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Easter 7, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 8, 2016

Psalm 97; Acts 16: 16-34; John 17: 20-26

‘Life together’

The Gospel set for today is known as the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. Over many centuries scholars have discussed the nature of the oneness for which Jesus prays. What kind of unity is it? A unity of thought or doctrine (everybody thinking or teaching the same thing?); a unity of practice – “sanctification” for mission to the world?

Some time ago our Thursday night biblical scholars discussed the nature of this oneness. We reflected on unity as bearing witness to divine love. God be with you …

We discussed whether Christian unity is a task or a gift (sometimes imaged as the horizontal and vertical arms of the cross) – more gift (vertical) than task (horizontal), we thought, but a task nonetheless – and a challenge that sometimes entails, paradoxically, the maintenance of good boundaries. Jesus prays for unity, not for uniformity. Respect for difference lies at the heart of Christian unity – we might have explored this in relation to the Holy Trinity.

Orthodox theologian John Manoussakis says: “Love is differentiation, which makes for communion”.

Our Bible study noted the importance of this Gospel for the ecumenical movement (churches throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, throughout the world, joining together for worship, witness and service), and thus for the Uniting Church in Australia – an inspiration for all those who hope to see evidence (mutual recognition of baptisms, Eucharistic celebrations and ministries) of an invisible and indivisible church.

And we read from Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

In the context of a German Lutheranism at risk of assimilation to Nazism (what we might call a demonic unity based on exclusive rights, on exclusion), Bonhoeffer called his student pastors to eschew naïve and arrogant notions of unity, to expect and to accept conflict and struggle in community, for “glory” (to use a word Jesus uses to refer to a quality of love reflective of divine love) is best known in compassion, in forgiveness, among those who can examine their own faults and recognise their need of God and others.

We thought about our own 21st-century context and our Moderator’s address calling for work towards the “common good” – in terms of justice, in terms of sharing resources, in terms of hospitality for those seeking asylum, in terms of promoting renewable energy technologies, in terms of equitable education, and so on …

In and through all this, the High Priestly Prayer goes on. It resonates.

“[T]he historical disunity of the Christian church could be seen as rendering totally unrealistic the hope that unbelievers would be drawn to the true knowledge of God through the love manifested in the community”, writes one commentator.

“That may not, however, be the case on the more local level where communities can … display the genuine attractiveness of divine love. … [B]elievers, in their communal as well as their individual life, are drawn into the divine communion of love and … in their attempts to reflect that love they have the prayer of Jesus firmly behind them. They can never give up on the quest that their institutional life be reflective of divine love. Nor can they so turn in upon themselves as to forget that the divine love that pulses in their veins is the same divine love that ‘so loved the world’ as to give the ‘only [Begotten]’ that the world might not perish but have eternal life” (Brendan Byrne).

I suspect this is a prayer that resonates in the ministries and memories, the hearts and hopes of many (from St Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Regent Street, Redfern, and the Palmer Street Presbyterian Church in Darlinghurst; from the Congregational Church in Alexandria, and the Mount Lachlan Methodist Church here in Raglan Street, also known as the Inner City Parish, and, since 1977, South Sydney Uniting Church) – many for whom Christian unity means a gift worth celebrating with heart, mind, strength and spirit; many for whom Christian unity means a task worth the dedication of much time and effort – perspiration and collaboration over many years.

We have all been drawn to this unity, to this witness, into this divine love. It’s fitting we symbolise it in the form of a colourful circle – an inclusive circle, unlike a prison, unlike prison chains, a circle that frees us for love just as Paul and Silas were set free for mission to their jailer and his “whole household” – free for joyful celebration and “newfound faith in God”.

Our current newsletter includes a notice about intentional pastoral care involving Elders and all members who’d like to be contacted for regular or irregular conversations, catch-ups or prayer. The emphasis is on freedom and respect for different needs, questions, interests, desires …

The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus resonates wherever Elders, Ministers and Carers seek loving relationships in the Spirit of what Bonhoeffer calls “genuine Christian fellowship” … patience amid conflict and struggle, acceptance of faults/frailty … compassion and forgiveness. Wherever there is concern for the common good and love for the world.

It’s simple without being simplistic. It’s as simple as caring (the word “ministry” means “care”). It’s as simple as reaching out to others. Accepting the truth of our own hesitant yet persistent desires to move from loneliness to healthy solitude; from fearful hostility to hospitality; from illusions of the religious life (superstitions and addictions) to open-hearted prayer (Henri Nouwen).

Heather Robinson says that receiving pastoral care from another is about being taken seriously and also not being abandoned.

We all have a part to play. When have you known the “glory” Jesus refers to in his prayer? When have you received quality care (pastoral care or spiritual care) drawing you into divine love? Or setting you free for joyful celebration and newfound faith in God? … Amen.