Jesus has been talking for a while. He does that in John’s Gospel. On Maundy Thursday Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another, and then washed their feet. It’s been seven weeks and he is still explaining it. He’s praying, now, but his disciples hear it, and it is all part of the same one-sided conversation at the Last Supper. It is a prayer for unity, and it bugs me. Unity is wonderful. We are stronger together. Harmony means less anxiety. A team united around its coach’s system has a chance, while a team not united is painful to watch. What bugs me about unity?
I entered seminary in August 2001. In those days, the big debate in the ELCA was over human sexuality. Boy, those were the days, weren’t they! There were other debates, but they always came back to sexuality. In these debates there were always calm voices that called for unity. They would say, “Jesus wants unity.” “Our being divided hurts Jesus.” “The church needs to be united or people won’t join it.” When some Christians requested that the church accept the LGBT and develop a better theology of sexuality, those voices that called for unity spoke calmly and condescendingly as though those requesting justice were emotionally unstable, unrealistic, and threatening the unity of the Church. Then, in 2009, the ELCA held a series of votes and voted overwhelmingly that it was time to stop stalling, and it was time to accept clergy in same gender relationships and permit same sex unions. The calls for unity abruptly stopped. Suddenly, the voices that had called for unity were calling for disobedience.
The calls for unity had not been calls for unity. They had been demands by the powerful and comfortable that the weak and vulnerable conform to the wishes of the powerful and comfortable. That’s why calls for unity bug me. In my experience in the Church, they aren’t calls for unity; they are demands to maintain the current balance of power, or they’re appeals to our emotions and our nostalgia for a time when the Church was more powerful. Emotions play a key role in our decision making. In our three-tiered brain, the middle tier is the one that loves and hates and bonds and plays. The top tier may look at a problem and think it through and foresee consequences, but the emotions usually win. The top tier says, “That won’t work” The middle tier says, “But it reminds me of good times!”
Many of us in this room—I know I am younger than some but I remember the tail end of this—many of us in this room were alive at a time when the Church had a central role in public life as the enforcer of society’s values. That wasn’t always our job. For a lot of American history the church was the weirdos. But after World War II, we had beaten Hitler and felt good, and the Church and America were going to take on godless communism together, so we became the enforcer of American values. (No wonder the Church was anti-LGBT. Americans didn’t even know what the B stood for, or that the T was even a thing.) The Church prospered. Trinity went from being a house on this property to this space, then added an education wing, had packed services. It was that way everywhere. It didn’t last long. In the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, the Church often found itself opposing society’s values. Our world decided it could get along without us.
We held on for a while. I remember when I was thirteen I was in the second year of confirmation and all the third year kids were gathered at the door and leaving. We’d barely started. I asked my mom, who was my confirmation teacher—that was an interesting dynamic—I asked why they were leaving. She told me that the pastor, who taught the third-year classes, had assigned them homework and none of them had done it, so he had said, “I’m not wasting my afternoon talking about what you couldn’t be bothered to do. Call your parents; have them take you home.” A pastor had that kind of authority. The Church had that kind of authority. I was 13. I was ordained at 26. By then? Nope. Couldn’t happen. The Church was no longer that authoritative. We’re back to what we had been. We’re the weirdos.
As God’s weird people, let’s look at Jesus’ prayer for unity. It bugged me, because of all of those calls for unity that were a desire to return to power. Jesus’ prayer is different. There is no appeal to uphold society’s values. There’s also no demand that we always reject society’s values. You don’t just refuse to do anything that comes from outside the Church. There are no outward signs to the unity Jesus desires. No distinct clothing, no armbands, fight songs, or enemies lists. There are no intellectual concepts we must grasp and hold in our minds in order to be united.
The unity Jesus desires flows from the Love Commandment. I said this was all part of his explanation of that instruction at the last supper. Jesus wants us to be for each other, as he and his father are for each other. In John’s gospel, Jesus glorifies the Father. He heals, he feeds, he teaches, he eats, he dies, he rises, all to glorify God the Father. After every sign he says, “Isn’t God great?” Even from the cross, he’s all, “Isn’t God amazing? God’s in control even in this!” That is being for someone else. Jesus is for God the Father. And God the Father is for Jesus, raising him from the dead and holding him up for the world to see this is the way God functions: God gives of God. God never runs out. God is right in front of you. God can do anything through you. God is nourishment freely given. The Father is for the Son, and the Son is for the Father. That’s what Jesus has been talking about.
Jesus has been talking. He washed feet on Maundy Thursday and he’s been explaining that and the love commandment for seven weeks. Today he says, “That was me being for you. My foot-washing, my serving you—that was my being for you. That was the Word made flesh existing as though all of you were my reason for existing.” Jesus gives us being-for-each-other by being-for-us. He always does this publicly. God can act privately, but this is public. It’s important that we hear God say, “I am for you. AND I am for her. And I am for him. And, I’m for you, yes. And I’m for that person you hate. And I’m for their blood enemies. And I’m for you; I haven’t forgotten you.” It’s important that we hear that, because that’s our unity. Our unity is that God exists for us so much so that we have to exist for each other. We don’t conform to what the temporarily powerful among us want; we are for each other because Christ is for us.
Today is the baptism of Abigail Branham. I’s public, and it happens to her, and we participate and watch. It’s important that we do that. If anyone were to say to me, “But Pastor! What about me?” I would say, “God loves you; today we’re baptizing Abby.” And in case Abby starts getting full of herself, I remind her that I splash everyone. Everyone will get wet. God loves everyone. It’s a neat thing that Abby is here, today. The Holy Spirit has been at work through her friends. God did not just one day plant the idea in Abby that she should get baptized. Nor is Abby here just because her friends are here. God has been at work in her friends, shaping all of them into being for each other.
That friendship is so close to what Jesus is getting at in John 17. The great theologian Sallie McFague once famously suggested that along with traditional trinitarian appellations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we needed to adopt the names Mother, Lover, and Friend. Now, I know it’s Mothers’ Day, but my mom was my confirmation teacher, and…we’re not going there, today. Of the other two concepts, God the friend is where we find ourselves today. God is in that group of friends gathered for Joyful Noise at Trinity Lutheran Church. God is in us as a group of friends. Ours is a unity of friends of Christ. As friends we are separate people. We cannot command one another to conform because we’re all just kinda here. We have to take responsibility for ourselves, but we can help one another and we want to. Hurts between friends are grievous because there is no clear-cut authority figure, no formal parent-child route to follow for addressing the problem. And where parents are largely expected to forgive their children (and children are expected to ask forgiveness from their parents), with friends, it is always something of a joyous surprise when we reconcile. We didn’t have to do that, but we did.
Ours is a unity of friends, a unity from Christ, a unity that comes when the only person who legitimately could stand over all of us and wield power with unassailable authority, instead puts all that aside, and feeds us, and serves us, and befriends us. Jesus has been talking for seven weeks. He’s a long-winded friend. He’s a good friend to have. And he’s made us all friends of Christ here together.