Special occasion sermon in the week before Easter 7 Year C - on the eve of Ascension Day [RCL Resources Index]

That they all may be one

[Note: This is a modified version of the sermon otherwise published for Easter 7 Year C. It was prepared for the annual service of the Fellows of Queen's College in the University of Melbourne, on the Eve of Ascension Day 2007. On the subject of Christian unity see also the sermon for Easter 7 Year B - Unity in Christ]

We meet for worship in an academic setting on the eve of one the major feast days of the Christian calendar. Tomorrow is Ascension Day when traditionally the church celebrates the raising of Christ to glory as conquering hero, no longer to be seen in the form of the suffering servant, but now equipped to rule and make gifts from his bounty to the sons and daughters of humanity ("When he ascended on high he made captivity itself captive and gave gifts to his people", Ephesians 4: 8 from Psalm 68:18). Ascension Day is still a public holiday in many European countries. Few seem to know why. I will come back to its lofty character in conclusion, after taking up our main theme of the prayer "that they all may be one."

When Jesus prayed for his disciples and for those who would believe in him through them "That they all may be one", there is a sense in which he was expressing a universal human desire for wholeness within ourselves and in our communities. That human hope is not to be lightly dismissed even if it would be a facile distortion to draw a direct parallel between it and what Christ prayed for just before he went to his death. I am prompted to take it up now because in Australia the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is observed between Ascension and Pentecost, so for us it begins tomorrow although in the Northern Hemisphere it is at another time.

The night before he died Jesus prayed for us, for we who meet in his name and for all who believe in him. What he prayed for us all was that we all may be one. It was his last wish offered in prayer to his Father. According to John [18:1] it was offered immediately before he went to the garden where he was arrested: that we all may be one. The point about it that I want to draw particularly to your attention is kind of unity for which Christ prayed.

First, he had prayed for himself:

Then he prayed for people of succeeding generations who would believe in him, as we read today:

That is, he asked for us and all who believe in him through the word of the apostles; and what did he ask?

What kind of unity?

The request That they may all be one does not stand alone. The kind of unity for which he prayed is included in the prayer, and the purpose for which his followers should be united is also there.

What kind of unity did Jesus desire for us? He said, As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us. There you have at least the foundations. We must begin with spiritual unity: as God dwells in us, we together dwell in him. I speak here to Christian believers. It is in the first place in our communion with God, through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, that we have an essential unity. We belong together because we belong to him. But that is not all: the nature of our unity is further revealed in the purpose for which we should be one: that is, according to what Jesus prayed, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

He went on the describe that unity more fully:

Unity in God

So Jesus tied up this call and hope of unity into a bundle with his releationship to God the Father. It is not a hope that gains its essential character from our common humanity. That they may be one as we are one is a prayer that the kind of unity that we might have is the same kind of unity that exists between God the Father and the Son. As Jesus said elsewhere The Father and I are one." -- John 10:30. He spoke of that unity between himself and God the Father when he was speaking of himself as the shepherd of the flock leading them to eternal life.

Here is the critical point for us: his unity with the Father is closely related to his caring for his followers I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one; and the purpose is reaffirmed: so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. -- John 17:22-23

So he prayed that we may be one as God is one, knowing the love of God, sharing in the divine mystery of communion within the Holy Trinity. The love which binds together the persons of the Trinity is extended to include us. We share in the love that the Father extends to the Son, which Jesus acknowledged when he said, You loved me before the foundation of the world -- John 17:24b, and

We are called then to be completely one so that the love that is in the very being of God and the love with which we are loved may be shared. Jesus will then himself dwell in us and we in him, as he dwells in the Father and the Father in him.

Implications for us today

One thing this Trinitarian understanding of the kind of unity for which Christ prayed does for us it to free us from a simple, bounded monism. The sharply focussed identity, separated from its surroundings, is not the kind to which we are called and it is not in the nature of God as revealed in Christ. The identity of God is distinct and God is one, but there is community as well as identity in the very being of God and that community is open for others to share. There are all sorts of social and political implications of this understanding of what lies at the heart of things, and I am sure that you will see immediate applications.

