7th Sunday Easter (16 May 2010)
The seven verses we heard in the Gospel reading are the last words that Jesus speaks to his disciples in John’s Gospel at the Last Supper before he is arrested and put to death. These are also the concluding verses of Jesus’ great prayer for unity. In this prayer, Jesus prays first for the disciples he is leaving behind. They are the evidence that he has accomplished his mission on earth. As the Father has sent him, so is Jesus sending his disciples into the world. And then he prays for the church that will develop and grow in direct response to their witness; a church that grows and reaches through time to include our faith community of St Michaels, two thousand years later.
The unity that Jesus prayed for is a unity that comes about through the witness and teaching of his disciples: “Holy Father I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one.” We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.
Jesus didn’t give them a detailed blue print of management structures and procedures but he did leave them with the law on which the church he established was to be built: “Love one another as I have loved you; by this will all people know that you are my disciples.”
Jesus prayed that as he had revealed to them the love of the Father – the truth that God is love – so are they to reveal the Father’s love to the world by their example of love for one another. We are the witnesses to that love in today’s world. It is through our example of love that the world can believe and know that God sent Jesus into the world to reveal to the world his immeasurable love for us and all humanity. The success or failure of the Church is dependent principally on love rather than law or liturgy.
That’s not to say that we don’t need liturgy or codes of law. Both civil and canon law are essential to define, protect and defend the rights of life, faith and liberty. The Church has more than 1 billion members and thousands of clergy worldwide responsible for managing and guiding it and it’s crucial to have laws to assist the institutional Church to continue the mission of Christ on earth today. But the Church should never define itself by canon law or liturgy. Only the primacy of love can bring about the Church that Jesus prayed for.
He prayed that the oneness of love among those who believe, that’s us, might reflect the oneness of love between the Father and the Son and that through our love we will reveal God to the world. Can you imagine what a different world this would be if all Christians loved in that oneness that Jesus prayed for? Sadly with over 38,000 denominations and literally millions of independent churches throughout the world today, there is but a fragile semblance of oneness amongst Christians.
There will always be differences in the ways that people worship and we will never all believe exactly the same thing. But we shouldn’t let our differences destroy our love for each other. We are not in competition with one another – if there is a competition it should be to ‘out love’ each other.
Disunity amongst believers is a serious impediment to our Christian witness and to the spread of the kingdom of God on earth but while making our mission more difficult it doesn’t make our witness any less essential or urgent. It doesn’t make our discipleship any easier but we shouldn’t be daunted. The witness of one person can change the world.
In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen is stoned to death because he testifies to the Risen Christ. We’re told that young Saul – later to be called Paul – was there and that those attacking Stephen had laid their cloaks at his feet – they would have done this to free up their arms so that they could throw better. How often I wonder did Paul think back to that day when he stood and watched Stephen being killed because of his love and faith in Jesus and surely Paul would never have forgotten Stephen’s dying words in which he asked God to forgive them for what they were doing to him
None of us is likely to have to make that sort of sacrifice for our faith – but sacrifices we will certainly have to make. Stephen was willing to give his life; what are we prepared to give? What do we have to give that we can be a better example of love? In his prayer, Jesus focused on his eleven closest disciples. Perhaps we could think about the eleven people closest to us and give up anything that interferes with our witness of love to them – pride, ego, fear, dependence, desire, envy, settling of old hurts – anything that does not reflect the embrace of the love of the Father for the Son.
And then we could give to these eleven closest people in our lives more of the things that do express Christ’s love – forgiveness, gentleness, patience, tolerance, understanding, acceptance, freedom of choice, charity – anything that reflects the Holy Spirit of Christ.
Jesus at the Last Supper prayed for his disciples and for the church that would grow through their preaching and the love that they shared for each other. He placed his full confidence in eleven very ordinary, very human, imperfect people. He places his full confidence in each one of us. The witness and love of one person can change the world for many.