Sermon: What does Jesus pray for? (Easter 7 Year B)

Easter 7, Year B

St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Lodi, CA

John 17:6-19

This week’s gospel lesson feels a little like we’re looking backwards in the story. Next week is Pentecost already. Why are we reading a passage from holy week? When we read about Jesus praying in Gethsemane during holy week it seems to mean something specific for that week. It is Jesus praying for his disciples over the next couple of days, that they will be safe and stay strong. It is also a prayer of Jesus fully accepting God’s will, Jesus fully accepting that he will be crucified by the Romans. But to hear this prayer today, weeks after the passion, after resurrection of Easter, it means something else. Something that seems to look towards a future that Jesus was already experiencing.

What was Jesus praying for? Jesus prays for his disciples, on the very night when he is arrested. He is praying for their future, when he is no longer physically with them. Sure, this can mean for the Friday/Saturday of Holy Week. And it can also mean from the time that Jesus ascended into heaven all the way until now. Jesus is praying for his disciples for the time they would, and we will spend here on earth. I don’t know if Jesus could see the entire future of Christianity in that moment, but this is the prayer that Jesus prayed when he knew he wouldn’t be around to physically protect his disciples or to personally teach them anymore. Whether Jesus knew everything in that moment or not, this is what he wanted for his disciples. What does Jesus pray for the future of his disciples?

Jesus starts by talking about God, and how Jesus has made God’s name known. Jesus taught us how to pray in the Lord’s prayer, by saying “hallowed be your name”, and Jesus’ preaching and ministry show us how to hallow God’s name, how to make God’s name holy. The words that Jesus preached, everything that he had given his disciples, it was all done in God’s name and for God’s name. In this gospel according to John, Jesus makes seven statements that have become known as the I Am statements. I am the true vine, I am the way, the truth, and the life, you know these. By framing his statements with the phrase “I am”, Jesus is claiming the same name, the same identity, as God. “I am” is the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush. What does it mean for Jesus and the Father to have the same name?

I have a very common name. Jessica. It was the most common name for baby girls the year I was born and for like 5 years before and after. And I do feel a little jolt of recognition or sometimes solidarity whenever I hear someone else being called Jessica. But in no way do I think that all Jessicas share the same identity. We just all have a common name. With Jesus it is different. To share the name “I am” with God is to share in what God *is*. The very being of God is being shared so that Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus and God are unified in purpose and will. Part of this final night of prayer was Jesus accepting God’s will for himself, of aligning his will with God’s will. But in this prayer Jesus is talking about more than just aligning his own human will with God’s divine one. Jesus is talking about aligning his identity with God’s identity. The name that Jesus has been preaching is not just information on a nametag. It is the very identity of God. Jesus says that the Father has given Jesus his own name, his own identity, and it is this sharing of identity that Jesus wants for his disciples. It’s not a matter of all of them being called James or Mary. Those are just labels. What matters is that they are unified in purpose and identity in Jesus Christ. What matters is that they share in the very being of God.

What does Jesus pray for? Jesus prays that his disciples might become one, become unified, just as Jesus and the Father are unified.

Is unity achievable? Well, we have not done a very good job so far. If I’ve learned anything in my seminary classes, it’s that the history of Christianity is one big argument after another. Sometimes we have a big ecumenical council and work it out, but usually we just call the people we disagree with heretics and someone starts a new church. This happened in the first century over whether to celebrate Easter at the same time as Jewish Passover or to independently calculate the date. This happened in the 21st century in our own diocese over the gender and sexuality requirements for membership and ordination in our church. This recent schism is so contentious I have to sometimes be careful to explain my seminary degree: the “diploma in Anglican Studies” I’m earning next weekend does not mean I’ve left the Episcopal Church, it is referring to the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which The Episcopal Church in the US is a member. The Anglican Communion is a human attempt at the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for. All these local churches around the world cooperating, not competing. All these churches who consider themselves part of the same communion of saints, regardless of national origin or even vestment preferences. But somehow, this human attempt at cooperation and unity seems to have only led to exactly the thing the church does every time: groups calling each other heretics and someone starting a new church.

All of the ways that we are separated, by national borders, by age differences, by race and class and gender and sexuality. I don’t know if Jesus could see the entire future of Christianity in that moment of prayer, but if he did, if Jesus saw how little unity was have, how much we are not one…no wonder he prayed for unity. Jesus prayed for unity because he knew how disunified we could be, and he knew he was not going to be here physically to set us straight.

Why is unity important? Why not just let us all have our denominations and churches and allegiances? Jesus prayed for unity “so that his joy would be made complete in us ourselves”. Jesus said almost the exact same words a couple chapters back, about his joy being complete in his disciples. Jesus was talking then about himself as the true vine, and the necessity for the disciples to abide in Jesus in order to bear fruit. Branches abiding in the vine means not being separate from the vine. Disciples abiding in Jesus means not being separate from Jesus, means loving Jesus and each other as Jesus loves us. Abiding in the vine means that branches bear fruit. Abiding in Jesus means that we bear the fruits of the spirit, love joy, peace…these fruits are a sign of that joy of Jesus being complete in us. And that joy being complete means being unified.

Obviously the joy is not complete. There is still so much disunity. There are still so many of us searching for an identity separate from the true vine. But there are also some branches that have stayed connected to the vine long enough to produce some fruit. Maybe those little buds will someday lead to fully complete grapes. Like how even though I have felt so separate from my family and friends because of distance and pandemic, a strong connection has grown between me and the people I’ve prayed with over the past year. People that I used to only see at holidays and funerals, I now have a regular connection with. I have been physically separate from you, the people of St. Johns, for this entire year of my internship. But I do not feel separate. I feel like I am connected to a strong vine. The fruit we’ve grown over the past year is something to be joyful about. I look forward to the day, coming up very soon, when I will be physically near enough to join you in person. And I give thanks for the connection, for the unity I’ve experienced over my year as your seminarian.

I might not be able to physically receive the elements of communion, the bread and the fruit of the vine, but I joyfully participate in the unity of Christian community. I am unified spiritually with you, the congregation of St. John’s. I am a part of my community of seminarians here. I am a member of the diocese of San Joaquin and the worldwide Anglican Communion. And most importantly, we are all joined together in the communion of saints. Eucharist is a reminder of our communion, and eucharist is also how we achieve that communion. Jesus’s body and blood, given for us and the forgiveness of sins, draws us together into the one Body of Christ. The unity that Jesus prays for comes to fruition in the celebration of the eucharist. The joy of unity with in the Body of Christ is celebrated in the eucharist.

Is unity achievable? Clearly not under our own steam. If there’s something to disagree about, we make a point of disagreeing on principle. Pineapple on pizza. Is a hot dog a sandwich. Dodgers or Giants. Or the big, real, issues. Who to vote for for governor. Israel and Palestine. The best way to end gun violence. I am not going to offer any solutions. We’ll have to look towards other things Jesus said for that. But I do want to echo Jesus’s prayer: make us one, O God, as you and Jesus are one, that we might join in a truly joyful communion with each other. Amen.

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