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Unity

Sermon Preached at St Mary the Boltons, South Kensington, 20/05/2007
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers

7th Sunday of Easter
Readings: Revelation 22; John 17:20-26

Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel is one of my favourite chapters of the Bible. I love to read it and meditate on it during the long late hours of the Watch on Maundy Thursday. This chapter is wonderful, humbling and awe-inspiring. It contains the great prayer, sometimes called the ‘High Priestly’ prayer, that Jesus made during the last supper. In the first part of that prayer Jesus prayed for himself. In the second part he prayed for his disciples. And in the third part he prayed for the community of the future who would believe because of the preaching of the apostles. That future community includes us here today. It is both amazing and comforting to know that Jesus prayed for us, and what is more, he still does.

Just think – what great faith he had: at that time his followers were few and he was heading for a painful death on a Roman cross, yet his confidence was unshaken, he prayed for those who would believe in his name in the future. And what confidence he had in those he had chosen to be his apostles: he knew that they did not fully understand him; he knew that soon they would abandon him during the hour of his greatest need. Yet, he expected these people to spread his name throughout the world.

In praying for us, his future disciples, Jesus’ main concern was unity. He asked the Father: ‘that they may be one, as we are one.’ We tend to take friendship and community for granted, only recognizing their importance when something happens to interrupt the smooth flow of relationships. This really came home to me when I moved to a new house and job earlier this year.

Note that Jesus prayed for unity, not for uniformity. His choice of apostles was sufficiently diverse in temperament, personality, style and social status to suggest that he found diversity a healthy, life-giving force. Remember impetuous Peter, James and John, the sons of thunder, Judas the zealot, Matthew the tax-collector, gentle John the beloved disciple and Thomas who doubted... They were quite a mixed bunch in more ways than one.

True unity cannot be achieved in a community which denies difference. Unity is achieved when each member is different and contributes a different gift, but all are united around the same goal by mutual love. We are called from many different backgrounds to form one body in Christ. By rising above our many differences we become witnesses to the one God who allows his light to shine in a variety of ways.

Since moving to Kensington in February I have been worshipping in a different church nearly every week. No two services have been the same, no two congregations have been the same. There have been different liturgies, different styles of music, different forms of teaching, different decor, and different atmospheres. All within walking distance from where I live and all Anglican. It has been an interesting experience! The differences cannot be denied but I look for signs of unity. I look for people who shine with the love of God, who desire to worship him, in whatever way, and I look for people who evidently care for one another and welcome the stranger.

In other words I look for signs of love because love is the key. Elsewhere in his Gospel John suggests that the love between Jesus and the Father is evidenced in wanting the same thing, working towards the same ends, and having the same purpose. That purpose is the salvation of the world, the fruits of which are seen in the love human beings have for one another.

Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: ‘Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ And he prayed that the love with which the Father loved him may be in us. Isn’t that amazing?

Community is a great challenge. True fellowship is far more than mutual toleration. It involves solidarity, sharing, belonging, compassion, and joy in the well-being of others. To be truly united is to transcend petty disputes, competitiveness and obsession with power. It is to build honest relationships based on truth and respect. Selfishness is a blight on a community: everyone demands that the community be attentive to them, but nobody really wants to be attentive to others.

To be one is to live the two great commandments even more completely. It is to reflect God’s love for us and ours for God and to put the needs of others on a par with, or even above, our own. To be truly one is to have a taste of glory.

Once there was an idealistic young man who was greatly attracted to a community of monks. It was inevitable that he would want to join them. And join them he did, as a novice. At first he was thrilled to be part of a community of holy men. But he wasn’t there very long when he got a rude awakening. He discovered that the men whom he had regarded as perfect were full of flaws and imperfections. In fact, they were just as fragile, sinful and selfish as himself. He was so disillusioned that he left the monastery.

A Christian community is not made up of perfect people. The group of apostles that Jesus chose included people who were timid and weak and fearful. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, points out that community is not about perfect people. It is about people who are bonded to each other, each of whom is a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, love and hate... There is a part of each one of us which is already luminous, already converted. And there is a part of us which is still in shadow. A community is not made up of only the converted. It is made up of all the elements in us which need to be transformed, purified and pruned. It is made up of both the converted and the unconverted.

Vanier also talks about ‘the fellowship of the weak’, and says that greater solidarity can result from the sharing of weakness than from the sharing of strength. This might seem a contradiction. But take a bunch of reeds for example. Individually, reeds are weak and easily broken. But tie a bundle of reeds together, and they are almost unbreakable. So it is with people. Great strength results from togetherness.

True community means you need never suffer alone. In fact, community seems to be linked to weakness and vulnerability. When people are enjoying success they look for admiration, but when they are weak they seek communion. If they find it, they know that they are loved not for their achievements, but for who they are. As a result they begin to gain confidence in themselves and to flourish.

The first Christians supported one another by praying and worshipping together, and by loving service of one another. We can do the same. We can travel together, listening to and learning from one another. We need to extend to other people the same kind of understanding and compassion we ourselves wish to receive from them, for the cement of unity is interdependence. We need each other. We also need the grace of God, for this is not something we seem to be able to do in our own strength.

So, as we approach Pentecost, my fervent prayer is:
Come, Holy Spirit, and make us one that the world might see how much we love one another and come to believe in Jesus, the Christ. Amen.


Acknowledgements and Bibliography
As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I am particularly indebted here, however, to Jean Vanier's works including Community & Growth (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006), and to Flor McCarthy's New Sunday & Holy Day Liturgies Year C (Dominican Publications, 2000). I will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.



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