The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 8 May 2016. Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26.
We’ve talked before about Jonathan Daniels. He was a seminary student from New Hampshire who answered Martin Luther King’s call for white ministers to come to Selma to help out. He was killed in Hayneville. Several of you participated in a pilgrimage last summer to the spot where he died, remembering Jonathan and other martyrs for civil rights.
Jonathan had written a seminary paper about his experience in Selma. The paper was read at his funeral. In it, he talked about his initial reluctance to go to Selma, and his growing sense that he was called to this work. He wrote about encounters in Alabama, about the people who challenged him and the people he came to love. He thanked seminary friends back home who prayed for him and helped him complete his classes from a distance. He concluded the paper by saying his time in Selma had made him more and more aware of the living communion of saints. He wrote, “With them, with black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfills and “ends” all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably one.”
This is exactly what Jesus prayed for on the night before he died. After the Last Supper, after washing the feet of his disciples, after giving a new commandment to love one another, Jesus prayed, I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.
He prayed this prayer in part because the cost of division was painfully clear. Right after saying these words, Judas brought a detachment of soldiers and police to the garden. There Jesus was arrested and taken to Annas, then to Caiaphas the high priest, then to Pilate who sentenced him to death. He became a pawn in a game of religious and political power, a troublemaker casually disposed of. The Son of God was executed by a religious and political system that could not see the oneness of all people and instead decided some people were less important than others.
But he also prayed this prayer because love was the goal of his presence and mission in the world. 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. Jesus came into the world that we might love one another with the love that is God.
So this prayer of Jesus was not a one-time thing. Jesus did not pray this prayer one night in a moment of extreme duress and then forget about it. Instead, John’s gospel reveals for us the heart of God manifest in the life of Jesus. The heart of God continually prays and yearns for our oneness. In this prayer of Jesus we see God’s hope for God’s beloved children. God’s desire is to gather all people into the heart of God. So this is a prayer not just for the unity of the church but for the whole world. Jesus prays that we all will be one.
While working in Selma, Jonathan Daniels wrote an article for a Texas paper that was published after he died. He told a story about an encounter he had one day. He and others had been working to integrate St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, bringing black friends with them on Sunday morning. While driving through Selma, a white man in a business suit approached their car. He asked, “Are you that scum that’s been visiting the Episcopal Church?” They asked, “the scum, sir?” “Yes, scum. S-C-U-M. That’s what you are, you and the trash you bring with you.” “We can spell sir,” they said politely. “We are sorry you feel that way.” The man turned and walked on.
But then Jonathan wrote that he and the friend with him were overcome with laughter. He wrote, “It was funny – riotously, hilariously, hideously funny. We laughed all the way home – at the man, at his cruelty, at his stupidity, at our cleverness, at the success with which we had suavely maintained ‘the Christian posture.’ And then, though we have not talked about it, we both felt a little dirty. Maybe the Incarnate God was truly present in that man’s need and asking for something better than a smirk.”
In that moment, the prayer of Jesus was fulfilled. Jonathan and his friend saw their oneness with this man who called them scum.
Jesus must be praying very hard for our world right now. We are calling each other all manner of names. We are dividing on all manner of issues. And Jesus prays for us all. Jesus prays for those who want to build a wall to keep immigrants out and for those who are repulsed by the idea. Jesus prays for those who are hated by others and for those who do the hating. Jesus prays for all of us –that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
If we are to live up to his prayer we do need to call each other out when we are speaking or acting in ways that do not reflect the oneness of humanity. We must call each other and our world to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. But we must do so in ways that are respectful and worthy of Jesus. As Jonathan wrote, “Maybe the Incarnate God was truly present in that man’s need and asking for something better than a smirk.”
Jesus prayed this prayer for oneness right before he died. Though I doubt Jonathan knew he would die in Alabama, his revelations of unity also came in the weeks and days before he died. I’ve known several people who as they came close to death found themselves rid of hatred or prejudice or resentment. Sadly it is often when we come close to death that we start to figure out how linked we all are. The barriers that seem so defining fall away. We realize how much we have in common and how precious every human life is. How much better it would be if we could figure this out earlier.
So we take on the cross of Christ. We are baptized into his death in part to gain this end of life perspective while we yet live. We die with Christ, so that we might be raised with him and see each other with new eyes.
In the paper read at his funeral, Daniels wrote about his experience in Selma. He said, “I lost fear . . .when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had truly been baptized into the Lord’s Death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life was hid with Christ in God.” Dying with Christ helped him see his oneness with others.
This is the last Sunday in Easter season. Thursday was Ascension Day, when Jesus ascended to heaven and told his followers to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Next Sunday is Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came and began uniting very different people into the church. For weeks after Easter Day we celebrate the resurrection. We rejoice in Easter over and over. But never forget – the new life to which we are called happens because of the cross. And before the cross, the dying wish of Jesus was our unity.
Let us pray with Jesus that God may make us one. Amen.
© 2016 The Rev’d Grace Burton-Edwards
A blurry photo I took of a t-shirt seen at the Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage in Hayneville, Alabama, August 2015.