When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:1-11 ESV)
It is part of my world that when I’m in contact with people in the community – not church folk, those who know about church but don’t go to church or haven’t for decades or people who have pushed religion away – but maybe not spirituality (though I often get confused about the nuance here) – what I encounter is ‘stereotype Christianity’. It usually boils down to two things – ‘going to church’ and ‘being good’.
They are hard views to counter because they are not incorrect but they don’t express the core, the centre, the heart, the essence of Christianity – and that has got to be Jesus. So if I can get a reply in, I’ll try to say something like ‘Well, being good or going to church, that’s not the centre of Christianity’ – and people are often perplexed. Sometimes, I think, they are now regarding me more a politician because I’m going to give a ‘tricky’ answer – a smart alec answer – that will use different words but still mean ‘going to church’ and ‘being good’ – ‘No, it is about Jesus and what he has done for us’. But it’s hard to break the veneer that Christianity has nowadays. If Christianity is going to be boiled down or summarised then I want to hear mention of Jesus – people around Jesus – rather than the Church is all about ‘rules and regulations’ about ‘being good’.
But starting with Jesus is not natural for people because we always want to start with ourselves – after all, we are most important – we are the centre of the universe though, by nature, we are curved in on ourselves. Yes, it is a mighty small universe! To start with Jesus means coming to grips with the fact that to start with ourselves doesn’t work – life isn’t perfect happiness – instead there is misery, guilt, indifference, arrogance, fear, and it ends in death anyway even if there are large respites of affluence and food and shelter. Starting with Jesus means looking at him through his Word and, at the moment, in our Church Year we find him risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. He seems further away than ever! Yet that is not so precisely because Jesus’ ascension is his glorious reign and by the power of the Holy Spirit, words, water, bread and wine can now be ‘activated’ – if I can use that term – as both means and presence of the risen, ascended Jesus among us right here, right now.
When Jesus prayed on the night before his death he prayed for this to be so – that God is glorified, that he, Jesus, is glorified – not because they are in need of a planetary boost – but because this is how you and I receive eternal life! We glorify God for what he has done through Jesus when he died on the cross – his time of glory that rescued us – and thus we know who God is and we wait for the final glory to be revealed. This knowledge is personal to us – it is a belief that we trust and rely upon – and through faith – through what God has done here and now – the followers of Jesus have eternal life.
The followers of Jesus can be found – oh, look here and here and here – look at all the screens – imagine the locations – our screens testify that the followers of Jesus are here – wherever that is! – and also elsewhere. I can easily imagine the apostles after the resurrection having an expectation that eternal life and ongoing contact with Jesus meant a central office in Jerusalem with franchise operations elsewhere – maybe even around the world. They had over a millennia of focusing on places – the tabernacle then the temple – even
rebuilding the temple – as a mindset and that gives us part of the reason why the disciples after Jesus is raised still think that Jesus will restore a new Israel to glory. However Jesus is not so localised, so dependent on a place, a building – rather his followers are dependent on him! And so he prays for them that they – that includes us! – who are still in the world – and now in the 21st century and all over the world, will be kept in the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – united and combined – as members of a family – as one. After all, there is one body, one Spirit, one hope to which we have been called, one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:4,5).
Jesus didn’t pray that his followers would become one, rather he prayed ‘Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one’ (John 17:11). Jesus binds all the followers together – the oneness of the church is a gift which he gives which we don’t see – this is something we will only see in heaven – when we see all those who are saved – that countless number before the throne glorifying God. Right now, the oneness of the holy Christian Church is more like a family tree reunion – where everyone who attends – with different surnames and histories and even from different countries – can trace their family tree back to a common ancestor. Bound by one common ancestor these different people are, in a sense, one.
Similarly in the Christian Church, we have now – centuries after Jesus walked on earth – many followers of Jesus in different countries, with different histories, and with different emphasis on God’s Word – even different understandings of what it means that all Christians are one – and yet they are one in faith in the Lord – we say in the Nicene Creed that we believe in one holy Christian and apostolic church – this remains an article of faith not a legislative or organisational principle.
Imagine you went to a family reunion of hundreds of people all from the same ancestor. Would that oneness mean that you gave all your relatives – many of them new found and certainly distant – your bank PIN number and an open invitation to everything you have? Of course not. When the Church was young and in its infancy yes they shared all things in common but it didn’t last and for all sorts of reasons different Christian groups were in existence by the time the Roman Empire made Christianity legal in the 4th century. Many groups were Christian and some were not but called themselves so nonetheless. It is a fact of a fallen and sinful world – where Jesus remains hidden using words, water, bread and wine – that we can squabble over what we see – each other and our organisations. Therefore the discussion on Christian unity – on what it means to be ‘one’ will still be happening when Jesus turns up.
Today it seems that people want to make it easy for themselves when it comes to being one – and go one of two ways. Either they say all Christians are one if you say that Jesus is God or Lord or some other single statement and the detail of Christian teaching is not that important. Or they say that Christians are one when all their teaching of Christian doctrine – every bit of it – conforms and are uniform.
The first approach devalues the mystery of the triune God interacting with us and seeks our human oneness – being together – at the expense of belief and in some cases the Word of God itself.
The second approach elevates doctrinal purity above baptismal realities and can be seen in this rather perverse joke which I’ve amended …(Joke believed to be from Emo Philips )
Walking across a bridge, I saw a man on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: “Stop. Don’t do it.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Are you religious?”
He said: “Yes.”
I said: “Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
“Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me, too. Are you Lutheran or Reformed?”
“Me, too. Are you Evangelical Lutheran or Synodical Lutheran?”
“Me, too. Are you original Evangelical Lutheran or United Evangelical Lutheran?”
“United Evangelical Lutheran.”
“Me, too! Are you United Evangelical Lutheran, Reformation of 1879, or United Evangelical Lutheran, Reformation of 1915?”
He said: “United Evangelical Lutheran, Reformation of 1915.”
I said: “Die, heretic” and pushed him off.
I contend that both approaches don’t start with Jesus but with us and our views for tolerance and harmony or for being scrupulously right – when both, in fact, can be versions of ‘being good’.
When we look to Jesus we find a number of things – firstly our salvation and then praise and honour of God for who he is and what he has done. Then we look around – at our time and place in the world and in history – and reading God’s Word (how else do we meet Jesus) we follow Jesus irrespective of whether we are surrounded by Lutherans – by other Lutherans – by Christians – by non Christians – and we live each day in the sure hope of the eternal life already given to us. That means that truth is important and ‘being good’ if we’re going to use such words is our way of following Jesus and serving others – a goal to do as well as strive for. And in all this we acknowledge that the Church is one but it’s a hidden reality now and will only be seen in heaven – and so for now and all the time we have, we keep our eyes on Jesus – our ears tuned to his voice – and our bodies close to him as he touches us with water, bread and wine.
And so we live.
Christianity is all about Jesus.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
- John 17:1 - 11