St Michael’s, O’Fallon—John 17:6a, 15-23
As you may have discerned, the built-in special intention of this liturgy is the unity of the Church. The collect and the readings come from the section of the Prayer Book lectionary that bears the label “Various Occasions”—or, in the terminology of liturgy geeks such as your bishop, “votive Masses.” Of course, it’s a little strange that we should have to pray for the unity of the Church, since the Church is none other than the risen, glorified, and quite intact Body of Christ. At one level, unity is a default feature of the Church; the Church is “hard wired” to be one. Of course, on another level, that isn’t how we experience it. We are, as the familiar hymn texts says, “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” So we experience what I learned in my freshman year college psychology course to call “cognitive dissonance.” We affirm something as being real that we actually experience as being a fantasy.
In response to such cognitive dissonance, Christians across the whole range of flavors and brand names have silently, without explicit intention, colluded with one another in the institutionalization of our disunity, the normalization of schism. We have invented nostrums like “God gave us the diversity of denominations so that every kind of person would have a church they can feel at home in.” For a moment or two, that feels kind of right, but it doesn’t stand up well. It’s probably the classic example of trying to make silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The fact is, our divisions are a scandal, a really bad scandal, a scandal that we should never allow ourselves to become used to or comfortable with. Our external divisions are a scandal, the divisions that result in different churches on all four corners of many of our downtown streets. But our internal divisions—the fights we carry on amongst ourselves, often quite publicly—are even more of a scandal.
And why are these things scandalous? In his long prayer that has become known as our Lord’s “high priestly” prayer, which was offered on the night before his suffering and death, and from which the gospel reading for this Mass was taken, Jesus prays for the unity of his followers, and mentions a very specific purpose for his intention: “That the world may know that you have sent me.
That the world may know.
We have been drilling down for the last three years in the diocese on what it means to embrace a mission strategy that is robust enough to build a church that can thrive in a post-Christian society, and can somehow survive the demographic tidal wave that is crashing down on us. As we pursue that mission, there will certainly be those who brush us aside because they hear our talk of reconciliation in Christ as hypocritical when we can’t even be reconciled with one another. The four churches on the four downtown corners, to say nothing of Christians trying to settle their differences in secular courts, will stand as a powerful witness to these people of the falsehood and ridiculousness of the gospel we proclaim. They will not hear it as good news, but as laughable news. So it is good that we pray through offering this Mass for the Unity of the Church
So, just what are we asking for? Let me call your attention to three specific short petitions that we will offer a few minutes from now in the Eucharistic Prayer. Giving voice to the prayers of this whole assembly, I will stand at the altar and say, “Remember, Lord, your one holy catholic and apostolic church, redeemed by the blood of your Christ.” And here are the three petitions: “Reveal its unity, guard its faith, and preserve it in peace.”
Reveal its unity, guard its faith, and preserve it in peace.
Reveal its unity. What a wonderfully hopeful way of putting it! It’s realistic, in that it doesn’t seek to deny the reality of how our divisions appear to people. Yet, it also affirms the underlying unity that all the baptized have with one another because they have been made one in Christ through the waters of the font. It is not our unity that is an elusive mirage; it is our divisions! Our unity has been obscured, made invisible, by our own sinfulness. Now, this is certainly a problem, because what we can’t see, we are effectively cut off from, and people whom we are trying to evangelize are not going to understand these distinctions. But what we are praying for today is not to be made one, but that the wraps be taken off of the unity we already have, so our mission is not hindered. Indeed, Lord, reveal our unity.
Guard its faith. Now, our minds tend to jump right here—I know mine certainly does—our minds tend to jump when we hear “the faith” to the content of what we say we believe—creeds and other statements. We hear a lot about people, even church leaders, denying or disavowing or otherwise hedging on core Christian doctrines. This certainly happens, and I am certainly as concerned about it as anybody, and I am happy to ask God to guard the content of our faith. But I also want to be bold enough to ask for something more, something much deeper. If we interpret this petition in the liturgy without mentally adding a definite article, without adding “the,” we can begin to see “faith” not only as a noun—the faith—but as a verb, something we imply when we speak of having faith. To have faith is to be completely oriented in heart, mind, and will toward God and to what God calls us to, to make our identity as disciples of Jesus the central organizing principle of our lives. This, I want to suggest to you, is what we would do well to have in mind when we ask the Lord, speaking of the Church, to “guard its faith.” Having faith of this sort is precisely what enables us to see our underlying unity, and to actively cooperate with God in the lifting of the veil, so that unity can indeed be revealed.
Preserve it in peace. Once again, notice that, as with unity, what we’re asking for assumes that we actually already have it. In other places, we as God to give us peace, but here we’re asking, on behalf of the Church, that God preserve us in peace. Peace certainly includes the absence of conflict, and, to any extent that we are free of conflict, we certainly yearn to have that condition continue. But peace is more than simply the absence of conflict. Complacency is certainly pretty free of conflict, and that’s not something we want for the Church, is it? No, the peace of God that passes all understanding, the peace that will keep our hearts and minds in the love of God and the knowledge of his Son, is rooted in the amazing ubiquitous grace of God, God’s favorable disposition towards us that flows over and under and around us, the grace that carries us along through the stress of adversity, through the way of the cross, to a quality of life that transcends anything that assaults it, even death itself. When the people of God experience the peace of God, when we are preserved in that peace, our faith is guarded, and we are able to see the unity that is the fruit of our Great High Priest’s prayer on our behalf.
It has become our custom at synod—I guess when you do something a third or fourth time, it becomes “the way we’ve always done it”—it has become the custom at synod to express our faith not through the Nicene Creed, as we normally do on Sundays, but by reaffirming the vows and promises of our baptism. It is in baptism that our unity subsists, the unity that we long to have revealed more clearly. It is in baptism that we find our common faith, the faith of the apostles, saints, prophets, and martyrs, handed along to us through the ages. It is in the life of the Christ whom we “put on,” with whom we are “clothed,” in baptism that lies underneath the peace that we will share with one another before we set the table for our meal.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.