A Methodist bishop named Minerva Carcano shared the following story. I was reared, she began, on a small farm outside the South Texas town of Edinburg. There was an empty field directly to the east of our farm, in fact just beyond our kitchen window. One day a man bought the field. He had plans to put his cattle there. That did not bother us but what was disconcerting, was that he was a Black man. That made him different and we had heard many stories about what Black people were like. Well, my father, being the man of the house, would have to deal with him. There was one big problem, though. My father spoke no English and we soon discovered, as we had expected, that Mr. Johnson spoke no Spanish. My father would just have to figure it out.
The day Mr. Johnson moved his cattle next door my father went out to meet him across the fence that separated our properties. My siblings and I gathered at the kitchen window to see what would happen. We were amazed at the sight of my father having a conversation with a Black man who spoke no Spanish.
When my father returned to the kitchen he reported that Mr. Johnson seemed like a decent man. We were of course more curious about knowing what my father had said to him and how on earth he had said it to him since he spoke no English. But it marked the beginning of an interesting and even more, a blessed relationship.
For the next ten years, Monday through Friday at 5:30 p.m. Mr. Johnson would come to feed his cattle and my father would meet him at the fence and they would visit for a half hour or so. This monolingual English-speaking independent Baptist, and this monolingual Spanish-speaking Catholic turned Methodist, became close friends. Their daily 5:30 afternoon meeting at the fence was a time that these men both cherished for they rarely missed. We pondered how it was possible.
The day Mr. Johnson died we went to his funeral. Having always been part of an all Hispanic congregation, I was in awe of what I saw. The church was filled with Black folks, Hispanics, and white people. The entire town was represented. Many were the lives that this neighbor had touched. How my father and Mr. Johnson had become friends and how we had all come to love that black man became clear to us in that culminating moment. Friendship and even love were possible despite the obvious barriers because Mr. Johnson was more than a mere neighbor, he was an incarnation of Christ’s love.[i]
Our text for today calls us to be “one” with Jesus as he and God are “one.” And despite what the “world” might say, despite what the loudest voices in our government might say, and despite what some claiming to be followers of Christ might say; this “oneness” is not about who we are, or the language we speak, or our sexual orientation or gender identity, or the color of our skin, or even where we’ve come from, where we are, or where we would like to end up. Being “one” in the unity of God and Christ is about incarnation. Being an incarnation of Christ’s love. The kind of incarnate love that Jesus teaches and models for us. It’s about a divine transformative love that decisively changes the lives of those who accept it. And when we believe to the point of loving, then the world will come to know the love of God, and the work of Christ, will be done. As Jesus prayed in today’s text, “…may they may become one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Powerful words. But I wonder. I wonder how the disciples were feeling that night, sitting around after supper with the customary wine and conversation. It often seems that we relax more after dinner, perhaps opening-up more than during the meal itself. I wonder if they really knew what lay ahead for Jesus, for them? I wonder if they wanted to run away, if they wanted to separate themselves from the world? I wonder if they were afraid?
Now, contextually speaking, we’re at a point in this gospel where Jesus has been talking for several chapters. Somewhere in chapter 15 right through all of 17 Jesus has been giving what has come to be known as “the farewell discourse.” A discourse, or a speech, to his closest followers, in this casual setting, to explain to them what’s expected of them after he’s gone. A speech that ended with today’s passage from what’s called “the high priestly prayer.”
Remember last week, we heard Jesus urging his disciples to remain in his love, to make their home in his love, and to love one another as he loved them. The lectionary, however, skips over the next part where Jesus mentions that the world would hate them and reject them, and even kill them, as it will first hate and reject and kill him.
So, I’m not surprised that Jesus felt a need to bring the conversation to a close with a deep, heartfelt prayer; that he wanted his dearest friends on this earth to be guided by prayer no matter what the future may have held for them. Remember now, John wrote his gospel for a community, who, sixty years or so after Jesus was physically gone, was also experiencing hatred and rejection; the hatred and rejection Jesus predicted. So, this prayer was for them, just as it has been for the church down through the ages, and for us as well, a guide in times of struggle and a reminder to stay engaged with the world around us by sharing Christ’s message of universal love.
You know, for many years I’ve heard it said that we are to either separate ourselves from “the world” or that we as Christians are to “be in the world but not of the world.” Neither of these positions, however, has ever sat well with me. I mean, when we view the gospels as a whole; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John together, and attempt to distill them down to their lowest common denominator, we discover that we are called, that we are challenged, to share the healing, the compassion, the grace, …the love of Christ within our context and beyond. That’s the unifying theme of Jesus’ mission and ministry: “love one another as I have loved you.” But what Jesus is addressing, at least in part in this farewell discourse, is this temptation to separate ourselves from, what he calls, “the world.”
Theologian and hymn writer Thomas Troeger expands on this idea when he cautions against “…drawing together in communities to avoid having to deal with a hostile world outside our walls.” He goes on to concede that while we are exhausted, “with the world’s ceaseless violence and corruption, and [that we experience] frequent feelings of despair over the inability to make a difference,” the crux of this text is the assurance that, “Jesus himself will always be with us, to strengthen us and enable us in our shared-ministry in this world, rather than withdrawing from it.”[ii]
My friends, if we are to truly live out the Ministry of God and the Mission of Christ we must be in and of the world. That doesn’t mean we’re going to participate in activities counter to our understanding of faith and ethics. But that, instead, we are with and among and a part of the entire community; a community that’s both local and, at the same time, global in scope. A community that’s diverse in language, skin-color, religion, nationality, and lifestyle.
You know, one of the things we proclaim as a congregation is “A Wide Welcome” to all. And that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing because we are a friendly bunch. But declaring a wide welcome must be more than mere lip service; it must be lived out every day! A wide welcome means breaking bread with the poor as well as the rich; visiting with the lonely, weeping with the sad, and rejoicing with the happy. A wide welcome means inviting everyone to encounter the Sacred regardless of what their understanding or relationship with God might be. A wide welcome means inviting every person to the Lord’s table and into the covenant of baptism, no matter how they view the sacrament. Do you see what I’m getting at here? A wide welcome means accepting people just as they are, because, guess what, God has accepted and welcomed and affirmed you and I, just as we are.
Now, I realize that this is not the most popular view among churches today. Far too often churches, through judgment and dogma say, “you’re welcome here as long as you become like us, believe the right things, act and speak as we do.” The problem is that’s finally not what Jesus was teaching. Instead, the crux of this passage, the key to understanding the High Priestly Prayer is unification. Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one is a prayer for just that. That neighbor can find common ground with neighbor, that nations and strive for peace with other nations, and that all religions can coexist with all other forms of religious expression.
And finally, as followers of Christ, we are called to be in the forefront of this movement. We are challenged by the gospel to be co-workers with God in bringing about the unification of all people.
Now, we’re not there yet and maybe we’re not even close. But there’s hope. I’m going to leave you today with some very meaningful words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of his assassination in 1968.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” King said, “But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.[iii]
My friends, I’ve caught a glimpse of “a wider welcome.” We are moving, ever-progressing toward the liberation, healing, and unity that Christ so fervently prayed for. And I know with all my being, “that we, as a people, will get to [that] promised land.” May it be so. Amen.
[ii] Thomas Troeger Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. II. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2008 pgs. 544-599
[iii] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered this speech in support of the striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple in Memphis, TN on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. License to reproduce this speech granted by Intellectual Properties Management, Atlanta, Georgia.