So today we find ourselves back in the gospel of John. Two weeks ago, we explored Jesus prayer for glorification. Last week, if not for our jaunt through the holy city, we would have heard Jesus’ prayer for his disciples. Now today, we hear Jesus’ prayer for all believers, his prayer for oneness and unity in the church and the world.
This word, unity, might cause you, as it does me, to sigh and feel a bit cynical. It seems like everyone is calling for unity right now, but no one seems to know how to get there. Politically, this country is extremely divided right now. That’s not news. But let’s just say it: it’s exhausting. Disagreements are a normal thing in the life of a country, but I don’t think it’s the fact that we disagree that is so discouraging. What feels discouraging is that we can no longer agree on what is true, and so we are retreating, we are digging in, we are treating each other with suspicion and distrust. Unity seems impossible when a person or group of people refuses to compromise, refuses to concede to common ideals, or to look for common ground. It is easy to call for unity, but much harder to decide what to do when overtures are rebuffed, when compromise itself is seen as a sign of weakness, or capitulation. At that point, it seems there is nowhere to go but further into our own silos. And from there, either out of disappointment, disillusionment, or pure preoccupation with power and being right, retaliation starts to seem justified. So, I will forgive you, and you can forgive me, if we hear Jesus’ prayer for unity and oneness and think: “Yeah, right. Good luck with that. That will never happen.”
Except. [Sigh.] Except…there is the tiny problem that our whole religion is based on the actions of Jesus, who endured torture and humiliation and returned those actions with love, not retaliation. A person’s whose last prayer for us was for oneness, for forgiveness. We don’t get to take a pass on this, not if we truly want to follow Jesus, not if we want to say that the Easter story means something to us. So, I guess that means we need to buckle up.
Part of the problem with this text, is that we hear Jesus praying for unity but he doesn’t tell us how to make it happen. Unfortunately, the bible is not an instruction manual. Sometimes we desperately want it to be, but it is not. It is stories about people trying to figure out how to live in relationship to God, their triumphs and their failures both. In this text from John, we are essentially overhearing Jesus own prayer for us, which is different to receiving a teaching(1). We are eavesdropping. We are hearing the intimate and heartfelt desire of Jesus, praying for his disciples, praying for us, not telling us what to do. What we do see, though, is Jesus grounding that unity he prays for in love, as we hear in verse 23: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me.”
When we turn to Swedenborg, we receive advice about the three essentials of love: “The essence of love is loving others who are outside oneself, wanting to be one with them, and blessing them from oneself.” This description certainly sounds a lot like love, and it might seem easy to contemplate how these characteristics of love manifest in our personal relationships. But how might these ideas be used in particular towards unity, in a situation where unity is not the first impulse? This is a little harder.
First, the essence of love is loving others who are outside of oneself. This might seem obvious, but we can’t love others if we are filled with our own ego concerns. And neither can a group of people act as a team, or work together towards common goals when everyone looking out for themselves. The easiest example is a sports team. A player who is grandstanding will probably miss the right play, and get in the way of the whole team succeeding. Loving means caring more about people outside of ourselves, or the common good, or a higher ideal, more than we want to serve our personal ego, and our personal goals, reputation, or righteousness. It is simple; love requires sacrifice.
Second, the essence of love is wanting to be one with others. Of course it is easy to want to be one with the people we already love, that feels very natural. It feels much less natural with people that challenge us, feel different to us. It often feels easier to put physical or emotional distance between us and them, so we choose that option. We choose to “other” people, make assumptions about them that justify the distance, put them in boxes so that we don’t have to respect their inner life, and recognize their humanity. The demonization of immigrants or transgender people is a clear example of this tendency, one way cruel policies are being justified. Yet, we will find there can be no unity without respect, curiosity and openness. Love is inherently connective; it helps us to recognize what we share.
Third, the essence of loving another is blessing them from oneself. Love is nothing unless it is put into action, used to serve others, in greater and lesser ways. And again, it is easy to serve the people we already love. We do that almost automatically. It is much harder, in the service of unity, to serve and bless those who hurt us or disagree with us, those whom we think don’t “deserve” our help. Yet, love is courageous, love is faithful. There is an amazing example that happened a couple or years ago(2). A well-known comedian named Sarah Silverman received a tweet from a man calling her a filthy name. Instead of retaliating, she looked at his profile, and found a story of frustration and depression, as he suffered from debilitating back pain and a traumatic past. Ms. Silverman reached out to him over twitter in empathy and understanding, even rallying local fans to help the man find treatment for his back pain. The man was amazed and grateful, and apologized for his behavior. Ms. Silverman could have been defensive, made her main concern her pride, and yet she looked closely and found something to connect with and a way to help.
