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s166g98 Somerton Park 24/5/98 Seventh Sunday after Easter

"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." John 17:23.

I have, in recent years, looked at this the seventh Sunday of Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension, as the Church's Sunday, for it is the day when, each year, we read portions of the 17th chapter of St John's gospel, where Jesus prays for the disciples and for those who believe through the witness of the disciples.

In my experience, almost universally, the focus of preachers has been on the fact that Jesus prays that we may be one ...

There is of course a problem with unity, for a lynch mob can be described, not inappropriately, as a unity. Jesus himself was condemned to death by the united heckling of the crowds spurred on by the religious authorities. The herd of pigs quietly grazing near where the Gadarene demoniacs lived, when invaded by the demons that formerly tormented the demoniacs, were united in their headlong stampede down the steep bank and into the sea to drown.

So unity, without direction, is no guarantee of appropriate movement.

Jesus himself doesn't pray for unity for unity's sake - he prays for unity for the world's sake. A second theme for preachers has been that Unity is for witness to the world. And so the link between numerically strong churches and strong witness to outsiders, it seems, goes without saying. Recently I was reading the words of an Archbishop who was rejoicing that the average size of the congregation in his Diocese is 126, whereas the national average is 57.

Yet how frequently is the Biblical witness that God reduces the numbers in the Israelite army, so that it can be plain that God accomplishes the victory, not humanity. So numbers don't mean much either - not that I would want to suggest that the Archbishop I quoted believed any differently from me.

Directionless unity or numbers for numbers sake are not what it's about.

So we need to delve a little deeper to find the meaning. Jesus gives us the words "so that the world may know that you have sent me" twice in this passage. Once we might pass over as a slip of the pen or an unguarded word. But one can't avoid something that Jesus said twice.

This seems (on the face of it) to be a rather strange and pointless proposal. Jesus is praying that the world might assent intellectually to the proposition that God sent Jesus. St John certainly believed that Jesus was the "word made flesh", but Jesus is content for a rather less ambitious statement for himself.

Jesus wants people to know that the manner of his life - sitting down and eating with sinners, and the manner of his death - as an outcast of the religious establishment because he sat down and ate with sinners - that all this was divinely ordained by God. It follows that if it was divinely ordained by God, it was for all - sinners then and sinners now.

But it is strange and pointless for a reason, because it is an invitation to come, not a command to do so. How often do we as the Church make it into a command and consider those who do not seem to respond as sinners or backsliders?

And one begins to wonder just how many people think that God sent Jesus. It would certainly be more than come to Church on Sundays!

For all the preaching of the Church, how many people do believe in a gracious God who accepts people for who they are, yet find that unconditional acceptance not reflected in the attitudes of congregations.

Recently I heard it said that a "congregation would rather hear about sin, especially other people's sin!" It is true that I could have a lovely congregation of happy people if what I preached about was how sinful the rest of humanity (= those not present here) is! Even if it were true (which it isn't) - of what skerrick of usefulness this would be, I have no idea. If a preacher wants to point out someone's sin to them, I would have thought it would (in the very least) expedite matters somewhat to address the actual person or persons concerned.

All the while we are doing this we forget that Jesus sat down and ate with sinners, he didn't berate them from synagogues. Jesus is praying that the world might assent intellectually to the proposition that God sent Jesus and so affirm that this was no accident, no fit of pique by a rebellious child, a tantrum by "un enfant terrible" - no - God sent him to do precisely this.

It is in this light that Jesus being the "Word made flesh" comes to make something other than mere academic sense. The whole being of God has been from the beginning and until the end of time - not something aloof and discriminatory - but immediate and accepting. The incarnation is not a band-aid, lately thought of, because of continuing human intransigence, but a more complete statement and demonstration about what God has been on about the whole time.

The water of life, as we read about in the second lesson, from the reading from Revelation: "The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift." (Revelation 22:17) - this water is offered to one and to all. It is God who is offering, and no one may get in the way of others who are thirsty and wish to come to drink.

If God can love the motley crew of the disciples, ones whom Jesus can consistently refer to as "Oh ye of little faith", God can love anyone. That is what the world is bidden to see.

In fact it is not just an invitation to come, it describes the reason we and all are able to come. Because Jesus can come and sit and eat with us, accepting our contributions along with the contributions of all others, we are simultaneously invited, encouraged, accepted and admitted. So what on the face of it seems a rather strange and pointless proposal, becomes a powerful word within us and all people. God sent Jesus to one and to all, therefore he is sent to me, to accept the contribution I would proffer.

I am grateful for P S Watson's article in "A Dictionary of Christian Theology" (ed Alan Richardson SCM third impression 1974 p 127-8 on "Faith") where he defines "Faith" in Catholic theology to mean "mental assent to divinely revealed truth". However in classical Protestant theology he tells us that: "faith ... means obedient trust ... towards God". I think we see Jesus bidding his hearers to assent to the proposition that God has sent him, so that the religious authorities might desist from opposing (and eventually crucifying) him, and that those who accepted him might give thanks to God for that gracious ministry. The "mere" mental assent that Jesus called for had immediate practical significance.

To not assent that God had sent Jesus was to be left with a God without grace for anyone - no grace even for the religious people - for in the end they are left to their own devises and they (like me and every one else) were and are their own worst enemy. The sadness is not that Jesus was crucified, but that those who crucified Jesus had nowhere else to turn for grace. In fact there is no where else to which to turn but to Jesus.

Jesus is (in the end) not concerned for himself that people accept he has been sent by God. In the end not seeing that he is sent by God means that those who do so have nothing to fall back on but the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest. We as the Church need to see that magnifying Jesus and using lovely metaphysical terminology to describe his relationship to God and his eternal nature, for all it might be right, are perhaps unintentionally, perhaps unconsciously, erecting barriers to keep those who are simply content to affirm that God sent Jesus, outside. If there is no where else to turn to find grace, it is not just the Church who will suffer numerically or spiritually, but the world also (for whom Jesus most assuredly died and rose to life for) - which can only but resort to the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest.


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