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John 17:20-26

June 23rd, 2002

Wesley, Doncaster East

© John M. Connan

Have you ever had the privilege of someone sharing with you their most intimate feelings and deepest longings? It can be intensely moving, and very difficult to maintain your composure. It stirs within you some of the same depths of feelings, the same intimately held longings at the core of your being.

John’s story of Jesus is very different from that of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Theirs are fast-moving action stories. John’s, written as much as thirty years later, is slow moving, thoughtful and reflective. In chapters 13 to 16 John gives us what has been called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. Jesus, knowing death was imminent, the confusion, sense of loss and grief that would envelop his disciples, was preparing them for difficult times ahead.  He was giving them words by which to live and die – words John intended to be the same for us: words by which to live and die.

Chapter 17 is the same – but different! It’s not part of the Farewell Discourse. It’s a prayer from the heart. We’re given the privilege of listening in to Jesus expressing to his Father the deepest longings for those who would follow him.

“I’m praying not only for [my disciples] but also for those who will believe in me because of them and their witness about me. The goal is for all of them to become one in heart and mind – just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one in heart and mind with us. Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. The same glory you gave Me, I gave them, so they’ll be unified and together as we are – I in them and you in me. Then they’ll be mature in this oneness, and give the godless world evidence that you’ve sent me and loved them in the same way you’ve loved me.”[1]

We overhear Jesus praying in deep longing for unity and love among his followers – that the world might believe he was sent by God; had a mission from God; and that he and the love he lived - and the love his followers would enjoy and eventually live - were at the heart of God’s mission to the world, his mission to the world, and our life as his followers.

For the better part of two hundred years there’s been a growing movement toward Christian unity. Christians longed for their divisions to be overcome. The strongest push came from outside “the Christian West.” Theological and ecclesiastical divisions from Europe and North America lacked relevance in Asia and Africa. Which church was the true church? Which “Jesus” was Saviour of the world? Unless Christians were “together,” what was the message? Unless they were “unified,” “one heart and mind,” how could they proclaim Jesus and the Father as one, and that the Father “sent” Jesus and “loved” those who would turn to him in faith? Visible unity and demonstrated love were at the heart of mission.

The same sense that theological and ecclesiastical divisions from Britain lacked relevance in Australia gave rise to moves toward Christian unity here too. At the beginning of the twentieth century Presbyterians came together. Methodists came together.  Conversations began among Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians. Votes were taken. Conversations re-began, then ended. Finally in the 50s and 60s conversations began in earnest. Votes were taken in the three Churches. After three-quarters of a century of on-and-off conversations and votes, on June 22nd, 1977, the inauguration took place and the Uniting Church came into being.

Our name was carefully chosen. As the Uniting Church we are committed to unity. Conversations of various seriousness and intensity go on with the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Orthodox, Churches of Christ, and the Salvation Army. And as the Uniting Church we are the largest provider of social service across the whole of Australia. There are reasons that our Church is declining in number, but it’s not because we fail to seek unity or to show our care through serving others.

Yet, in the end the deep longings from within Jesus’ prayer will be satisfied not with administrative, organisational or ecclesiastical unity – or even through social service. The unity for which Jesus expressed deep longing was a unity of personal relationship, a unity of love, a relationship between heart and heart.

Division and difference are more natural than unity and uniformity. It’s more human to go our own way than to walk together. It’s easier for us to love our own creeds, rituals and church organisation, than it is to love each other. Never expect Christians to believe precisely and exactly the same things. Yet, – in the light of Jesus’ prayer, and in the light of the love at the heart of our faith – expect those who follow Jesus to long to tear down the barriers which separate us one from another.

Can we expect those outside the church to take us seriously when we proclaim Jesus Son of God; can we expect them to take our claim seriously that Jesus and the Father are one in an intense and intimate relationship of love, unless our relationships as individuals and as churches are lived in unity and love? Can they believe us, when claim to be are a people of love, unless we live that love?

Let’s be honest. I know of people in this congregation who have little time for each other. There are reasons for suspicion and caution, but there is more reason for the love of which Paul wrote. Listen carefully and take his words to heart.

“Love never gives up. Love more cares for others than for self… Isn’t always ‘me first...” Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others…” Puts up with anything. Trusts God always. Always looks for the best. Never looks back, but keeps going to the end.[2]

Love, not because you like those people you have troubles with, not because they’re nice, or easy to get along with, but because it‘s Jesus’ deepest longing that the love you share is a reflection of the love between him and his Father.

Live in peace and unity, not because you can tolerate those with whom you have your differences, but because they’re part of the family: Jesus our brother, God our Father.

But there’s even more to the longings in Jesus’ heart than our relationships with one another as his followers. There are longings within his heart that we “give the godless world evidence that [God] sent [Jesus] and love[s] [us] in the same way [God] love[s] [Jesus].”

Love, not because you like these “godless” people, not because they’re nice, but because it is Jesus’ deepest longing that such love is the evidence that he is the Son of the loving Father God.

Give to those in need, not because they’re worthy – or because you believe the story they tell - but because your giving is evidence of the loving and intimate sharing between Jesus and his Father, and so they might believe that [God], in fact, sent [Jesus].

We are the Uniting Church, because we have responded to Jesus’ prayer that we might be “one heart and mind,.. unified and together as [Jesus and his Father] are.”

We are called to love each other no matter what, so that we reflect the loving and intimate relationship between Jesus and his Father.

We are called to evidence love to our neighbours of every race, culture and creed, so that we witness to them our faith in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, and in his – and our – God and Father.


[1] John 17: 20-23; The Message.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7.

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