Scripture: John 17:1-11 (NRSV)
17 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
It is Memorial Day weekend. As a student minister at Garden City Christian Church in Indianapolis, I learned to call this particular Sunday “Low Sunday” because there’s this little thing called the Indianapolis 500 which pretty much brings the city to a standstill. The churches closest to the racetrack close, because no one can get there anyway. My usual 10 minute drive across town took nearly 30 minutes, as I had to drive half way around the city in order to get to my church. Most of the members were working a concession stand at the race so they weren’t going to be in worship that morning, anyway.
When I came here I was told that whenever Pentecost happened to fall on Memorial Day weekend we have our Pentecost Celebration a week late. Luckily, that didn’t happen this year and we can look forward to our usual celebration of the church’s birthday next week. But apparently, Memorial Day weekend is a Low Sunday here, too. It’s kind of sad, I think, because it seems to me that a good place to be on the Sunday of Memorial Day is in church, praying for those who have given their lives in defense of our nation. Some 1.2 million members of the military have died during war time from the Revolutionary War until now. Those who died were men and women, persons of all races, persons of every religion (and no religion), persons of many nationalities, citizens and non-citizens, even undocumented aliens. They were officers and enlisted personnel, combatants and non-combatants, even conscientious objectors. They are our military, our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. All of them, every one, belong to us. And should be honored. Here. And everywhere. I was a bit shocked earlier in the week when I received an email from a company I buy clothes from (like this dress), apologizing for offending some people by saying, “Remember our troops this weekend” in an advertisement. I mean, really? People were offended at being asked to remember our troops on Memorial Day weekend? I don’t understand. But we remember, and we offer prayers of gratitude for them, and we celebrate their lives. There are those, too, who are not counted in that number, but should be. I speak of the veterans who commit suicide after returning home from conflict. According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, that number is about 22 per day. These too, should be remembers and honored on this day. Because they belong to us, they gave their lives for us, and they deserve our recognition.
I’m not really sure how it happened, but this week Leah and Dee Anne both found artwork that spoke to the way I was feeling about the message. But you know, it might be a God thing. If you look at the bulletin artwork, you can see that the body of the praying Christ is filled with faces - yours and mine, faces of the people who belong to him. One of those pictures included words like, “Jesus prays for us,” which we decided to leave out of the artwork, but which nonetheless speaks clearly to what is going on in today’s scripture reading. Jesus lifts up his disciples, the people who have been given to him by God, for God’s special blessing and care. In both pictures, Jesus has his arms outstretched and his face turned up as he prays.
You know, I’ve really never understood our habit of looking down while praying. I know why we do it, because it is an act of humility. It is right to humble ourselves before God, as Micah tells us God desires us to do. But I mean, we say things like, “Let us lift up our hearts to God,” and “Lift up your hands and hearts” and we will stand, facing the heavens, arms outstretched. . . but the minute the words “Let us pray” are pronounced, Bam! Down go all the faces. Anyway . . .
In today’s passage we are returned to the events surrounding the Last Supper, even though Easter was weeks ago. Today, we are reminded of what he prayed on that last night that he spent with his disciples. On this, the last Sunday before the Pentecost, we are reminded that Jesus’ greatest desire was that the world should come to know God through him, through his teachings and actions, as they were passed down by his disciples. He asked God to bless and protect those whom God had given to him, that his followers should be one, as he and the Father are one. In the words of his prayer, we are reminded that we are more than just followers, but his very own, his family, his brothers and sisters.
This is hard. Not the “we are his family” part. We can understand that, and we can even live that out. And if there are difficulties between believers, disagreements even, we understand that too, because what family doesn’t occasionally have disagreements? But that “being one” thing, as he and the Father are one part, that’s hard. First of all, we have enough trouble figuring out how Jesus and the Father and the Spirit are one, and I am not looking forward to my annual attempt to explain the Trinity in 20 minutes, which is coming up in just a couple of weeks. But beyond that, even while people who remembered Jesus were still alive, disagreements about what he meant and what he intended, and even who he was were frequent. We know this from Paul’s letters, as he was frequently called upon to settle arguments within the various congregations. We know it from stories told in the Acts of the Apostles, as when Peter had to defend his baptism of the uncircumcised Cornelius and his entire household. The idea of unity across all of the church as it is today is kind of mind boggling.
And yet, there is one thing that does unify us, all of us. It is the knowledge that we belong to him, to Jesus, and because we belong to him, we belong also to God. Jesus said, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”
I have told you before, I think, that in all of those years when I rejected Church and turned my back toward the God I had been taught to believe in, I never rejected Jesus. I always believed that Jesus loved me. I simply could not understand how that angry, judgmental, punishing God I had been taught about could possibly be one with the Jesus who loved me. I kept reading my New Testament, trying to figure it out, and really never could. But to know God through Jesus, now that was something entirely different. It occurred to me at some point that perhaps God sent Jesus to change minds like mine, even all those centuries ago. If those who belonged to God thought of him mostly as the one who had struck down Uzzah for touching the Ark of the Covenant, even though he was just grabbing it to keep it from falling, or who told Joshua to kill every living thing in the cities he conquered, well, maybe they needed a new perspective on who God is. Maybe they needed a reminder of why the Law was written as it was. Maybe instead of fearing God’s punishment, those who belonged to God needed to be reminded of God’s love for humanity and for the world. And that is what Jesus came to do. So the fact that I know, and have always as long as I can remember known, with all of my heart and soul, that Jesus loves me, means that now I also know that God loves me, for through knowing Jesus I have learned to know God. Not everything about God, for no one can, but in my heart, I know that I am God’s beloved child. I belong to Jesus, and because I belong to Jesus, I also belong to God.
At the end of his life and ministry, Jesus prays that all who belong to him will know God through him. And he prays that those who belong to him will pass on what they have learned from him, so that others will come to know God as he knows God and as they have come to know God. And he prays that God will protect us, and make us one, even as Jesus and God are one.
When we leave here today, let us go out as one with each other, sharing the love of Christ with all whom we encounter, that others may also know God through us, as we know God through Jesus. For we belong to Him.