Seventh Sunday in Easter 2019, Year C — Preaching Notes

Loving Worship Series: EMBODIED
 Seventh Sunday in Easter - June 2, 2019

Embodied by a Loving God

John 17:20-26

As we explore the powerful prayer offered by Jesus, I am reminded of a scene from the movie Places in the Heart. The setting is a small town in 1930s Texas, in the heart of Ku Klux Klan activity. The town sheriff (Royce) is called to apprehend a young black man (Wylie) who has a weapon. The man is prepared to hand over his weapon, when it accidentally backfires and kills the sheriff. This incident, although accidental, sets off a chain of events that further fuels the racism of the community. Wylie is sought out and killed. The widow of the sheriff (Edna) struggles to make ends meet without her husband. Harm is caused by multiple members of the community: in their relationships, in the assumptions they make about their neighbors, and in the ways they disregard other members of their community. At the end of the movie, we see Communion being passed down the line in the pew. We see Edna and her children and other members of the church. But we also see Wylie reach out and receive the cup, and we see the plate passed to Royce. The lines between the living and the dead – the lines between the harmed, the victim, and the oppressor – are crossed. They are all one in that moment in time.

In chapter 17 in the gospel of John, we have a plea for Jesus’ followers to become one. It is a poetic prayer that is simultaneously beautiful and repetitive, as we would expect to find in the Gospel of John.  We get a glimpse into Jesus’ heart and longing for the believing community, which is another opportunity to try to grasp how Jesus understands unity.

Verses 20-21 are one sentence in the Greek: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Verses 20-21 are the central prayer. In the Greek, verses 22-23 are also one sentence, and they function as the heart of the prayer: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” In this prayer, Jesus recognizes the radical power of believers to bear witness in such a way that those who don’t believe are captivated by the message. He recognizes that the witness of the disciples living as those who are marked and sent will ultimately be fruitful. The world, rather than raging against the disciples, is the recipient of its witness. [1]

“That they may be one” (vs. 21) refers to a unity that moves beyond agreeing on important issues or accepting differences and into a mirroring of “the mutuality and reciprocity of the Father/Son relationship.” [2] Here, as elsewhere in the gospels, we are given the model of the Trinity for our own relationships. Unity can be defined not in the specific terms of our own design, but as mutuality and reciprocity.

The foundation of the relationship of the believing community is based on the relationship of the Triune God, which the disciples glimpse in an intimate moment of Jesus’ prayer:

“I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (vs. 23).

The word “complete” is often used in the gospel of John to mean Jesus completing the work of God in the world. [3] In other words, what happens in this prayer is not just a plea for the disciples to get along or work out their problems. Rather, the disciples reclaim their responsibility of continuing in the work of God through the act of reciprocating and living in mutuality, through which others on the outskirts of their community may come to see and know God.

New Testament scholar Gail R. O’Day presents this prayer as an opportunity for the disciples to “overhear” and learn: “Jesus places the church’s future in the hands of God and invites the church to listen in on that conversation.” [4] Placing our future in the hands of God does not alleviate us of our responsibility to work for a future that reflects God’s love and justice in the world. This prayer shows that Jesus subverts any expectations that he would wield his authority in a way that would be contrary to how God the Father/Creator and the Holy Spirit/Advocate would exist in the world.

Jesus embodies mutuality and reciprocity by asking God to be with the disciples in a moment of intimacy, and trusting in his relationship to show such vulnerability as a model of true unity. Jesus is advocating for those whom God has marked by love and sent in love, for the benefit of the larger community. In the difficult and, often, painful work of trying to live together in community, we are called to take the next step and embody the presence of God for those “to whom love is a stranger.”[5]

Questions for Reflection:

  • In Feasting on the Gospels, Thomas Edward Breidenthal offers that “Unity is a relationship of mutual dependence and trust, such that our primary access to God is by way of one another . . . it is our capacity for community that is the glory God has given us.” [6] Describe a time when you have seen God through a member of your community in an unexpected or surprising way.
  • How have you experienced God embodied in your faith journey?

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes.  Volume IX.  John. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995). 794.

[2] The New Interpreter’s Bible, 795.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gail R. O’Day.  The New Interpreter’s Bible, 797.

[5] “A Service of Christian Marriage I,” United Methodist Hymnal  (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1997),  869. 

[6] Thomas Edward Breidenthal.  Ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson.  Feasting on the Gospels.  John, Volume 2: Chapters 10-21.  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 238.

Rev. Adrienne Stricker graduated from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 2009 and has been in full-time ministry since 2010, serving in Christian education and administration in Evanston and Chicago in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and The United Methodist Church. Her primary appointment as an ordained deacon in the Northern Illinois Conference is to The Connectional Table of the UMC, an organization that works to articulate vision and stewardship for the denomination with its 64 elected board members from across the UMC. Her secondary appointment as a deacon is to Central UMC in Skokie, a diverse, multicultural congregation. She is involved in Native American ministries in the conference, serves on the conference board of ordained ministry, and is the co-chair of the Northern Illinois Order of Deacons.