In the diocese of Gloucester, June is very much ordination season.
In two weeks time, those ordained Deacon last summer will be ordained priest, while at the end of the month another group of men and women, among them our soon-to-be curate, M, will kneel before the Bishop, who will lay his hands on them, and by the grace of God ordain them as Deacons.
Before each ordination, there will be a retreat: three days spent, mostly in silence, praying, reading, and focussing with God on what lies ahead.
It’s a very special time, a gift even to chatterboxes like me – but knowing my deep love of words, my wise spiritual director sent me on retreat with a very specific assignment.
I was to take the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel, the chapter from which our gospel reading came today, and write it out changing all the times that Jesus prays for them/theirs and inserting my name instead.
It may sound simple but it was one of the most powerful prayer exercises I’ve ever been involved with.
To go through that great prayer, line by line, and hear Jesus praying it for me.
You might like to take a few hours one day and try it for yourself. Never let it be said that time out with God is only for the professionals, - those strange creatures, the clergy, or for super spiritual souls quite unlike us.
Spending time with no other agenda than listening to God can be one of the most empowering and transforming things ever…
Now, though, I’m going to invite you to imagine that Jesus is speaking these words about our church.
Less of the imagining! Jesus IS speaking these words about our church.
We are the successors to the disciples…so we are the people for whom he is praying.
This prayer is part of his great farewell; Jesus speaks these words on the night before the crucifixion, but they are apt too for Ascension-tide, when we remember his second leave-taking.
But though they are words of farewell, they are not a to-do list – the kind of thing I was feverishly concocting in my last weeks in my former parish.
It’s not a question of Jesus firing instructions at his disciples….but rather of him committing them lovingly to the Father whose love he lives to reveal.
He speaks aloud his longings for the community gathered around him, confident that his Father hears and will respond.
In this passage Jesus does not offer tips to the community on how to be “the
church in unity” or how to “avoid evil” but he prays from his heart, with passionate intensity and we are privileged to be invited to listen as God speaks to God.
He prays because, though it’s easy to lose sight of this, THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH DOES NOT DEPEND UPON US, BUT DEPENDS ULTIMATELY, ON GOD.
During his earthly ministry, the group that was to become the church was wholly dependent on Jesus…but as he prepares to depart, Jesus returns the responsibility to his heavenly Father…It is HIS church, relying for its life on God’s love and grace.
Throughout the gospels, we’ve repeated evidence of the intensity and focus of Jesus’s prayer life. As he speaks to God, it’s clear that this is no casual acquaintance. Jesus knows he will be heard; Jesus knows he is being heard
He’s not battling to change God’s mind
“I am expecting that your promises will come to pass”. Jesus and God want the same thing so there is no need for one to reason or bargain or convince the other; they know what the other wants and needs even before it is expressed, because they are at unity in themselves.
And what is the heart of the prayer…the deepest longing that Jesus shares with his Father?
“Holy Father, protect them in your name …so that they may be one as we are one”
That’s the fundamental expression of the church – as we proclaim it week by week.
Our unity is to reflect God’s unity.
Its not just a nominal arrangement, an easy recitation of the Creed
“we believe in ONE HOLY CATHOLIC & APOSTOLIC CHURCH”
That’s quick to say – almost automatic…but so much harder to be, and to do.
Still, this is our DNA as church.
One, holy, catholic
We say that we believe it, but do we actually live it?
Holiness isn’t easy – though it too is fundamental to this prayer, for holiness means being set apart for God
“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth””
ARE we holy? Sanctified because our life, our being is rooted and grounded in God?
To put it more simply, would anyone really know we are Christians by looking at our lives? If we’re NOT making at least some waves in our community, the probability is that we’re not actually being true to our calling as church…
“The world has hated them because they do not belong to the world..”
Being Church is not all about being nice, smiley people…Sometimes it will be about challenging injustice, about walking away from greed, about slamming the door on dishonesty. Not the best way to win friends and influence people.
When was the last time that someone got really angry with you because of your faith…? Maybe, just maybe, it should happen more often.
And what about the call to be both one and catholic – universal?
We assert our belief, but what we present is a church torn in a thousand different directions by differences as trivial as taste in music, or geographical or historical accident, as well as by differences of doctrine and theology.
But Jesus makes it clear
We’re to be united “so that the world may believe”
And in our disunity – we block that process.
The sad truth is that often, as we pray for Christian unity, what we’re envisaging is a world in which everyone else comes to agree with us…in which differences are ironed out because we are proved to be right all along.
And so we continue to fight our corner.
As we squabble, as we try to maintain that our way is best, that others are acceptable only when they have come round to our way of thinking, - we block the gospel message from reaching those who need it so badly.
In fact, if we focus more closely we can see that unity is not a goal but a realised reality…It is based on, and must reflect, nothing less than the unity between Father and Son. That unity cannot be forced. There is no element of competition or of anxiety because God knows there IS enough love to go round.
As Jesus presents the reality of his relationship with God, so he creates a template for the church. All that Jesus does and is, he does and is in obedience to the Father – and that same unity of purpose and belief is part of our Christian heritage. We cannot present a convincing Christian witness to the unity of Father, Son and Spirit while we bicker and fight over the truth….but because the Church is, in truth, the Body of Christ in the world we can trust that there is still a deeper unity, sometimes hidden but never wholly absent.
We do not need to fear.
There IS enough love to go round.
This is our story. This is God’s story.
And this story is truth – for his word is truth.