I have just returned from spending a couple of days with my sisters at Lake Tahoe after a preaching conference there. My sisters and I are exploring for the first time in our lives what it means for us to live as sisters, connected in the mysterious way of family.
You see, in our growing up years, we seemed to focus on our differences – how we were unlike each other. Sometimes that crossed over into competitiveness or unfair comparisons. Sometimes we were honing our own personalities and skills by rubbing against each others’ sharpness. Sometimes that was healthy. Sometimes it was not. We each worked hard in our own individual ways, separated by both personality and age. But we never learned to value and encourage each other’s ways. We have learned to get along, to enjoy family gatherings, but the deep things went unspoken.
Mom’s death has led us to ask the question: what is our connection now? Is there one? Do we want to work to find one? We were all connected with Mom (and Dad, too, but Mom’s death, following Dad’s by 18 years, is what has brought this question into focus). We sisters see our mother in ourselves. Sometimes that is good, sometimes just okay, and sometimes, downright infuriating!
While we are all connected with Mom, it is striking to observe how different each of our relationships with her was. We see her very differently. We have different memories. We seem to have experienced a very different Mom. This has been a real eye-opener! Of course, that is because we are very different daughters in relationship to her. We are so different, that even our children marvel that we are trying to build a sister relationship with each other. How could we possibly get along?
But we are discovering a legacy that she has left with us that gives us common ground (and includes our brother, too). Mom and Dad were followers of Jesus. They gave themselves to building bridges with love. They raised us to love the people who are often overlooked in our society, and who just happened to be our neighbors.
Our church home was a little mission chapel in a tiny village called New London. The village was about a mile from our farm. It could probably be called a rural slum, as the poorest of the common laborers lived there, in decaying houses, kept together with anything they could find from tar paper to cardboard. The chapel building was an army cast-off from some World War II site. We had outhouses instead of indoor plumbing. But the hearts inside were warm and light. Mom and Dad were the youth leaders and loved those kids. They were in our home all the time. Mom and Dad invested their lives in them, encouraged them, gave them new experiences from camping in the snow, to water skiing, to formal dining. Mom made them wedding dresses and Dad photographed their weddings. Some worked on our farm from time to time. They were part of us. Two brothers drove several hours to come to Mom’s memorial service last summer. They were part of Mom’s family to the end.
I tell you this because it is the legacy all of us children have reclaimed in recent years. It may be our only thing in common. We are all actively involved in creating new kinds of churches, which reach out to help the people of our communities make their way in the world. Each of us is different, but in our own ways, we share a passion for bringing the divided communities back into unity centered in the love of God.
John 17:20-26 is the conclusion of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples. My mother’s death brought us as sisters to a new reality. Now Jesus prays that his death will do the same for his disciples. I think it is the only prayer put in Jesus’ words where he prays for his disciples. We often call this prayer the “High Priestly Prayer,” because here Jesus bring his followers to God and asks for God to bless and care for them. And Jesus prays not only for the disciples in the room, but for the disciples who would become disciples by word of mouth.
We have read this gospel so many times that we easily forget that it was intended to be read aloud. All of the Bible was intended to be read aloud. Kang Na, our preaching conference speaker, kept reminding us of this and encouraged us to read the Bible aloud, even when we are alone. So, imagine for a moment that you are sitting in a pew in Ephesus nearly two thousand years ago. Your beloved teacher has written you a story, the story of Jesus which he has told you over and over again when he was with you. And now the teacher’s words you hear again, read aloud. Can you hear your teacher’s prayer for you as this is read?
“I’m praying not only for these twelve, but also for those who will believe in me because of them and their witness about me. (That’s you, sitting in the Ephesus church! Jesus is praying for you!) The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind – just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us…. The same glory you gave me, I gave them, so they’ll be as unified and together as we are – I in them and you in me. Then they’ll be mature in this oneness, and give the …world evidence that you’ve sent me and loved them in the same way you’ve loved me.” (17:20-23 The Message).
…. (pause) Let Jesus’ voice echo in your soul. Jesus is praying for you…. “You” in imaginary Ephesus, two thousand years ago, and “you” right here in the pew in the sanctuary at Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. For you, too, have committed yourself to Jesus’ way through the words spoken by the disciples, and the disciples who followed them, generation after generation.
