The elderly and rheumy-eyed bishop climbed to the pulpit slowly and with difficulty. While he recovered from the effort, the congregation noted the kindness, wisdom, and experience evident on his face.
He smiled a wan smile and hunched his shoulders in that familiar gesture of despair and said, "Whenever I have to preach from the Gospel of John I look at the text and then ask myself 'what does this mean?'"
Then he read the lesson again, but this time the congregation heard it with pauses, inflection, and nuance.
That was twenty years ago. Many people who heard the bishop that day may well have realized that the first trick to apprehending John is to read aloud, and more than once. You might try it yourselfâand try to diagram what the Gospel is saying. You might place a dot at the top of the page, labeling it âmy father.â Underneath you might place another dot labeled, "me"âthe Jesus who is speaking. In the case of today's lesson, there is a box labeled "these," for the disciples, and also a bigger box for "those who will believe in me through their word." As you go on with your reading you might draw connecting lines, and whenever there are wider connections, draw a circle around them.
When you have done with your reading and your diagramming, your piece of paper may well be a mess, but a motif emerges clearly. Today there are a lot of circles, and several of them encompass all the dots and boxes.
John wants us to have a thoroughly reinforced understanding that Jesus is talking about unity. It is there in the text all right, but the message comes to us in the form of long and convoluted sentences. They fall delightfully on the ear, but defy our ability to keep who is who in order as we listen. It is a paradox, really, because what is the sense of cloaking the concept of unity in all these words?
Perhaps that's part of the message. Unity is like that. All our attempts to be similar are like that. When we try to be "one" we soon run into situations we may not like. If being "one" means conforming to a set of rules, some soon become uncomfortable. When the rules are broken or when they change, others feel excluded.
A former student at a Roman Catholic convent school tells a story about a day at the school when a Papal Nuncio came to visit. It was Friday. All of the students were deeply impressed by this imposing but nice Italian prelate in his purple cassock and biretta, and even more so when he dispensed us from the âno meat on Fridaysâ rule.
Of course, all of the students wanted to have meat for lunch that day, but they were too nervous to do it. Did anyone, even the distinguished visitor, have the right to say that eating meat on Friday was OK? What if their immortal souls had been placed in terrible danger by having meat for lunch. The students discussed this anxiously long after lunchtime was over and the car bearing the visitor had disappeared. For one boy the tension was simply too much. He threw up! Those students with a legalistic turn of mind debated as to whether, technically, he had actually eaten meat, or not.
The strict Friday abstinence is a thing of the past, but dogma remains in other guises. It satisfies the cravings of people who need rules to follow, explanations to quote, and implacable authorities to respect. Fine for them, but there is an opposite end to the scale and there are many points in-between.
You may say there is more merit in being one who needs rules to follow, and faithfully follows them, than being one who despises rules and will not follow them. For the sake of order that is probably true, but nary an Anglican will support being at either extreme end of the scale. Our delight is being in between. Not necessarily in complete accord, of course, and probably tending towards one direction or the other, but nevertheless avoiding the end zones.
Can a people who count among their good traits the phrase "comfortable with ambiguity" also claim to be "one?" Jesus prays today that we be "one," but does this mean "the same?â Unity does not mean sameness. It means similarity of purpose, of intention, of allegiance and of behavior towards one another. It means accepting. For those who believe, it means gathering under the canopy of creation and being part of a great singleness of purpose.
"You loved me from before the creation of the world" Jesus says. The God of the early inhabitants of the earth was known through nature and the surprises of the climate and weather. This was also the God of Attila the Hun, of the Borgia popes, of the despot queen or king, and all who compromise the broad understandings of what is right and good. The same God of the desert fathers, ascetics, philanthropists, saints and scholars, and the tireless caregivers for the poorest of the poor, indeed all who pursue the broad understandings of what is right and good.
Does this mean that God is not immutable, that God keeps pace with us, is evolving as we do and will keep up with us even as we move from fantasy into the reality of exploring in space? It is an arrogance to think that God is keeping pace with us because who knows, indeed, if "us" is all there is?
There's a story told of respected astronomers at the Vatican Observatory who presented the church with evidence of another planet having the characteristics of our own, possibly to the extent of supporting sentient life. Two schools of thought emerged: the first advised the immediate dispatch of missionaries to bring the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to those aliens, presumed to be very much like us. The second school advised against an expedition. Jesus came to us at the right time and place, they argued, and he will go to them when the time is appropriate, too. The astronomers allowed the debate to rage for a while before advising that the light from the new planet had taken so long to reach us that our cousin planet had actually ceased to exist several millions of years ago.
If God is immutable, however, can nothing ever change? We know that to be patently untrue. Theologians have a lot to say on these subjects and I suppose the most straightforward answer is that God and creation are always "one" no matter what part of creation we are looking at, or the era we are considering.
The elegance of the wording of our passage from John leads us to an appreciation of the elegance of God's purpose for us. Creation is an evolving, changing, and developing phenomenon that attests to the dazzling finesse of our God, and the exquisite perfection of the relationship that we share with God in Jesus Christ.
That this relationship could exclude anyone is beyond imagining. To those who might wonder if the majority always represents what must be right, to the exclusion of others, Jesus points out that the world, with its myriad expressions of diversity, is the object of God's love, and that all those who comprise the worldâin the there and then, as well as in the here and now, share equally in the opportunity to bathe in the radiance of that unity for which he prays.
These are thoughts to hold close in times of division, when deep misunderstandings keep faithful people of differing persuasions at arm's length, when honest beliefs stray from reality and when home-spun science collides with authentic research. It is easy to find ways to despise what we do not understand, to hate what does not resonate with our own experience, to fear what seems alien. We support these convictions with anecdotal evidence and with snippets of scripture. It is harder to seek ways to understand, to broaden our experience and to look with fresh eyes at those who differ from the majority in any number of possible ways. It is hard to accept that each and every one of us is a minority of one kind or another.
Yet the eyes that are sometimes fresh to us, are the experienced eyes of Jesus Christ, who calls us to unity greater than the sum of our selves. It is a unity made both possible and perfect by the extravagant and abundant love of God.