We are familiar with the idea, that in different ways, the last thing that somebody says to us is of often of paramount importance. It is fashionable for academics who write books to try to bring together as late as possible in their lives a definitive collective of wisdom that summarises all that they have written before. Singers and musicians often do the same thing.
What we hear last from somebody is often what we will remember for the longest. I know for myself that I can remember very clearly the last conversation that I had with my grandfather in the hospital ward the day before he died. We discussed, of all things, his opinions of the new Archbishop of Canterbury!
I know too, in my own pastoral ministry that what people say to me last in a conversation, is very many times the important thing that they wanted to say to me first. After an hour’s more general conversation, as they stand up to leave, people will often begin to say what they had wanted to say all along.
One of the greatest challenges to us when we think about the possibility of dementia in later life – personally or for a loved one – is the possible lack of capacity to say last things which are coherent and consistent and of significance.
Our ‘last will and testament’ in its most updated and revised form is the clearest statement that we leave for those who are charged with the care of our estates after our death about our intentions.
And there has been a long tradition amongst Christians, to include in our wills statements of faith to be read out alongside the instructions about the dispersal of our assets, so that there is no doubt left in the minds of hearers about what our priorities of our life have been.
Imagine for a moment one of your own great heroes from history. Mother Teresa perhaps, or Thomas Cranmer or Shakespeare. Think of someone that you respect and admire. Now imagine that historians have found a hitherto unnoticed manuscript that was written by that person – possibly the last document ever to have been written by them. Now imagine that it was addressed to you. How would you feel? I want to suggest this morning that that is how we should feel when we read the text of this morning’s Gospel.
In the prayer of Jesus which we have just heard (his final and great high-priestly prayer) Jesus is talking about you and he is talking about me. Last advice, last reflections and instructions are important. Last prayers are important too. The writers of the Gospel of John deliberately, I think, from the great range of teachings and events flowing from the life of Jesus which they had to choose from, position this prayer as the final prayer of the life of Jesus in their Gospel to leave the readers with no doubt as to what Jesus and his ministry were all about.
The theme which has been building throughout the Gospel is the one which they intend will remain in the hearts, and minds and practice of their readers into the future. The theme of this prayer for us is simply this: unity. Unity with God our creator through Jesus, unity with each other, unity with the whole created order. The unity which Jesus longs for for us, is a mirror of the unity that he himself shares with his Father – a unity firstly of communion (the father is in the son, and the son is in the father) and a unity secondly of purpose (I do the will of my father).
Of course by the time the authors of John’s Gospel, inspired by the Holy Spirit, were bringing together the very text that we have heard this morning, the disunity rather than the unity of the Church would already have been an evident reality already. As we read the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and as we read between the lines of the letters from Paul to the first Christian churches we begin to see the kinds of disagreements emerge in the life of the Early Church which have remained a sad feature of its life throughout the centuries.
Never has Christian disunity been more evident than it is today. The very fact that the Church is made up of people like you and me, and not just bricks and mortar which can be more easily cemented together and forced into unity, the very things that make me me and the very things that make you you lead to the potential not only for a great deal of good in the name of Jesus, but for a great deal of disunity as well. The simple reality is that the range of expressions of Church that we find in Australia today are reflections of the range of cultures and ways of doing things that we find in the society around us. I am happy for Christian unity, but I want it to be on my terms.
I need to remember again and again, when I wonder why everyone does not experience the risen Jesus in the way that I do: that the Body of Christ is made up not only of many different people, but many different types of people (of personalities) as well. We see that in the way that Jesus met with people differently according to their needs during his earthly ministry, and we know the reality of it today when we see how people encounter him in our own time.
Some of us learn through our eyes (by reading books for example), some of us are stimulated through our ears (by listening to music), some of us learn through our hands (by doing things). And so it is self evident that the way that the risen Christ will meet with each one of us will be different because of our own differences.
Christians who learn through reading generally cannot understand why everyone does not experience the resurrected Jesus the way that they do when they read the scriptures. Christians who are stimulated through listening often cannot understand why everyone does not experience the resurrected Jesus at work in the music that they hear. Christians who learn through doing things with their hands and their bodies, cannot understand why everyone does not experience the tangible presence of the resurrected Jesus through holding candles, and mowing lawns. Extroverts experience the risen Christ in the noise of a community, introverts experience him in the silence of a seemingly empty room. In a sense the outward disunity of the Church is simply a product of the different ways that we experience Jesus at work in us.
What is the unity for which Jesus prays in this final lingering prayer? It is primarily a unity of communion and purpose. Unity in communion, that we may all be one in Christ and therefore one with Christ in God our creator. Unity in purpose, that through our common call to mission the world may believe.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the great World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh in 1910. That conference was really the defining moment in the modern movement for the unity for the Church. It led to the formation of the International Missionary Council, which then in due course led to the foundation of the World Council of Churches. Many of the relationships which have developed at a grass-roots level through local councils of churches, all ultimately emanate from the work which began at that conference in 1910. The great slogan of the movement which developed from that conference was “the evangelisation of the world in this generation.” The prayer of Jesus that we should be united for the sake of mission, was at the heart of the motivations in all that went on in 1910, and which developed from it.
Much more recently the Fresh Expressions movement of new mission, particularly in the Church of England, has led to a similar concern, that whatever else we do we should be united for the sake of mission. In England that is most evident through the ways that the Church of England and the Methodist Church, in particular, are working together on the development of Fresh Expressions projects. What is true for them, is of course true for us here in this parish as well. Last night our partnership with the Uniting Church congregation in our new fresh connection project at Glen Oak Hall is a visible sign of the unity for which Jesus prayed. It is not about building one new building for all of us to meet and do the same things in.
We are discovering here, what others are discovering once again around the world, that whilst there are a great many things which divide us from other Christians (and many of those are more cultural than they are theological), it is in the unity of our common purpose, that we are able to unite together to participate in God’s mission to the world.
So let’s be unceasing in joining ourselves with the prayer of Jesus, that we may be one in communion with him, and through him with the God who has created us, and who sustains our living. And let us strive too, both within the centres of our parish, and also with our neighbouring Christian communities, to be united in purpose, in sharing in God’s mission to the world.
This prayer of Jesus is for us. So may it remain with us, and define us, not just for our own sakes, but for those who live around us who have not yet heard the good news of God’s love for them. Caught up in the vision of God’s glory, may we intentionally strive to work with others, in order to be one, so that the world may believe.