John 17: 1-11
Jesus prays to the Father, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” On our behalf he asks of God, “Let them be one as we are one.” Believing what Jesus tells us: that we are His people, and he has been glorified in us, that we are one, as He and the Creator are one, means believing in our holiness. This isn’t vain self-aggrandizement; this is affirming the Christian belief that we are children of God, and therefore we are very holy. Affirming the unity of all Christ’s followers, furthermore, is affirming the absolute equality of all humankind, because Jesus gave his life for us, a “sacrifice poured out for all the world,” so that we may have eternal life in God. To say “We belong to Jesus Christ, and in Him we are one with all people, sacred beyond our recognition”, is to me, one of the humblest things that we can say. In Christian theology, humility is not meaningless self-effacement: humility is self-effacing only as far as we admit that we are not the origin of our life, and that all gifts are from God. Humility means that everything good that we have done or achieved is only by virtue of the God of infinite love who created us. Our inherent goodness, our holiness, our sacredness, is because of the goodness, holiness, sacredness of our Creator. Jesus is continually pointing us to this truth. Jesus is continually instructing us to live upon this truth, to hold firm to our faith, that teaches us that God loves us, and in God and through God all things are possible.
I hate being wrong. I especially hate it when the scripture so clearly demonstrates how very wrong I am so much of the time. I think this is why I love Peter: because like Peter, I can be a bit thick. Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive one who sins against him: as many as seven?! He asks incredulously. You can almost imagine Jesus shaking his head slightly, thinking How can I get through to this numb skull?, before he responds, Seventy seven times! That probably wasn’t the answer Peter wanted to hear. And if we are honest with ourselves, that isn’t the answer that we want to hear from Jesus either because sometimes it’s REALLY REALLY HARD to forgive someone. And in fact, in our own strength, it’s sometimes actually impossible. The good news is that the ability to forgive is actually a gift from God; the gift of conversion.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus offers us a stern warning regarding anger and the desire for retribution. He also offers us a corrective for that anger: to make peace with the one who has wronged us, or who we have wronged. The good news for us is that Jesus understands how limited we are, which is why in the Gospel lesson today we don’t hear him say that we will never fight with our neighbors or have disputes; but, he offers the way out. One of the great tragedies of being angry at our brothers and sisters is that there is a lot that we should be angry about in the world: we need to channel that righteous anger where it belongs, not project it onto our friends and loved ones.
Jesus’ warning that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” is very important here. The Pharisees and scribes are typically referred to by Jesus as being poor stewards of the kingdom of heaven, failing in their understanding of how they were meant to minister to the people of God. They had, in short, a limited and almost legalistic understanding of the sacred laws of God, in which the sacred covenant with God was more transactional than transformative. The words this morning from the prophet Ezekiel, seen in this light, are profoundly instructive for us today. The book of Ezekiel is deeply concerned with the people of Israel failing to live up to their covenantal relationship with God. As the chosen people of God, Ezekiel warned, like all the prophets before and after him, that the people would continue to suffer if they didn’t amend their ways and become true emissaries of the living God.
The gospel reading today reminds us that God’s plan is greater than our own, and that faith in our Messiah will sustain us. Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ role as Messiah is completely upended when Jesus tells of the suffering, rejection, and death that He must face in order to fulfill his mission. Peter understood the Messiah to be a great king, who would free the Israelites from Roman occupation, and usher in a golden age for his people. But God’s plan for Peter and his people would not include the things that Peter so desperately longed for, and yet, the message of our Gospel is the good news that that God’s plan for restoring a divided and broken world is far greater than we can imagine. Paradoxically, we sometimes need to let go of our previous understandings, resting in the hope that we are an intrinsic part of the unfolding of God’s kingdom.
“He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to savethose who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews instructs us to trust Jesus Christ above all else; His Atonement for our sins is established forever, and nothing can separate us from His love.
The Levitical priests that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews are referring to served an incredibly important function for the Israelites, as an intermediary between the people and God. The priests offered ritual sacrifices on behalf of the people of Israel for the forgiveness of their sins, both individually and collectively. The high priest performed the sin offering on the day of Atonement, which was offered on behalf of all of God’s people, wiping the slate clean, as it were. The new covenant in Christ, the writer tells us, replaces the old covenant, which was based on offering the sacrifices required by the law of Moses. The new covenant does not depend on our own efforts or our own sacrifices, but on the grace of God. The author explains that Jesus is our Great High priest forever, a priest who is not a priest based on genealogy, as the Levitical priests were, but based on being anointed by God to absolve human sin forever. Theologian William Barclay writes: “Jesus can do what the old priesthood never could—he can give us access to God…Jesus came to show men the infinite tender love of the God whose name is Father—and the awful fear is gone. We know now that God wants us to come home, not to punishment but to the welcome of his open arms…Jesus on his Cross made the perfect sacrifice which atones for sin. Fear is gone; sin is conquered; the way to God is open to men.”
