Acts 16:16-34; John 17:20-26
The Gospel text for Easter 7 is one of those roundabout John texts.
It loops around, repeats, uses the same word over and over: you in me, me in you, we in them, they in us. Huh? It reads like some murky mission statements on those business how-to websites: “To satisfy our customers’ desires for personal entertainment and information through total customer satisfaction.” Or maybe some of the “Thanks for the memos” if you are a “Whad’Ya Know?” radio fan. Granted, John is far more poetic. Nonetheless, there is a circularity that makes discerning what such oneness means in tangible terms difficult.
A word study helps a bit. We find the little word for “one” all over the place in the New Testament, but the uses most parallel to our text are in Matthew 19:5 and Ephesians 2:15. In Matthew, it is part of Jesus’ discussion of divorce. Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” The Ephesians reference comes in the middle of that great excursus on the unity won in Christ, specifically the coming together of two groups – Gentiles and Jews – into one new humanity. Verse 15 reads, “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” This coming together of two separate entities is the kind of oneness Jesus prays for in John.
In the list of many possible meanings of the Greek word “one,” it is this particular definition that applies here: “in contrast to parts, of which a whole is made up.” There is a healing of past divisions explicit in such unity; the wholeness is created through Christ, which is non-existent otherwise. The famous verse from Galatians is a fitting example of the fervent prayer of Jesus for his followers both present and yet to come: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are in one in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 4 comes to mind, too. “There is one body and one Spirit … one hope … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
The reconciliation of two disparate parts made into a unified whole is possible only through the oneness of the Triune God, the God we are to be like, as 1 John 3:2 puts it: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” We will be one, as Jesus and the Father are one – aliens and strangers brought near and made members of the same household, God’s household. The concept isn’t all that difficult, but the applications seem all but impossible.
Therein lies the preaching and teaching problem. As one eye-rolling confirmand once said to me after recounting the horror of the week’s news, “If there is a God, he sure isn’t doing a very good job.” All this oneness sounds like mom and apple pie, unicorns and rainbows, but, let’s face it, we don’t see much of it actually happening.
That’s where the Acts account for this week comes into play. This dramatic story of Acts with all its twists and turns is the parts-made-whole example that might help us recognize and participate in such boundary-breaking Spirit work in our own lives. It is in Acts 16 that Jesus’ Lucan sermon comes to life: The oppressed are set free (even if due to questionable motives on Paul’s part), the captives are released (literal dividing walls between jailer and prisoner come down) and good news is shared with the poor (fellow prisoners, the jailer and the jailer’s entire household). This account demonstrates the oneness – the bringing together of wildly different people – that comes through Jesus Christ. The divisions are obvious: slave vs. free, Jews vs. Romans, captive vs. captor. It is the one Lord who bridges them all. The word and work of Jesus Christ shakes things up to their very foundation and, in so doing, demolishes the walls that once stood seemingly impenetrable. That’s what gospel oneness looks like.
The challenge for us this Sunday is to not only point to what being made one looks like in Acts, but what it does – or could – look like in our own communities and world. Given that we live in the time and place of “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” we may first have to lift up the vision of Jesus’ prayer and the power of his life, death and resurrection to make it so. Without that vision, we might be lulled into believing that John’s language is metaphor alone when, in fact, we are to take it literally. But then we have to go a step further and tell our own Acts-like story – tales of walls coming down, barriers being breached and bridges being built through Jesus Christ.
Do you have some? They don’t have to be as grand as the story of Paul and Silas. They could be as seemingly small as families overcoming estrangement or marriages making it through tough seasons. It might be like the time I remember when neighbors vehemently opposed the church’s opening a soup kitchen, but ultimately came to volunteer. It may not have such a dramatic before-and-after as prison bars falling down; it may gradual and slow, but no less significant.
Joseph McGill has taken it upon himself to sleep in as many slave cabins as he can. It has been a personal journey that has had communal impact. His desire to become one with his enslaved ancestors has had the unintended consequence of bridging other divides, too. An article in The Smithsonian reads:
McGill has also found that older white Southerners who own or operate properties with slave dwellings are much more receptive to his project than they might have been just a decade or two ago. In only a few instances have his requests to stay been rebuffed. More often he’s been enthusiastically welcomed, dined with his hosts and even been given the keys to the big house while the owners go off to work. “Sometimes I sense guilt is part of what’s driving people, but whatever it is, having me visit and acknowledge their preservation of these places makes them feel they’re doing the right thing,” he says. “It’s not a cure-all for what happened in the past, but it’s a start.”
… Craig Barrow, a 71-year-old stockbroker whose family has owned a neighboring plantation called Wormsloe for nine generations, and Sarah Ross, who heads a research institute on the site … invited McGill to stay the next night at a slave cabin. …
Barrow says he grew up giving little thought to the surviving slave cabin and cemetery on the property, or to the generations of African-Americans who lived and labored there. But over time, he says, “I’ve come to an appreciation of what those people did. My people sat around having big dinner parties – they weren’t doing the work. The people who lived in those cabins sweated in the fields and built everything – they made it all happen.” Barrow also regrets his youthful opposition to integrating the University of Georgia. “I was wrong, that’s why I’m doing this,” he says of his invitation to McGill and support of the Wormsloe Institute’s research into slave life on the plantation.
Divisions united can begin with the simple but often hard to say words, “I was wrong.” Two parts of which a whole can be made comes through those beginnings and prayer, Jesus’ and our own.
- The Acts text is rich with all kinds of themes. One of which is the motivation of money that leads to exploitation. If you go down that road this week, what other texts would you hold alongside Acts 16?
- Is talking about oneness and unity particularly challenging in our individualistic culture? Are there other cultures that might offer a more communal/community vision of the world? What might we learn from them?
- The Revelation text appointed for Easter 7 leaves out the difficult verses of judgement. What is lost and gained by doing so? Would you advocate for keeping them in or leaving them out? On what basis would you make your case?
- Take some time to read verses in John that are parallels to John 17. Take a look at 10:16, 10:38, 14:21, 6:37, 12:26, 15:9. How do these verses inform the ones in John 17?
- Spend some time reading Ephesians 2 and 4. Notice the before and after quality described. When have you seen such extreme makeovers? When have you experienced one?
- Look in the lectionary index of the Glory to God hymnal (page 974) and note the hymns appointed for this Sunday’s text. Pick several to use as part of your personal devotions this week.
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