Sermon from the Rev. Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | 7th Sunday in Easter, Year C, May 8, 2016
In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays to God in these words: “The glory you have given me, I have given them so that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one. I have given them glory, Jesus says, that they may be one, completely one.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find it hard to follow Jesus’ train of thought with all the talk about “I in them and you in me that they may be one as we are one.” There’s a similar verse written somewhere which says, “I am he, as you are he, as you are me and we are all together. I am the eggman. I am the walrus. Goo goo g’joob!” Oh right, that was the Beatles! But Jesus sounds like he’s on some kind of magical mystery tour when he prays this prayer that we would all be one as he is one with God.
We love the idea of oneness and unity. It’s a big concept in the United States of America, where our motto is E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. One nation, under God, indivisible. These national sentiments come from the language of faith. We talk about One God, one bread, one body, one faith, one baptism, one holy catholic and apostolic church. The catechism of our prayer book in its outline of the faith says the mission of the church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” We have been printing that on the front of the bulletin every Sunday for the last few months. Unity. Oneness. Jesus prays for it. We like to talk about it. But what is it, and has it ever really existed? That mission statement to “restore” all persons to unity implies that at one time there must have been unity, otherwise how could we restore it? But when was that? Seems like all the stories we read in scripture are about division and discord. The history of the church has been one split after another. We talk about getting back together, we talk about reunification of God’s people, but I don’t think there was ever a golden age. The unity and oneness for which Jesus prayed seems more like an ideal but not one that we have ever attained.
We speak romantically about being one nation, one church, one community. But what is so great about unity? When it comes down to actually being one with each other, sitting next to the people who annoy us, offend us, bother us, it’s not that glorious. Even those of us who have tried to live under one roof with just one person whom we love, we often discover that the reality of trying to be one is pretty hard. I remember this couple, Anne and John, who had been married for forty years and they both retired from their jobs. Anne told John, “I promised to be with you for better for worse, but not for lunch!” So if unity is something that we’ve never really experienced, and it’s hard and complicated even we love each other, then why does Jesus pray for it? The church, over the centuries, has responded to Jesus’ prayer for unity by trying to make everyone the same: enforcement and policy. Make everyone look the same, pray the same, act the same. Move in lock step. In the early decades of the Book of Common Prayer in the 1500s, the book was used as a way to unify the kingdom of Great Britain, literally getting everyone on the same page. But these attempts by the church to make people one tend to backfire eventually. So why does the church claim unity as its mission? Let’s quit banging our heads against a wall, trying to achieve an impossible ideal. Let’s just admit that we tend to be divided and do our best to live together without hurting each other too much. Unity, oneness – it was a nice prayer, Jesus, but it’s more than we can do.
Maybe the problem is in how we have understood Jesus’ prayer for us. Maybe the reason why unity and oneness seem so impossible is because we need a new way of seeing. Jesus never explains what he means when he prays for us all to be one, to be completely one as he and God are one. With our limited understanding, we have assumed that unity means conformity and consistency. We have too often hurt each other with that understanding.
I was pondering these questions as I was driving this week to a conference at Shrine Mont, and on the way back I was listening to a radio podcast interview with a Nobel-prize winning physicist named Frank Wilczek. I probably should have thought twice before listening to a podcast about physics on a long drive, but this one actually kept me awake! Dr. Wilczek was talking not just about physics but about beauty, about how the whole cosmos works in ways that are amazingly beautiful, elegant, perfect. And the more science learns about the beauty of the universe, the more we understand that things fit together in different ways depending on where you stand and how you look at them. We’re going to talk a little bit about science for a minute here…so get ready and put your thinking cap on. For example, Isaac Newton, centuries ago, thought the colors of the spectrum were distinct one from another. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. If we are operating under our normal conditions, then that’s how colors look…different from each other. Then Albert Einstein came along in the last century and realized that if you were to start moving really fast, closer to the speed of light itself, colors would start to look more like each other. All colors are really one thing, just seen in different states of motion. Any color can be derived from any other color if you travel at the right speed. So in a deep way, one color implies all the rest, this is what Dr. Wilczek was saying in this interview. There’s a deep unity to the cosmos that is real, even as things may look different from one another. That’s a truth about the physical universe. Now it makes my head spin just trying to understand what he’s talking about. I had to go back and listen to the interview a few times. I’m a preacher and not a physics professor, so we’re not going to get into equations or anything! I offer this idea, though, to suggest the possibility that maybe there’s a way that unity exists which is not at all like what we’ve been thinking all these centuries.
It is a property of the physical universe…that when we are standing still, things look distinct and not unified, but when we start traveling near the speed of light, they look more and more like one thing. I believe there is a similar property of the spiritual universe…When we look at each other under so-called normal conditions, we look like a group that will struggle to find unity. We’re as different as colors of the rainbow. And when we mix together, it can sometimes be an ugly mess. But instead of struggling for unity, trying to force each other become one, we could realize that we are already one, the way that the colors of the rainbow are already one when viewed at certain speeds. Maybe Jesus meant for us to think of ourselves not under normal conditions, but traveling at the speed of light, the light of God’s love for us. When we are traveling at this speed of light, the light of God’s love or we might shorten that and call it the “speed of love,” we do start to seem more and more like one.
The speed of love…are you following me here? The speed of love is the velocity where we see ourselves as one with each other and God. The speed of love is when we are catapulted by the Spirit, moving in compassion, flying through space by giving and caring for each other. The speed of love. If the church’s mission is to restore all persons to unity with God and each other in Christ, then perhaps that mission is to get us in motion, to propel and accelerate us closer to the speed of love. When we stay in one position and get stuck in our normal conditions, the laws of our human nature would predict that we see ourselves as distinct and divided. But when we are moving at the speed of love, time and space change, we begin to see ourselves as more like each other, more like the children of God, one body in Christ. It is our mission as the church to restore that unity, not by going back to some golden age, not by enforcing holy procedures, not by conforming everyone to the same standards. It is our mission to restore the speed of love again and again and again, through prayer and worship that lifts us heavenward, through service and caring and feeding that throw us into each other’s orbits, through study and wonder that excite our imaginations, through telling and listening to our diverse and delightful stories, through whatever God calls us to do, so that we will have more and more glimpses of what it means to be one as God and Christ are one, to be perfectly one in the glory of God the maker of heaven and earth. And heaven moves at the speed of love. At the speed of love, I am Christ. At the speed of love, so are you, so are we. We are one, and may we see each other more and more as one, as we move at the speed of love.