Readings: John 17:20-26, True Christianity 43 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Today we are continuing in the gospel of John hearing Jesus’ 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. Is unity even possible? 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. People have aways had different visions for this country. What feels discouraging is that it seems we can no longer agree on basic versions of reality, 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 concede to common ideals like human dignity, or to even try to look for common ground. It is easy to call for unity, but much harder to decide what to do when overtures are rebuffed out of hand, when compromise itself is seen as a sign of weakness or capitulation, when power is sought in order to “win” instead of seeking the common good. At that point, it seems there is nowhere to go but further into our own silos. And from inside our own bubbles, 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.”
Except. [Sigh.] Except…there is the tiny problem that our whole tradition 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 that we just heard a month ago, 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 much 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. And many times, this involves listening deeply, putting aside our preconceived notions.
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 from a few 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 see a lot of that in this world, and it is not okay. We definitely need to prevent harm from happening to ourselves and others, both physically and emotionally, wherever we can. But we cannot forget that the symbolic import of the crucifixion is that our self-centered ego, our need to “win,” our need for retaliation and to demonize others - this 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, 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 truly 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. After escaping from 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.
And so we ask ourselves: 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? For all of us?
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 to protect and strategize and organize, 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 and respect. God is always working in people, in every moment, in a myriad of unseen ways. God is always planting seeds.
And Jesus prayed: “Righteous Father…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…” (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
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 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.”
True Christianity 43
The essence of love is loving others who are outside oneself, wanting to be one with them, and blessing them from oneself. Two things - love and wisdom - constitute the essence of God; but three things constitute the essence of God's love: his loving others who are outside of himself, his wanting to be one with them, and his blessing them from himself. The same three constitute the essence of his wisdom because in God love and wisdom are united…It is love that wants those three things, however, and wisdom that brings them about.
 The first essential, God's loving others outside himself, is recognizable in God's love for the entire human race. And as those who love the purpose also love the means, God also loves all the other things he created, because they are the means.
…God’s love goes out and extends not only to good people and good things but also to evil people and evil things. It goes not only to the people and things that are in heaven but also to those that are in hell…
Despite this, evil people and things are still evil. This is a result of what is in the people and the objects themselves. Evil people and things do not receive the love of God as it truly and most profoundly is; they receive the love of God according to their own nature, much the way thorns and nettles receive the heat from the sun and the rain from the sky.
 The second essential of God's love, his wanting to be one with others, is recognizable in his partnership with the angelic heaven, with the church on earth, with everyone in the church, and with everything good and true that forms and constitutes an individual and a church. In fact, seen in its own right, love is nothing but an effort to forge a partnership…
 The third essential of God's love, his blessing others from himself, is recognizable in eternal life, which is the unending blessedness, good fortune, and happiness that God gives to those who let his love in. As God is love itself, he is also blessedness itself; and as every love exudes pleasure, so divine love eternally exudes blessedness itself, good fortune itself, and happiness itself. God gives these blessings to angels and people after death through his partnership with them.