mountains and wide oceans. This God attends to the tiniest details of creation, even the angle at which petals of a flower relate to each other. God’s sustaining work work goes on in things invisible to human eye – the interplay of cells and atoms, quarks and electrons. Yes, God thinks the world is worthy of attention. As John’s Gospel tells us elsewhere, , that God loved the world so much that he sent his Son to it, to live in it, to teach in it and, as we have heard from John’s Gospel today, to pray in it.
On this occasion, however, Jesus goes declares that he is not praying for the world (no matter how deserving the world may be as the object of his prayers, or anyone else’s prayers). In John 17, we hear Jesus praying, addressing his Father, saying, “I pray for them” i.e. I pray for these disciples, these ones who are with me now: “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.” (17: 9)
A general prayer, a prayer for the whole of the world, for the cosmos, is acceptable. It is not always necessary to name in great detail the thing for which we are praying. Sometimes, if we are to pray at all that we pray without knowledge of all of the circumstances. We might not have an intimate understanding of the politics of Zimbabwe; we might not be able to suggest a credible answer to the social and economic difficulties brought about by the ‘credit crunch’ but none of this prevents us expressing our concerns to God in prayer: ‘Lord I don’t know what to pray for today, please hear my prayer’ is quite acceptable as far as God is concerned.
For all of that, there comes a point when our knowledge of or involvement in something pushes us in the direction of specific prayer for that specific situation. Jesus is at that point. He is not praying for the world in general because what is on his mind is the situation of his disciples, the men and women he is going to leave behind when he goes to the cross. In the knowledge that he is very soon to face that cross, in the urgency of that moment he prays, “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world … protect them … so that they may be one as we are one.” (17: 11)
Just think of all the things Jesus might have asked for at this point. He might pray that the disciples, in the form of the Church that is just about to come into being, might flourish numerically. He might choose to ask that certain individuals – Peter, James, John, Martha, Mary or Lazarus – remain faithful and have mighty ministries in future days. He might express the hope that one day the Church spreads around the world, that the gospel is known in every land and heard in every language. Jesus, given the opportunity, asks for none of these things. Instead, he asks that the Father protect his followers “so that they may be one as we are one”.
Jesus is asking that his disciples, though the way they lead their life together, model or mirror the relationship that Jesus, the Son, has with the Father – “so that they may be one as we are one”. To put it another way Jesus is praying that the Church should be a reflection or an image of God.
Once we begin using a phrase like “image of God”, for those of us who remember the story of creation as it is told in the OT book of Genesis, we begin hearing echoes of the description of human beings, men and women, being “made in the image of God”. It turns out that Jesus is praying for the world, for the kosmos, for the creation after all. He is praying that in the way they lead their lives together his disciples, the Church, will show to the rest of the world how things would be had things never gone wrong in the first place; had sin never entered in.
No wonder Jesus feels that his disciples need praying for! Their track record up to this point has been less than good. They have argued amongst themselves about who should be the greatest. Some have asked Jesus for special favours; to be his right- and left-hand men. When the others have found out about this, they have been very angry. And things will not get better after Jesus has departed.
Arguments will continue. What the requirements are for becoming a Christian – do you need to be circumcised (if you are a man) and do all have to keep the Jewish dietary laws? What authority does the church in Jerusalem have over the others? What is the status of Paul, Peter, and James, the brother of Jesus, in all of this? Let’s not fool ourselves that there was some golden age of unity in the early Church in comparison to the arguments and divisions we have today.
All the more important then for us to hear this prayer of Jesus and to attempt to act upon it even if the goal – Christian being one as Jesus and the Father are one – seems far beyond anything we are liable to achieve. So what should we do about it, this dream of Christians being a light to the world because the oneness they display models the oneness of God? Well the first thing we should do here is celebrate the oneness that we have now.
I’m talking firstly about oneness within the congregation. Like all congregations we will have our disagreements. At one time or another we will fail to show to the world the oneness of God, Father, Son and Spirit. But take a moment to reflect on the group of people who make up this URC congregation. Can you think of another group of people, apart from a Church, who come together on a regular basis for shared activity despite the fact that we are so different to one another?
If you think about yourself and look around today, I’m sure you can find more than one person with whom you would be unlikely to spend time if you were not united by the desire to be a follower of Jesus! This is a cause for celebration. No matter how imperfect our relationships, our unity is something which is truly God-given, inspired by Jesus, hinting at something of what God is like. Even as we celebrate, however, let’s not be complacent. We should take this as an opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to being one body, united around a table with bread and wine, working together to live our lives as we believe God wishes us to lead them, and to share that conviction with others.
Of course the question of Christians being one stretches beyond this congregation. Once again, a measure of celebration is appropriate. We are part of our local Churches Together. We know, those of us who have long enough memories, that the situation of sharing and mutual recognition between denominations in this country has moved forward a lot in recent years. Perhaps our reduction in numbers has a part to play in this development: we are no longer so confident, and we cling together in our shared troubles. If that is true, perhaps God has taken an opportunity in these circumstances to remind us of the call to be one as Jesus and the Father are one.
Since Jesus chooses to be specific in his prayer let’s be specific in our celebration of improved relationships: celebrate when people from the churches gather to worship and learn together; celebrate when ministers from the different churches meet regularly to talk and share plans together; celebrate when, as recently, one local church can run a children’s club and seek input from the other churches, and we provide a valued worker for their event.
Now, you don’t need me to tell you that it is not all plain sailing. The events we plan together with other churches do not always attract large numbers. Sometimes URC members are more noticeable by their absence than their presence. Not all churches are equally enthusiastic about ideas put forward by other churches. We all of us, Anglican, Catholic, Elim, URC also have our own individual agendas as congregations, which makes us reluctant to take on something new, especially if it means giving up something that we are already doing and with which we are comfortable. To be truthful, there are times we just can’t understand why they (whoever ‘they’ is on that particular occasion) want to do things in such a strange way, rather than in a normal fashion ,which just happens to be the way we do it here.
Jesus’s prayer challenges to us, both within the congregation and in our relationships with other congregations. These are challenges we must not duck. Unity between followers of Jesus reflects the unity that is found between Father and Son. To reflect or to be an image of God is to remind us of God’s will for all of humanity. No wonder this unity is the subject of Jesus’s prayer, specifically for his disciples, but in truth for the world: “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world … protect them … so that they may be one as we are one.” (17: 11)