A homily delivered at Morning Prayer, Marsh Chapel, Boston University, Wednesday 7 February 2007.
Given the specialized track I have developed for my MDiv studies, ecumenical systematic theology, it should not be surprising that I chose today to be one of the three days I preach this semester when I saw the given readings from the daily lectionary for today. In the text from the Gospel according to John, we find Jesus at the end of a prayer that spans the whole chapter. The first five verses speak of glorification in eternal life. In verses 6-19, Jesus prays that the disciples will be united in the word shared among them and that God will protect them from the evil one who sets the world against them because of the word. In the pericope just heard, Jesus prays that those who will believe in the word shared among the disciples will be united. Notice, however, that the form of prayer Jesus is engaged in here is petition. Jesus is requesting that God ensure the unity. Jesus has shared the glory given to him with the disciples for this purpose and is now asking God to fulfill it.
What is the means by which God fulfills the unity of those gathered in the word? It is love. Love is a complicated word, often misused and abused. I do not want to try to sort all of that out here. But do realize that it is a special word. Notice here how it functions. In the 2 Chronicles text, when the temple of God is finished and all of the people of God have been gathered together into one body, praise is given “for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” The praise of God, the God of enduring love, is the glory of God which has filled the temple “so that the priests could not stand to minister.” Love is what brought the people together in unity. Back in the Gospel text, the love of God indwelling the disciples is the result of the name of God becoming known, a symbol of deep spiritual wisdom. It is not just any love, but the love with which God loved Jesus, and this love is itself Jesus in the disciples. This completes the cycle of indwelling started in verse 21: the Father is in Jesus, Jesus is in the Father, the disciples are in them and now they, Jesus and through Jesus the Father, are in the disciples. God fulfills the unity of the disciples, then and now, by drawing all together in the love of divine life.
Sadly, the Gospel text stops short of the inclusive message we have come to expect. The ecumenical movement loves this text because it binds together ecumenism and mission, or at least seems to. Really it does not. It only works if we read the “believing” of the world through the lens of the Reformation so that engendering belief that Jesus was sent by God is the missiological task with a salvific goal. Here, what is desired is not so much belief as we would think of it, but recognition. This is clearer in verse 23 where “know” is substituted for “believe.” The love that signals salvation in the Gospel of John is reserved to the disciples while recognition of that love in the disciples is the scrap left to the world without an invitation to participation. This great ecumenical text is not a call for mission but a perplexing and disheartening Christian triumphalism. It is a rejection of the world.
Surely this cannot be all? Surely it is not. In verse 20 Jesus prays “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Belief is not some cognitive assent with salvific effect, it is participation in the word shared by the disciples. Remembering the prologue to the Gospel of John, the word is the very participation in divine life, “the word was God.” The disciples, in whom God dwells and who dwell in God in love, extend the arms to those who recognize the divine love working in them. The word of the disciples is analogous to the Jesus the word of God, a dynamic principle working to bring the world into divine life. This is seen again in verse 26, and now the unity of the disciples in God and Jesus Christ is made manifest because Jesus will make the name of God known through the word of the disciples in verse 20. The prayer really is an ecumenical vision, but not one of reaching out to impose some cognitive uniformity. Instead, it is an ecumenism that gathers ever more diverse elements together in the temple in the presence of the glory of the loving God, and then, when the priests can no longer stand to minister, it opens the arms to more.