Sermon Sunday 5 June, 2011

John 17. 1-11

That wonderful high priestly prayer, part of which we have just heard, seems to flow effortlessly and seamlessly from Jesus' lips, until you look more closely. To try and do justice to it all in a sermon is impossible unless you have the mind and talent of a Rowan Williams. What, for instance, does 'glorify' mean in a Gospel which regards Jesus' terrible death on the Cross as a glorification of the Father? I'm not going to try and answer that one. Instead I will take two verses which jumped out at me on my first reading; two verses which do not seem at first to be much connected, though in fact they are.

The first is "This is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." That is a fascinating description of eternal life. I suppose most of us have wondered from time to time what we are going to do with eternal life. How are we going to spend all that time? Will we be exploring all the nooks and crannies of the infinite universe? Will we finally read the books we have wanted to read, speak the languages that have been eluding us, play the celestial organ to perfection? Will we have the fun of learning new things, or will we know it all already? Will I finally be able to sing like Art Garfunkel? The idea of spending eternity as the book of revelation suggests, in a city of gold, casting our crowns down before us and crying Holy Holy Holy, doesn't appeal much to me at least. I think I would get bored. Of course, in thinking along these lines I have completely missed the point. Jesus, or John, describing eternal life says nothing at all about time. In eternal life there will be no time. Nor does he tells us what we will do. He simply tells us we will know God and it is knowing God that gives us eternal life. If we don't know God we won't have eternal life. We just won't exist anymore. It would seem in John's account there are not two places - heaven and hell - in which to spend eternal life. There is life and there is death. Life is total communication, total relationship with the only true God and death is to be separated from that God and so to be separated finally from life, to cease to exist.

That doesn't really tell us what we will do with our eternal life; probably that is as meaningless a question as wondering how we will spend millions of years in a state in which there is no time. Yet it tells us the crucial thing that we will know God. That immediately gives us another question what will that be like? Well we don't know and in an important sense we can't know. There are some hints, however. Philip once said to Jesus; "Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied" and Jesus tells him "He who has seen me has seen the Father". What is God like? Well, he is like Jesus. When we look at Jesus in the Gospel we find someone who was absolutely fascinating. People flocked round him. The young, the old, the sick, the well, the poor, the rich, Jews, Greeks, Romans. They loved him, hated him, listened to him, argued with him. In the end they crucified him but they were never bored by him. To get the tiniest idea of what it will be like to know Jesus we have to think of those people now whom we love how much we enjoy being with them, talking to them, thinking about them, just looking at them. The strongest, most powerful experience we have of human love is but a glimpse of what it will be like with God. It may be rather breathtaking, awesome, scary even. I don't think we need to worry about being bored!

Now to my second verse: "Father protect them in your name that you have given me so that they may be one, as we are one." Why does he say "Protect them..."? If the Father doesn't protect them they will cease to be one; they will be divided. I think actually John's community of Christians was very divided and kept threatening to split. That is why he says so much about unity, about the need to be one. Well, all human communities suffer from disunity. Rowan Williams, in the book we are reading at Compline, reminds us of what we know only too well that it is very hard to be one in heart and mind with people, even when you share a faith, a vocation, a common desire to serve Christ and have lived together for decades. We don't always sing from the same song sheet and even when we do we often sing different notes and are sure that ours is the right one. Of course we never will be perfectly one, not this side of the grave. We are imperfect and our unity will always be imperfect. If we ever think we have got it completely right we would be deceived and dangerously self satisfied. We try and we do it badly. We have to do it at different levels. Some levels are pretty trivial, like shaking hands at the peace. Others cut more deeply, like changing my mind to fit that of the rest of my brothers. We repent of our failures and we try to do better. We need also to think bigger about that of which Jesus is speaking. We are one already because we are in Christ and he is in us. He says to the disciples" Abide in me and I in you" and to the Father "I in them and you in me that they may be completely one". This is the most amazing story of indwelling. We will be in Christ as he is in God; he will be in us as he is in God. This has already started. Put this together with Paul's understanding of the Body of Christ and you have a powerful and dynamic picture of our relationship with Christ. This has two consequences: in the first place it explains what was going on in the first verse of which I talked. We will know God in the deepest and most complete way that we could know him. This is the knowing of the Hebrew idiom which describes that closest physical and sexual union two people can achieve. However poor the unity is between us on the surface level, at a deep level it is already there. That is what we are working towards. That gives us hope and encouragement. God is asking us to become what we already are.

There is another consequence which is important to me today. The unity is not just a unity of us Christians here in this room, or in the Church of England. It is a unity of Christians everywhere. That is not a sentimental idea, a nice feeling we have all being together. It is a hard physical reality. It means that the Christians who are suffering today in Zimbabwe, driven out of their churches, arrested, persecuted are one with us; so are the Christians being killed in Iraq and the Christians suffering in the Congo. We pray for them in the knowledge that our bodies are being hurt, cut and damaged, when they are. We pray with Jesus that God will protect them in his name, so that they will not fall into disunity. We rejoice, because they are brave and they have discovered a loving Christ who makes even bad things worthwhile.

To that Christ be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion and power, henceforth and to the ending of the age. Amen

Nicolas Stebbing CR