Scott Mims, Virginia Beach, VA
Has anyone ever made fun of you for what you believe? How did you feel about this?
“What Unites Us Is Stronger Than What Divides Us”
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg. Next year – 2017 – will mark the 500th anniversary of this event, and of the Reformation movement that Luther’s thought and actions helped to spark. In anticipation of this important milestone, it was recently announced that the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church will hold a joint ecumenical commemoration later this year. On October 31, 2016 in Lund, Sweden, our Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches will take another step forward in a long dialogue towards mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. You can read more about this joint commemoration and what it means here:
- Do you and your friends ever talk about religion or what faith means to you? If so, what have you discovered? If not, why not?
- What churches/faith communities have you belonged to?
- Lutherans and Roman Catholics have been in dialogue together for over 50 years now, working hard to achieve greater understanding and reconciliation. Do you think all of the time and effort is worth it? After 500 years of being divided, what, in your opinion, is the significance of this work? Of holding a joint commemorative worship service?
Seventh Sunday of Easter
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
For the past several weeks, we have been in flashback mode. Even though we stand on the resurrection side of things in the Easter season, our readings have taken us back before the crucifixion, back to Jesus’ final evening with his disciples. This week is no exception. John 17:20-26 captures the last part of Jesus’ final prayer just before he and the disciples leave the place where they are and walk to the garden and his arrest.
Jesus’ prayer itself comprises the whole of chapter 17. What has come before this moment in chapters 13 – 16 has the form of a farewell discourse – a last will and testament to his friends. Now the time has come. Jesus’ hour for glory is upon him, and so he prays for himself (verses 1-5), for his disciples (verses 6 – 19), and lastly for the Church (verses 20 – 26).
That They May All Be One
So, who is the Church, and what does Jesus ask on its behalf? The answer to the first part of this question is that the Church is everyone who will come to believe in Jesus as a result of the disciples’ message. This means that it is not just the disciples for whom Jesus prays, he is also praying for us. John 17 is a prayer for you, for me, and for ALL who believe in Jesus the Messiah. Together, we are the Church, and Jesus’ prayer for us is that we “may all be one.”
Unity is the key theme in this part of Jesus’ prayer. We can see this because the idea of believers being “one” gets repeated (verses 20, 22, 23). Yet it is important to notice that the foundation for this unity is first and foremost Jesus’ own relationship with God the Father, and not the result of our efforts. That is to say, we don’t create this unity by our hard work towards love and cooperation. Rather, our efforts towards a more complete and true unity with other believers are the necessary byproducts of the relationship we share with God the Father through his Son, Jesus. Because God the Father loves us, and invites us into the mutual relationship he shares with Jesus, Jesus prays that we will know a similar unity of love with one another.
What’s more, this unity is to be a witness to the world that what we say about Jesus – about his love, about his death and resurrection, about his identity as Lord and Savior – is true (verse 21). Jesus “new commandment” given in chapter 13 at the beginning of this farewell discourse is that we love one another as he has first loved us. Love is the mark and sign that we are truly his. Here, at the conclusion of his prayer, one effect of such love is made clear. As the saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding.” As love breaks down the barriers that divide us, as love heals divisions, overcomes fears, and joins different peoples into communities of faith, joy, and praise, the wider world sees the truth and the power of the God we proclaim.
The Gospel of John in Miniature
The final verses for this week not only complete the prayer, but serve as a summary for the gospel itself. You can hear echoes of John 1 and John 3:16 here. The world does not know God the Father, but Jesus, God’s Son does. There is a unique and eternal relationship between them (see verse 5). What’s more, Jesus has made the truth of God known to those who have believed in him. Having communicated the Father’s “name” to them, he promises to continue to make God known to the Church through the Holy Spirit. (Jn. 16:12-15) The goal of this is so that the love God has for Jesus may also be in all who belong to Jesus. In this way, they – that is, we – also enjoy a living relationship with God, through Christ.
Though the language that John uses in chapter 17 can seem repetitive and hard to understand, it is important to hear the whole of this passage as a prayer in which we are also included. Perhaps part of the reason that our lectionary (the three-year schedule of readings we follow) draws us back this Easter season to Jesus’ final evening with his disciples is to remind us that, because Jesus is alive, his words remain for us, and for the world, a living and life-giving message.
- How do you define the word love? What do you think it means for Christians to love one another?
- Can you think of examples of different Christian churches or groups disrespecting or condemning each other? How does such behavior damage our witness to the world?
- Does unity mean uniformity? What sorts of things should be the same? What sorts of things could be different?
- When it comes to Jesus and our faith, what do you think of the following statement: “What unites us is more important that what divides us?”
- Through our full communion agreements with six other church bodies, along with various other inter-faith conversations, the ELCA is building bridges toward greater unity in the church. Find out more about our church’s ecumenical and inter-religious work at: http://www.elca.org/Faith/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations/Full-Communion. You will also find links to the website of our full communion partners. Perhaps explore some of these sites together. What are some of the connections we share? What part has history played in shaping our current differences?
- “Where Do You Stand” You will need enough space for this activity for participants to line up according to their preferences/beliefs. You can download an activity guide from the following link: https://www.dropbox.com/s/fjr23w0ky6enz9u/Where%20do%20you%20stand%20%28Ecumenical%29.docx?dl=0
Option 1: Have participants line up according to their personal beliefs. For example, “How do you view the Bible – inerrant, inspired word of God, totally the work of human beings, or somewhere in between?” You might then talk about where the “official” ELCA position is on the questions you choose. How much agreement is necessary? Where is there freedom?
Option 2: Create a summary sheet for each of the denominations that you would like to include – ideally each participant gets one. Use the categories at the top (View of God, Saved, Sacrament, etc.) to have participants stand on the continuum based on what their assigned denomination believes. Use this to talk about the great diversity of beliefs. Again, how much agreement is necessary, and on what things, for the unity of the Church?
Credit: Special thanks to Pastor Leslie Scanlon for compiling and creating this chart, and for her permission to include it here.
Disclaimer: The information in this activity is a general summary only. All attempts were made to be as accurate as possible. However, there is often a diversity of positions within any given faith tradition or denomination.
- Arrange to worship together at a congregation from a different denomination. You might decide to visit one of our full communion partner churches, especially one from a tradition you know little about. What was similar? What was different? What things are essential?
Holy God, gracious and merciful, we thank you for the joy of Easter. Through the work of your Holy Spirit help us to love one another, and, in that love, to work against the walls and barriers which divide us. May we be one in you, and may our unity bear witness to the power of your love for all the world. We pray this through Jesus Christ. Amen.