And what does Jesus pray for you? That you may be of one heart and mind. That you would be one. Our unity is to be like God’s unity. Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. The basic creed of Judaism and of Christianity. We may know God in many different ways, but always, God is One. And our unity is to be like God’s unity.
God’s very essence is one, whether known in the Creator, Father, King, Jesus, Messiah, Lord, Holy Spirit, Wisdom, Shepherd, Lover, etc. Unity does not mean that we have the same experience of God. Here is another connection with my sister story. We each have a different relationship with our Mother. We each know her as a bit of a different person. But it is the same mother. We each may connect with God in different ways, but it is the same God.
Next, unity is not primarily from human endeavor, but has its origin in divine action. Jesus prays for unity to be given to us. And it is. We become one with God, with Jesus, with Spirit as we become aware that we are God’s offspring, God’s children. We become one as we become aware that we are one family, just as Jesus is one family with God. We share the same substance. We are radically included in God’s very being through Jesus. Our oneness with God, our inclusion in God’s life is done. A reality. God-life was given from the very first breath God breathed into Adam and Eve, demonstrated in the human person of Jesus, and passed through us to others in the Spirit. Jesus prays for this to be so in our awareness.
My sisters and I are one family, because we share the same parents. Not only in genetics, but also in story, tradition and legacy. While our experience of our Mom may be vastly different, it is the same Mom, the same life, given to us. Our unity is given to us, without our choice. We are one. Will we choose to live as one? That is the question. That is the question facing the Ephesus church. Torn by conflict and differing opinions, would they choose to live as one, in honor of their nature as one with God?
The fact that our oneness is given by sharing in God’s life, does not imply passivity, however. Because of this unity, the world will know that you love them. There is a human-to-human aspect of this unity. We cannot say we are one and continue to hate, divide and separate ourselves. Left to our own human ways, we will always divide into us and them – over differences in language or geography, down to differences in theological leaders, down to which way to cut or tear the bread for the Lord’s Supper.
It is radical for Jesus to pray for us to be one. We are too different. We have always been too different. Morgan Guyton, (who will be here tomorrow to talk about his book), talks about this in the first chapter of How Jesus Saves the World from Us. He suggests that the very nature of human beings from the time Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was to be self-conscious, or self-focused. The very first humans suddenly became self-aware. They knew them selves as separate individuals, and more significantly for Jesus’ prayer here, as separate from God. They had lived in blissful connection with the One who gave them life from the moment of their creation. What Jesus is praying for is the end of that separation, for the end of the curse, so to speak.
Instead of separation, we are completely included in God’s love. We are the beloved, as Jesus is the beloved. “Belovedness means living under the gaze of a God who watches us with such warmth that we stop worrying about what to do with our hands when we dance” . We are not isolated individuals, but together, and equally God’s beloved. In reversing the original human’s separation from God and trend toward divisiveness, the world will know that God loves them. It reverses the expulsion from the garden of the original story. Come on back, God says! I’ll leave the light on for you! You are not excluded. You can come back to the garden any time. Like the father of the prodigal, God waits on the porch ready to run to embrace us.
When we live this God way, the world will know that we are of God. Remember that in this same room on the same night as Jesus prayed for the twelve and for us, he washed their feet and gave them a new commandment: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35)
Our unity with each other comes from our mystical and birthright essence of oneness with God. Not from agreement, family resemblance, or even knowing each other. My journey with my sisters is teaching me this. We are one. And we are one with God. We share the same breath, and have hearts designed for the same love.
The very concept of Mother’s Day comes from this same yearning. Julia Ward Howe, author of the text of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, wrote in 1870 a Mother’s Day Proclamation.  In it she called all mother’s to gather and say, “Never again!” We must never kill each other again. And mothers, women, can stand up, together, and make a difference. So, in honor of Mothers, let us be one. As Jesus prayed for us, let us be one in love.
Amen. May it be so!
 Guyton, Morgan, How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, pp. 15-16.
The Mother’s Day Proclamation.