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The Power of One

Sermon - 5/20/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 17:20-26

Let me set up the passage with a little context.  The public ministry of Jesus in the gospel of John really comes to an end quite earlier than we might anticipate, in the 12th chapter of John with the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  For immediately after that, John goes right to Thursday of that week, skips over Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, as told in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  So in the 13th chapter we read about the last supper, the washing of the disciples feet, and then in chapters 14, 15, and 16, there is a long farewell address that Jesus gives.  His parting words, so to speak, his last instructions to the disciples.  And then that section is concluded with a prayer that consumes all of chapter 17.  And immediately after that prayer, Jesus is arrested in the garden in chapter 18.

And so the prayer in chapter 17 concludes the ministry of Jesus, and our text for this morning is the conclusion of that prayer.  So here then, the final words of Jesus in John's gospel, spoken before his arrest:

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I 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. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I 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.’


The question -- probably not the first question that's on your mind after hearing that text -- but the question I want to begin with this morning:  does being part of the church really matter?

When you think about all the things you could do with your time, and your money (don't think too hard about it J), does investing in the church with your time and money really make a difference?

Ponder that a bit, before I attempt my own answer to that question.

I was in high school when Jesus Christ Superstar became the big Broadway hit.  Several of the songs from the musical were on the radio, and thus things like "I don't know how to love him" we sang in swing choir in school.  "Hosanna", "Jesus Christ Superstar", we sang in church.  Dick Busic and I, and I'm sure Ginny was in choir then, Dick singing the tenor part of Jesus, and I sang the bass part of Caiaphas (could never quite figure out the significance of that still to this day--I think Dick is holier looking than I am J).  I went up to Portland when the musical began to tour, I think that was before the movie came out.  When the musical came to Eugene, with Ted Neely in the lead part of Jesus, who of course was the one who portrayed Jesus in the movie, had to go, and thanks to Nancy [Anderson] had the wonderful opportunity to go.  It was her birthday, and we were her guest to witness that incredible performance.

And by far, my favorite scene in the movie as well as in the musical, is the prayer of Jesus in the garden.  If you'll recall, in the movie version, it portrays Jesus climbing a cliff as he is singing about how hard it is to do the will of God.  'Father not my will but your will', 'Take this cup from me'.  And when he gets to the top of that cliff, his heart pounding from the emotional exertion as much as from the physical, he belts out this incredible high note -- "Alright" -- just screams out at God as he finally gives in and agrees to accept his fate.  And then he collapses in exhaustion.  It's a powerful scene.

When it got to that point in the musical at the Hult Center just a couple of months ago, I thought surely that Neely would hit some another note than that incredibly high one.  Because after, the guy's got to be upwards in his 60's, you know, ancient J.  And he did not disappoint us -- many of you were there, it was just absolutely incredible.

And for that one brief moment, that gut-wrenching, heart-stopping moment, you could feel the agony of Jesus.  That is the human Jesus.  The Jesus I can relate to, who agonizes over his decision to confront the powers of Jerusalem and Rome, who struggles with his hard task of doing God's will, who can even be angry at where it has led him -- to the foot of the cross.  

But that's not John's Jesus.  That's not how we often picture Jesus.  The Jesus that is serenely praying there, kneeling at the rock in that famous painting in our window.

So, especially in the gospel of John, Jesus is always in full command of the situation.  And to illustrate just how much he is in control, John tells us that a whole cohort of soldiers come with Jesus to arrest him.  A cohort is 600 troops.  600 soldiers come to arrest 1 man.  And when Jesus says "I am the one whom you are seeking", they all fall down flat on their face, paying homage to the Lord who is in control.

So here we are at this climactic moment, culminating in his ministry before that arrest, and if John had read his Bible -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- he would know that Jesus is supposed to be sweating blood.  Agonizing over this moment, asking God to remove this cup, to give him some other way out.  But that's not the prayer that John records.  Instead, what do we find as Jesus' greatest concern and his last request?  For the unity of his followers.

If there is any agony in this prayer, it is for the brokenness of the church, and the pain of division.  No concern at all for his own pain and suffering.  So let me ask you:  how important do you think Christian unity is?  Jesus thought it so important that he prayed for his followers to be one, just as he and God were one.  And John thought it so important that he lifts it up as the very final prayer of Jesus before his arrest.  And note it is not unity for unity's sake that he asks for, but unity with a purpose -- to show to the world the love of God.  'So that the love with which you have loved me', Jesus says, 'may it be in them and I in them'.  

You've heard of the second 'Great Awakening', that spiritual revival that swept across our nation at the beginning of the 19th century.  The largest revival, gathering, of that second great awakening was held at Cane Ridge Kentucky.  10-30,000 people descending upon the fields outside of a little log cabin church for a week of preaching.  Preachers of all stripes -- Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists, Quakers and Shakers, Holy Rollers, etc.  One historian said it was the most disorderly, most hysterical, and largest revival ever held in America up to that point.  That historian had not been to any Duck football games, where it can get even more hysterical J.

