Col 3:9-17, Jn 17:11-23
It is clear to see why, in the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have readings that seem to focus on that. But really. Let’s be honest. If you hear today’s readings as a cynic, you could be forgiven for thinking that Saint Paul is trading in harmless generalities, and that Jesus sounds like a miss world contestant.
Jesus, as though he’s asking for world peace, is pictured pleading to God that his disciples would all become one. All in a nice, vague, poetic and rather dreamy appeal. Piling up mounds of religious words about unity, truth, sanctification – And Paul has his own pious armoury of religious words: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Now, in a context like ours, these kinds of lists look like appeals to harmless generalities that say nothing, and present Christianity as a toothless, spineless and pretty much, pointless religion.
As a single father of four children – three boys, and then a tiny, pink, fluffy, loud, fearless aggressive girl – I wonder if I sometimes feel like God. Not the all-powerful version of the Greeks. But the one whose time is taken up hearing conflicting cries for justice… Though they love each other, the sheer aggression that can exist between them as they learn their place in the world, they learn the nature and limits of violence, they learn who they are in relation to one another – it’s astonishing.
And what parents witness in the home, is part of a human condition that affects them no less as adults, whether in their individual relationships in church, or the international relationships of commerce, politics, and economics.
And of course, it affects the church no less. The only church where factions, and differences and squabbles and arguments, do not emerge – is one that is made of robots. And Christians have not been quick to recognise this – to realise that our worship, our bible reading, our church practices, our prayer, our singing, our care, our beliefs. – all of these things are sinful practices, because they are all things that we do.
If we want to carve the world up and say, well some things we do are bad, some things are neutral, and some things are good – and amongst the good things we do, are prayer and worship, and pastoral care, and so on. As his eminence, Pastor Mark Driscoll says to his English subjects, we need to ‘man up’ and take sin seriously. I think, that means that – if we take Calvin himself more seriously than most Calvinists, we see that sin affects everything.
And Jesus’ prayer is for us to be sanctified in truth. Now, in evangelical tradition – which I represent – there are three infallible figures: Jesus Christ; the Apostle Paul; and me! Because, by definition, I will always agree with me. I will agree with myself with boldness and conviction and sacrifice. Being sanctified in truth then – means that I am holy because I am right. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for Christian Unity.
But being sanctified, and engaging truth. Well, first of all, truth is not simply about being right. In Greek it is a two part word – a-letheia, un-concealing, ex-posing, dis-covering. It is a deeply relational word. Truth has nothing to do with mere correctness, and everything to do with how I relate to others. That is the kind of truth that sets people free. And that is the kind of truth that sanctifies, that makes holy.
I learned this in practice, when in conflict with the Corporation of London. Long before they were trying to evict Protesters from St Pauls, they were trying to rid the streets of homeless people. So, in the middle of the night, council workers and Police would come around and hose down the rough sleepers who refused to move – under the pretence that Corporation had to clear the streets. And one of my homeless friends invited me to sleep at his place, a shop doorway in Fleet Street. And I took my youth group with me. And sure enough, at 2.30 am we were hosed down, while a riot van drove up and down the street. Well, we stayed peaceful and simply moved fifty yards down the street.
Soon afterwards, I was invited to meet senior members of the Corporation of London, who wanted to explain why they were treating homeless people this way. I chaired a meeting between campaigners and the City – which concluded with one of our young people reading Isaiah. And bizarrely, the Corporation of London reversed their policy on the basis of hearing Scripture read.
Your word is truth. In this instance, there was truth in the fullest sense – radical exposure, and there was sanctification. Being made holy – a bunch of campaigners who would not let the world squeeze them into its mould. By world, here, it seems Jesus refers to an economy of injustice… and not being of that world … is what his followers are called to. Surely, that is holiness.
It is hardly surprising that representatives of that world mistreat believers who are a pain in the backside to all who benefit from an economy of injustice. The world hating believers, has nothing to do with atheists poking fun at our naïve belief in iron-age fairy tales. It has everything to do with the fact that as long as Christians worship a God of Justice – those who benefit from injustice have something to fear.
That is the context for understanding Jesus’ prayer that all believers may be one. Less to do with attending ecumenical functions, worthy though they are. Everything to do with the way the believers embody the presence of God, as Jesus embodied it. In Paul’s language – the body of Christ – the presence of mortal people who, somehow, by God’s grace – become a living, breathing manifestation of the Holy God who makes himself One with us…