Mary must have been terrified to find out that she would give birth to and raise the Messiah, who was to be named Jesus. Mary’s response to God is a trusting and faithful one: Be it unto me according to your will. She then made the difficult journey through the Judean hill country to see her relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, miraculously pregnant with John the Baptist, feels the baby leap for joy in her womb, and she is filled with the Holy Spirit. This moment of recognition by another person, that what the angel had told her to come, was in fact true, must have been a moment of unbelievable joy. You can almost picture Mary as a teenage peasant girl, jumping for joy as she proclaims this prayer of praise and adoration, thanking God for fulfilling His promise of salvation for His people.
For Mary there is a profound recognition that the long-awaited Messiah was coming into the world; that He was growing in her womb. In this season of Advent, we await the coming of Christmas, where we celebrate and give thanks for the birth of God as a human being, among human beings, and we also, like Mary abide in the faith of the Lord’s promise to us – the coming of His kingdom into the world, where the errors of humanity will be reconciled through the Grace of Jesus Christ.
What does it mean for us, to proclaim the same joyous prayer as Mary herself did? It’s a prayer of exultant thanksgiving, thanksgiving for the indwelling God of our salvation. Mary was literally growing God the Son in her womb, but we can humbly petition God, as we do in the Angelus – “be it unto me according to your word,” and ask Christ to increase within us. We await the coming of Jesus Christ, and we believe that when He returns He will create a new heaven and a new earth. We don’t know if we will live to see it, but like our ancestors, we maintain hope, and we spread the Good News, the hope of the Second Coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. By doing so, we allow Him to work through us to bring about His kingdom on earth – just as He did through Mary.
Mary’s response to God was an ecstatic “YES!” from the depth of her soul, trusting in God’s goodness and in the fulfillment of His promises. During this Advent season, I encourage you to pray with the Magnificat and ask yourself, “what is God asking of me?” “What is God asking me to fully embrace with joy and gratitude?” When we ask Jesus this question, and hope for a response, either as an inner knowingness, or perhaps as some external sign, we can be certain that whatever our Lord asks of us, He does so knowing that what he has planned for His children is far better than we could ever hope for or imagine. Amen
In the Gospel today, Jesus exhorts both the crowd and his disciples to live a life of faith that is “founded on rock.” The analogy that Jesus gives us is to build the foundation of one’s house upon the solid rock which lays far beneath the softer levels of sandstone above it. Jesus is telling us that so much of what we believe holds up and maintains our lives and our societies, are in fact nothing more than shifting sands, that we must dig past, deeper, and deeper, until we reach the solid core of God’s deep love for us; the true source of salvation, of unity, and of life everlasting. This is the rock upon which Jesus calls us to trust in, to build our life of faith on.
Faith, is anything but easy. In this world that has fallen so far from God’s original plan of peace, generosity, and unity – where the innocent suffer exploitation and oppression, where war, violence, and abject cruelty are the lived experiences of the majority of God’s children – it’s easy to lose hope. When we feel our faith lacking, when we feel that we can’t trust in Jesus’ promise of liberation for the oppressed, when we feel hopelessness as we look at the state of the world, we must keep digging. When we read the newspaper, and our senses tell us, surely God is not here, we must maintain our faith in the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we fall prey to hopelessness, how can He use us to build up His kingdom which is to come? He needs us to fulfill His earthly mission; to continue His work.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus utters a profoundly anguished lament over his beloved people, and the hardness of their hearts. Yet in his grief he also speaks of his deep and abiding faithfulness towards them and his desire to envelop them in the embrace of his unconditional love. His message then was the same it is to us today: stop running from God’s love, turn back and be saved. I think the Gospel today invites us to see the ways in which we are still opposing, running from, and rejecting the love of Jesus Christ.