The pastor of the Cane Ridge church was Barton Stone.  And Stone did not care for the emotionalism of revivals, but he was incredibly impressed with the non-discriminatory nature of the holy spirit that poured out equally upon all the folk there, with no regard for denominational titles or affiliations.  And with that experience still fresh in his mind, he and the elders of that little church, three years later, wrote the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery (Springfield being the name of that area).  And they said:

"We will that this body die, be dissolved and sink into union with the body of Christ at large.  For there is but one body, one spirit, even as we are called into one hope of our calling"

And so was born a movement to unite all Christians.  Thomas Campbell, another of the founders of that movement, wrote in his declaration and address, five years later, that the church is 'essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally, one".

These two documents, as many of you (hopefully most of you) know, are the founding documents of our church -- Christian Church, Disciples of Christ.  And so ironically, what began as a movement to unite all Christians fell miserably short and resulted in three more branches of the Christian church -- the Disciples of Christ, the Independent Christian Churches, and the non-Instrumental churches of Christ that all came from that one movement to unite all Christians.

And still, Christian unity, what Stone called our 'polar star' has always been a central value of our church.  And thus Disciples have always been at the forefront of such efforts, like the National Council and World Council, and the latest now, Liv Gibbons, one of our scholarship students, going to work for the World Council in New York this summer as an intern.  Watch what Liv does with that, and I hope to learn more from her from that incredible experience.

It was not surprising, then, to learn this week that the new Christian Churches Together, perhaps the broadest ecumenical group ever to form in this country with 40 denominational partners, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches, mainline Protestant churches such as ours, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and the like, and the historical ethnic churches, have joined together in this new organization, and they have hired a new Executive Director to head it who is a Disciples of Christ minister.  You know him.  He was a guest preacher two weeks ago.  And in his E-mail to our Vision Team announcing this decision to accept this position, he said:

"If our faith is to impact the future course of this nation, and to touch the greatest number of lives and souls, then we must stop our petty divisions and work together in whatever ways we can.  Our common faith in Jesus Christ is greater than an doctrinal or other differences that separate us".

Doesn't that sound like a Disciple?  Christian Churches Together includes a number of related organizations like Bread for the World and Jim Wallis' Call to Renewal.  And unlike past efforts to unite all Christians into one super-sized church, this organization seeks to unite Christians around two primary purposes:  evangelism and ending poverty.  So with Dick Hamm as the Director, I'm sure we will learn more about it.  By the way, he does not begin that job until August, and even after that he says he will fulfill his commitment to carry us through the vision process.  So it's kind of exciting to know that we are going to be working on that vision process with the head of the largest Christian organization in our country.  Don't know if that impresses you, but it impresses me J.

All of this is well and good, and it is not enough to fulfill the prayer of Jesus.  For I have come to a different understanding, a deeper understanding of this prayer.  I am convinced that it is really not about Christian unity at all, rather Christian unity is but one small piece of a much larger unity advocated by Jesus.

Note the rather mystical language of this prayer that I think kind of leaves us wondering 'what on earth?'.  When Jesus says "As you father are in me and I in you, may they also be in us".  And then later:  "May they be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one".  It sounds almost Eastern, something out of a different tradition.

Jesus isn't talking about the institutional church, or any organic structure with an Executive, a Board of Directors, mission statements and flowcharts.  He's talking about a spiritual reality, of the deepest connection to God and one another.  I in you and you in me, all of us in God.  To know that we are all connected.  Not only to one another, but also to God and all that is.  And to feel that connection deep within us.  That is what this prayer is really about.

Why should we care what happens in Baghdad or Bejing?  In Salem or Jerusalem?  Because we are one.  Why should poverty as well as evangelism be a central concern of the church?  Because we are one.  Why should climate change, energy policies, environmental issues, be a concern of all Christians?  Because we are one.

Through the study of scripture, Thomas Campbell came to the wonderful insight that the church is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally, one.  Today, through the study of new developments of modern science, quantum physics, as well as the old mystics of both East and West, we have come to an understanding that all things are essential, intentional, and constitutionally, one.

That spiritual insight, that we are not just one part of creation, we are one with creation, one world, one humanity under one God, is not just some philosophical concept, it may well be necessary for our survival.  For only when we see the inter-connectedness of all things will we act in such a way that benefits all things.  Whereas when we see ourselves as separate from the rest of the world, separate from the rest of humanity, then our actions have no bearing on the whole.  And we need not worry about how what we do impacts all else.  Worse, we can engage in destructive behaviors against others with little concern that such will have any negative impact on us.  And that is pure foolishness.

Religious traditions which teach such separateness are precisely what makes it possible for human beings to kill one another and to live as if the natural world were of no concern for human existence.  And that has got to change.

As one sign at a protest rally read:  "Destroying the earth is bad for the economy".  And probably a few other things as well.

I am convinced that the fundamental problem in our world that is behind every other problem, from war to climate change, is the spiritual problem addressed by Jesus.  The lack of oneness, this deep connection we have in God to all that is.  All people, all creation.  That is why we come to church.  Why we worship God.  To reestablish that connection.  To strengthen that bond.  For with that connection, with the love that unity reveals when we come together as a diverse people -- black & white, male & female, tall & short, young & short, gay & straight, fat & skinny, Duck & Beaver -- we can make a difference.  We can change the world.

Is this a message that our world needs to hear?  Absolutely.  Does being part of a church with this kind of message matter?  Honestly, I can think of nothing else that matters more.


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