I will pass by one major topic that is very dear to my heart with only a few quick comments on the implications for Christian unity in the continuing need to work towards the union of churches and for joint action in service to the world.

It is clear that we must have a spiritual unity, but just as God reached out to us in a real live human being, in the real historical man who we believe was the Word made flesh, in the man Jesus, who was visible in the world, serving humanity and showing this life in action, so our unity must be visible and practical. If anyone then says that we can have spiritual unity and still maintain visible disunity in our witness to the world, as if divisions in the body of Christ did not matter, then the prayer of Jesus is not being fulfilled. The unity that Christ wills for the Church, for which he prayed and which is his gift for the Church and the world, is a unity that the world can see and so believe. With that admonition and its implied fervent prayer, I would like to conclude by approaching the topic of unity from another direction, briefly from one aspect of human psychology.

The sense of incompleteness

Cognitive motivation is a subtle and complex subject and I will not attempt to introduce it now, but only to pick up one key concept from my recent work on basic psychological theory: the idea of an incomplete Gestalt, how a sense of incompleteness motivates us to make sense of the world and of ourselves.People tend to have their interest aroused by a perception of incompleteness. Curiosity and, to a lesser extent, other forms of intrinsic motivation like cognitive dissonance and aspects of achievement motivation, provide us with a window into basic processes which arise from a sense of incompleteness. Contradictions, uncertainties and gaps in knowledge arouse people to search, inquire, manipulate, learn, construct, and create new orders out of the old with new information input. Most important in this understanding of how intrinsic motivation functions is the idea that a process of restructuring cognitive elements into a new whole never restores a previous state of affairs. When a broken circle, the brokenness of which attracted attention by its incompleteness, is closed again it is only completed by incorporating something new into our previous understanding, something which we had to search for and used to move towards completeness. Our cognitive map of the world is then different from what it has ever been before. Some kind of incompleteness, followed by a sequence of purposive behaviour, and a resolution in which disparate elements, some newly incorporated and some disjoined pieces from the old order which was disturbed, are then integrated into a new order.

If our brains function is such a way as to be always seeking resolution of any sense of incompleteness then we are prepared for a purposeful view of life in which unity and wholeness are sought. From the viewpoint of a Christian understanding of creation, we are made for such a purpose. In theological terms, we are necessarily eschatological beings. We conscious products of the Creator's handiwork have the potential to make sense of the world, to piece together the uncertain shards of experience and make meaningful patterns of them, we may seek healing and wholeness in ourselves, hope for and achieve unity in relationships, even if temporarily in a world that is imperfect and incomplete - imperfect and incomplete for our own good, for after all we would not want it to be fully determined and thus finished. When Jesus said to the woman who reached out and touched the fringe of his cloak, "Your faith has made you whole" or "Your faith has saved you" (the same thing), he was pointing to this basic quality in human potential which is being fulfilled in the purpose of God for creation. Paul was putting this in the big picture when he wrote of the hidden purpose of God, hidden for long ages, but now revealed, that his purpose in creation was to bring all things into a unity in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).

It is natural to seek unity in ourselves and in our understanding of the world. We are prepared for this potential, as even Freud acknowledged in his "final solution to the problem of the instincts" in which he postulated at eht end of his likfe a general tendency towards integration, to seek the unity of all things, a life instinct or eros, as he saw it. It is important for our understanding that he proposed also an opposing pressure for disintegration, i.e. the death instinct. So I bring in Freud then on the side of the angels, much against his will of course, by pointing out that this opposing tendency to disintegration which is very much part of the human condition is the very reason why we look to up Christ in glory at Ascension, now, in the season beyond the commemoration of the cross and his resurrection in triumph over death. That is, no happy unrealistic reliance upon human seeking for unification is in itself a sure foundation for the fulfilment of our hopes. The unity for which Christ prayed "that they all may be one" is consistent with the way God made us for life in his world, and with his purpose in creation, but it is not achieved out of human resources alone. It is a gift that comes to us through our participation in the unity Christ had with God his Father, so to fulfil our potential to become children of God and brothers and sisters of one another. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

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