And this is the hard part. It is easy to want to be one with and bless others whom we already love and agree with. This kind of unity feels effortless, because we want to do it, it makes us feel good, included, safe. The subversiveness of the crucifixion is that Jesus extended love and forgiveness even to those who persecuted him. He resisted the natural human temptation to lash out in retaliation, and showed that the sacrificial nature of love is what brings life, resurrection, freedom. Now we must be clear: the cross is not calling for martyrdom. It is not to be used by the powerful to tell the less powerful what they must sacrifice. We definitely need to prevent harm from happening to ourselves and others, both physically and emotionally, wherever we can. But the symbolic import of the crucifixion is that our self-centered ego needs to die, our need for retaliation needs to die. Then we, and others, and the whole world, can really live, can rise from the tomb of mutually assured destruction.
Gandhi is said to have stated: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Lest we think that an eye for an eye is some ancient code that we have now moved beyond, just take a look at a few action movies in recent years. Take a look at social media. Vengeance and retaliation, or at least a habitually defensive and aggressive stance towards all who disagree, is still considered to be noble, macho, desirable, practical. Culture tells us that we are allowed to give up on the humanity of others, if they have wronged us, even in a small way. But Jesus tells us differently.
So we return to the essentials of love. They don’t make sense in the landscape of disunity. Our pragmatic selves tell us they are stupid, naive, insane. But they are also our only hope, our only way to life, the only way to stay sane.
I was recently watching an adaptation of the classic book, Les Miserable by Victor Hugo(3). The story is about the reformation of a prisoner named Jean Valjean, and a policeman, Javert, who dedicates his life to bringing Valjean to justice, even as Valjean attempts to create a new and respectable life. Once out of prison, Valjean takes on new identity and adopts an orphan girl, Cosette, who was being abused by her foster family. The years go by and they become as close as father and daughter. Javert, meanwhile, is tormented by the idea that a criminal like Valjean could be living a free life, and he searches for him everywhere. Eventually, Cosette falls in love with a boy named Marius and wishes to marry. Valjean is stricken at the thought of losing her, knowing that he would never be able to join her in society, due to his secret. Nevertheless, Valjean saves the life of Marius on the battlefield of the revolution, and drags him through the sewers of Paris to safety. As they emerge, Javert finally catches up with Valjean. He did not expect to find him in the midst of a selfless act. As he tries to puzzle out this contradiction on the way to the police station he asks:
“That young man…is he a particular friend of yours? Would you say that he is dear to you?”
Valjean replies: “Quite the contrary. If he lives, he intends to rob me of all my happiness.”
Javert is confused: “And yet, you….” he trails off. “Are you insane?”
Valjean replies: “No, I don’t think so. Are you?”
And we see it suddenly dawning for Javert that it is his life that is the insane one, a life preoccupied with vengeance and reputation, a life boxed in by obsession with being righteous, a life that couldn’t contemplate mercy or forgiveness or transformation.
The theologian Frederick Buechner has written: ”The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks [they] can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”(4)
What is the true insanity? In a world that feels less and less unified, ultimately, believing that people are unchangeable, and the world is irredeemable feels like the true insanity. Abandoning love feels like the true insanity.
But that doesn’t make the sane choice easy. The problem with the idea of unity, the reason that the word might ring hollow to our ears is that we all intuitively know that unity doesn’t just happen. You can’t just flip a switch. You have to love your way into it. And that is awful news because it is just so hard. So hard to love people that consistently act in bad faith, consistently take advantage, consistently act defensively and make decisions with which we cannot agree and cannot fathom. But what is our choice; would we really prefer the tomb?
Loving our way to unity is messy. Sometimes we will have to make the call to protect ourselves and others. As we heard in our reading “It is love that wants those three things, however, and wisdom that brings them about.” We act in wisdom but we do it while still practicing the three essentials of love. They are not a check list that we get to abandon because we think that someone or some group no longer deserves love. God is always working in people, in every moment, in a myriad of unseen ways. God is always planting seeds.
So we must practice being the sower, being the gardener, acting alongside God. There is a particular Buddhist meditation practice which involves concentrating on widening circles of loving kindness. First, we might repeat a phrase or mantra towards ourselves, something meaningful to us like “May I be happy, May I be filled with peace, May I be free from suffering.” Then, we widen the meditation towards someone that we love: “May they be happy, May they be in peace, May they be free from suffering.” Then, we widen the meditation towards someone to whom we feel neutral, and then to someone with whom we have a difficult relationship. Finally, we widen our prayer towards all beings in the world. And this, in a sense, is what Jesus does in chapter 17 of John, praying first for his glorification, then for his beloved disciples, then for all believers and finally for wide world that God so loves.
“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (v25-26) Let us kneel beside Jesus in this prayer, may we always work to make God known.
(1) The New Interpreters Bible, p682.
(3) see pbs.org
(4) Frederick Beuchner, The Faces of Jesus