Many of Jesus’ own people opposed His invitation to live in the fullness of God’s love, just as we do today. All of us have resistance to what Jesus invites. Speaking of Jerusalem, He exclaims “how often have I wanted together your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings—and you would not!” This rather striking image of Jesus as a hen, protecting her brood from the fox, sacrificing herself, if need be, speaks to something deeply instinctive within us: the desire to be sheltered in a loving embrace, and to know that we are truly safe and deeply loved. If the image of a hen doesn’t quite resonate with you, think of a mother nursing her newborn baby, protecting her in the warmth of her embrace. That desire to be with her child, that indescribable love, that unconditional love, which extends from the core of the mother’s being. Loving her child more than life itself is as natural for her as breathing or drinking. She delights in her child, and would do absolutely anything to protect her, giving her own life in a heartbeat. That is a hint of how great God’s love for us is; yet, sadly the response by humanity has often been to reject God’s call to love one another as He has loved us.
Christianity is so much more than you think
In my mid-twenties, I considered myself a lapsed Roman Catholic who was spiritual, yet not religious. I loved Jesus Christ – I mean, a cross hung above my bed – but if you were to call me a Christian, I would cringe in disgust. If you are either a lapsed Christian, or someone who identifies as spiritual-not-religious, you may know exactly what I mean.
Yet after a long and tumultuous ten-year journey, I now proudly call myself a Christian. The name of “Christian,” however, has a profoundly different meaning for me now than it once did; so much so that I am now a novice in an Episcopal monastery.
The critiques against Christians as a group are certainly warranted. In my perception, there are a whole lot of “wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing” out there. We live in a culture where the Bible, and even the name of Jesus Christ himself, is shamelessly used as a mere prop by self-serving charlatans and politicians, who cherry-pick scripture out of context for their own nefarious ends. There is admittedly a huge disconnect between Christianity as it often appears in the world and the true teachings of Christ. However, we need to look a little deeper to see that the true message of Christ is still spreading in the hearts of humble believers all over the world – yet sadly, it rarely makes the headlines.
To mistake cultural Christianity — which can appear more like a nationalistic identity than a religion — for authentic Christian community is a common misconception. Tradition teaches us that the Christian Church is not merely an institution, but is the mystical Body of Christ. St. Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). The profound failings of the Christian Church to emulate the teachings of its exemplar throughout history are profound, to say the least. Yet, the core of Christianity is not “institution”; the core of Christianity is Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus prays to God before he is to be crucified, saying, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11). Christianity is a religion that affirms our profound unity as a human family and the radical equality of all people. Theologian Richard Rohr asserts that the forgotten reality of the Incarnation “has the potential to reground Christianity as a natural religion and not one simply based on a special revelation, available only to a few lucky enlightened people.” He reminds the reader that “the essential function of religion is to radically connect us with everything (Re-ligio = to re-ligament or reconnect). It is to help us see the world and ourselves in wholeness, and not just in parts.” For this we need one another. As one of my Brothers here at the Monastery likes to say, “salvation isn’t a solo activity.”
During my time here at SSJE, I have become increasingly aware of how interconnected our lives are and how, as human beings, we are deeply dependent on one another for support and encouragement along the spiritual path. In Christian community, with Jesus as our guide, we should help each other navigate the winding moral caverns of human life, in all its frailty and messiness. This is a true function of a religious community.
For me, being part of a church congregation was my first step in slowly realizing that I had gotten the religion of my birth all wrong. Before, when I’d looked in from outside the Church, all I could see was how so many people who called themselves Christians were doing it wrong. Once I actually engaged with them, in community, I discovered the most amazingly loving people, who showed me that there is no one right way to be a Christian. In fact, even making mistakes is a part of the growing edge for those walking the Christian path together. There are many Christians who are anything but stuffy and repressed. On the contrary, I’ve met some of the most open, most compassionate people through the Church. Having a shared theological framework to express my inner experience of God has been invaluable to the growth of my identity in Christ. This is something that I did not experience in my previous spiritual communities and meditation groups. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey wrote that the praying Christian is part of “the people of God in all places and all ages. Divisions of place and time, of culture and of our unhappy separations may hinder but do not destroy the unity in Christ of those who know their prayer to be in Christ.”
The Christian Church is far from perfect. However, Christians are an incredible group of people to wrestle alongside and to grow with as we tackle all the complexity of life together. If you’re waiting for a time when Christianity is going to meet a high expectation for how a religion should be, you may be waiting for the return of Christ. Please don’t mistake my invitation as some self-righteous claim of moral authority: the last thing the world needs is someone telling others that their faith or their spiritual seeking is invalid. The Church is the mystical Body of Christ, and Christ encompasses all of humanity, his sacred and beloved children. Where, when, and how you worship God is not the point, in my mind. But, I have come to realize that we need one another in our pilgrimage. The words of St. John in his first Epistle are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them:
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.” (1 John 4:7-13)
When we stand in the mess of life with others, acting in love for the sake of Christ, we can get a taste of the divine life now — on earth as in heaven.