Sunday, 8 May 2016

Unity in Love

Easter 7 – Sunday 8 May 2016 – Stoke Hammond

Readings Ezekiel 36

24 ‘“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.

Reading Acts 16

Paul and Silas in prison

16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.’ 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned round and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ At that moment the spirit left her.

19 When her owners realised that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, ‘These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practise.’

22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Gospel John 17

Jesus prays for all believers

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.’


Ezekiel is not an attractive book, although you would think so if you only read the few passages from Ezekiel in the lectionary for the weeks between Easter and Pentecost.

Ezekiel has been described as ‘the most thorough instance of “blaming the victim” in the history of world literature.’ It was written as a response to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian empire in 587BC.

The book is full of poems that seem to take particular delight in blaming the Judeans for their own downfall. There is little hope for the future, as there is in parts of Isaiah, but universal condemnation for the Judeans’ sin, much of which was a failure to observe all the requirements of Temple worship and minute observance of the Law.

I rather wish I had not done any research on this passage before deciding what to preach about this morning. Ezekiel 36 was one of my favourite bits from the OT. The image of the clean water sprinkled on us to make us clean again; and the replacement of our old hearts of stone for new ones which listen to God and obey him are attractive pictures of our change of heart and of our salvation.

I won’t go into any more detail in case this is one of your favourite passages too. Just be thankful next week is Whitsun, otherwise we might have been treated once again to Exodus 37 — the valley of the dry bones.

In isolation though, it’s a wonderful text, and today we can read it alongside Jesus’ prayer that all may be one. This is not just the elusive vision of church unity, but oneness with God in love for Him and his love for us, as well as reflecting that same love for each other.

Today’s gospel comes from Jesus’ ‘farewell discourses’ to his disciples. The fact that we read it in the weeks after Easter is confusing. We celebrated Easter at the end of March, and now we are taken back to the Passover meal which Jesus ate with his disciples.

First, Jesus prays for himself. It’s not the agonising prayer of the garden of Gethsemane, but a prayer of glorification and satisfaction that the end has come. The Son will glorify the Father, as the Father has glorified the Son.

Second, what a privilege it must have been for those sitting at table, leaning forward, straining to hear what Jesus was saying. How amazing for them to hear those words, as Jesus prays out loud for them.

One woman theologian wrote this:

“Then Jesus moves on to pray for those who are sitting at the table with him. Jesus is praying like a mother who has adopted these children. They belonged to God, but God gave them to Jesus to care for, to teach, to nurture. Soon Jesus will go away and he prays for these children with the love of a motherly heart.” [i]

But Jesus’ prayer does not stop with those seated at table. It extends to us—to you and me. My Bible makes this clear, with the heading “Jesus Prays for All Believers.” He says:
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.

We are the ones who have believed in him through the message of those disciples. Jesus’ prayer hangs in the space between earth and heaven, between time past and time to come—a prayer that we will remain faithful, through the encouragement and support of the Holy Spirit whose presence we celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost.

It’s hard to believe we can all act in this way, when we look at our church nationally and internationally. A church that takes 18 months to elect a new Bishop of Oxford all can agree to support. A church that acts towards some minorities in the way it does. A church that took so long to recognise the full ministry and contribution of women.

All that is broadly out of our hands at a local level, but we can sing in unison from the same song sheet at the grass roots. That song sheet might as well be John’s gospel chapter 17, when Jesus prays aloud his hopes for the future and for us, his followers. Amen

[i] Barbara Lundblad Joe R. Engle Professor EmerITUS Union Theological Seminary New York, NY

No comments: