We live in a time of deep division.
Perhaps nothing so starkly paints that picture than the trial of President Trump. All the coverage points to our division as it speaks of Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals; a picture of how we are pitted against each other.
Then there are other divisions, too. We paint ourselves in a rural, urban divide. We color ourselves into different groups through race and gender. We ask ourselves who the real Americans are, which is another way of saying what all these divisions say: the world is us versus them.
Us versus them. It comes through loud and clear in our country and in our world. It’s our farmers versus farmers in other countries, an underpinning of the trade war. It’s our manufacturers versus China’s. It’s our way of life versus North Korea’s. It’s us versus them.
Closer to home for us, we recognize that division, especially the threat of actual separation, is the theme of our denomination. We have long lived with divisive politics within the United Methodist Church that pit progressives versus traditionalists; our nice names for groupings that we’re told regard each other with suspicion and, even, hatred.
Us versus them. It’s the standard of our lives today. It’s the favorite way for the media to portray our world. And we buy into it, both consciously and subconsciously.
And while we might like to ask what we are to do about it, as if us versus them were a problem, Jesus’s prayer that we examine today sounds like us versus them. Perhaps Jesus sees the world in an us versus them lens, too? Let’s hear together Jesus praying for his disciples in John 17.
Scripture: John 17:6-26
Jesus is very concerned about the disciples existing in the world. The world, in this prayer, sounds like the “them” of us versus them.
The world does not know the Father, so Jesus tells us. The world tends to reject the Father when it hears the gospel message. It runs the messenger out. It shows hatred and animosity. So he asks God to protect the disciples. Protect them from the world, from the evil in the world, for they are not of the world. Jesus paints a picture of the disciples versus the world.
Us versus them.
This theme is so common in our lives perhaps we don’t even pause to consider how influential it is. Consider this: if I asked you what you think of senate democrats, what’s the first emotion that comes to mind? Probably it’s a strong emotion, whether positive or negative. Either you strongly feel that senate democrats are part of your us or part of your them.
If I asked you how you feel about conservatives, what’s the first emotion that comes to mind? Probably, again, a strong one. Either conservatives are a part of your us, resulting in a strong positive emotion, or conservatives are part of your them, eliciting a strong negative emotion.
In other words, if the word democrat or liberal makes you recoil, feel revolted, or fearful because you believe they will ruin the country, that’s a strong negative emotion. Liberals and democrats are part of your them, and thus you, and those like you, your us, are set against them.
I could name any number of other groups and many of us would have strong reactions one way or the other. This is how we see the world: us versus them. It’s tribal.
That’s the word sociologists use to describe our divisive nature as a people: tribal. We might think of tribal politics, but it applies to any way in which we divide ourselves from others.
And certainly Jesus sounds like he’s praying for his tribe. He knows he’s on the way to the cross and that his time on earth is nearly done. He wants to make sure that his disciples, and the disciples who will come after, all the way to us in this present day, are provided for, are cared for, are protected from them.
Jesus prays for his tribe; his us: the us of all disciples. We today would call that population Christians, a word Jesus didn’t have in his vocabulary. But we might as well also call it a tribe. For that’s what we are, that’s how we identify. We’re a tribe, and we’re set against those who are set against us. We’re set against those who would attack our beliefs, our way of life, our freedom to do and believe as we please. That, certainly, is the message of the evangelical media. We would attack those who would seek our demise, thinking that we are a threat to their way of life.
We would attack.
Because it’s an us versus them world out there. It’s a dog eat dog world. It’s an evil world full of malice. It’s survival of the fittest. Darwin was right. Natural selection occurs, so we must make sure that we’re the strongest so that we can stand up to whatever attacks come our way; so that when we attack back, we win.
Pleasantries aside, and clearly I have kicked them aside this morning, this is where we are in our world at the moment. The lives which we live are full of division, both division we choose because we believe so much in our particular tribe, and division forced upon us. This, too, is where Christianity is at this moment. Our faith, especially in this country, sees itself pitted against forces that are against it, putting us in a defensive posture. We experience this, too, within our own denomination as we face schism.
Division is so characteristic of our lives today we might could say that division is the primary characteristic of the society in which we live and move and have our being.
How curious then that Jesus prays that his disciples become one.
His famous prayer for unity begins in verse 20. After the talk of the world, after the request that the Father protect the disciples, Jesus prays that they may all be one, just as he and the Father are one. He prays for unity; and not just a nice, feel good, I’d like to buy the world a Coke, kind of unity. No, a becoming one with the Father and each other, just as he and the Father are one.
This is radical unity. Consider the Trinity: we believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all one, yet simultaneously exist in distinct ways. We call this hypostatic union. Put that phrase away to impress your friends one day: hypostatic union. That fancy theological term states what Jesus poignantly says: that he and the Father, along with the Holy Spirit, are all one. They are of the same stuff, the same mind; the mind he wants his disciples to have.
It’s just like Paul says often throughout his letters and most famously in Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Stop and think of that for a second. The same mind as Christ. That would be the same mind as the Father, for the Father and Son are one. Jesus is praying that the disciples, both the eleven who remained and all those who would come after, including us, would have the same mind as the Father; would be one with the Father.
What are we to make of this kind of radical unity?
What are we to make of this kind of radical unity considering the divisive world in which we live?
Does Jesus want the disciples to have this radical unity with the Father so that they can stand up against attacks and attack back those who would do harm to them? So that, when the world attacks, when them attack, disciples, Christians, us, can attack back and be successful?
Does Jesus want this radical unity so that the us will grow stronger against the thems of the world?
Does Jesus pray for this radical unity so that, in the epic struggle of us versus them, us, we, will win?
Not in the least.
At the end of this passage, Jesus says why he wants this unity, this oneness with the Father, for his disciples: so that the disciples may know the glory of God and may experience the love of God. And furthermore, that through the disciples, the world would know this same glory and love. HIs prayer is for glory and for love through the disciples for all the world.
The glory of God; like standing on a mountain top looking at a vista, swept away by the glorious sight of creation. The glory of God; like holding a newborn baby. The glory of God; like witnessing acts of self-sacrifice, generosity, or even being the recipient of those. And this is but a taste of the glory of God; a glory which enlivens our souls. Jesus prays that the disciples would know the glory so that their souls would be enlivened.
The love of God. A love that is beyond what we can ask or imagine. But Paul gets us close: God’s love is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or rude, but delighting in goodness, hopes in all circumstances, never ceases to believe, and in all these things, never fails. That’s God, that’s God’s love, and that’s what Jesus wants the disciples to know most of all because of their unity, their oneness with God: God’s love.
Note that none of these things have anything to do with attacking, fighting, winning. None of them speak to us versus them. In fact, here things are quite the opposite. So what are we to make of Jesus talking about “the world” and asking for protection for the disciples from the world and then asking for the disciples to have unity that leads to experiencing God’s glory and love?
What, indeed, in our us versus them time, are we to make of this?
We need a mindset change.
When Jesus speaks of the world, even when Jesus speaks of being protected from the world, he’s not speaking of them. He’s speaking of the way evil has separated and corrupted the world. Evil is a malevolent force in the world and God is moving in power to undo it, but evil is not a them.
For with God, there is no them. There is merely a separation, a distance, between God and some of God’s creation. And God mourns that separation. God laments that any of creation would be at a distance from God’s love. Those who are at a distance are not a them; for when God looks at humanity, when God looks at creation, God sees only us.
How? Because we, all of us, bear the image of God. When looking at creation, God sees creation as it was when God first created. Consider Genesis 1:31, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” For God, it is still good. It is corrupted by the presence of evil in the world, but that doesn’t mean that God rejects those parts that are corrupted.
For in order for God to view the world through an us versus them lens, that’s what God would have to do: reject part of his good creation. But God created in his own image and cannot reject himself! So it is impossible for God to see the world in an us versus them lens. For God, no part of creation is irredeemable. For God, no one is beyond God’s love. Because God still loves his creation and calls it good.
And so there is no way to consider us versus them. It is antithetical to Christian theology. That’s a fancy way of saying there’s no way to be a disciple, a Christian, and see the world as us versus them. There is no way for us, as Christians, to hold that mentality. We are human, it’s in our nature to see the world through tribal lenses. But that’s not something to accept; us versus them is an evil in our world to work against. It’s a sin to rid ourselves of.
Throughout his letters, Paul says what Jesus asks for here: that there is, now, because of Christ, no Jew nor Gentile, the primary us versus them of his day. We can then say that, now, there is no Republican nor Democrat, no liberal nor conservative, no progressive nor traditionalist, no us versus them; there are simply humans, beloved of God.
And the way in which we learn to see the world through the eyes of God, to see the world through the love of God, to see the world without our tribal lenses that turn everyone we see into an us versus them; the way we learn to see the world through the eyes of God is through prayer.
Jesus, here, is praying. He’s praying for unity, for oneness of mind, between the Father and his disciples. When Paul offers his words about there being now no us versus them any longer because of Christ, he’s saying it as a prayer for the churches to whom he writes. We have in Jesus and Paul examples of how to rid ourselves of this evil, this sin, of an us versus them mentality: we pray.
Perhaps there is no better definition of prayer than this: to become of one mind with God. This is not to say that prayer makes us into God. Far from it, but prayer makes us see the world the way God does; prayer teaches us the character of God, prayer transforms our minds and our hearts because prayer puts us in touch with God’s glory and especially God’s love, which is God’s chief characteristic.
That’s a very Methodist thing to say: that love is God’s chief characteristic. And it’s what we believe. It’s why many of you are and were so attracted to being here. Methodist churches tend to be very loving places because we see God as love first and foremost. And we seek to grow in love, to become more loving. The best way to do that is prayer.
Praying the Psalms daily, as I again challenge us to do, is perhaps the best way to get started with this life of prayer that makes us of one mind with the Father. It teaches us how to relate to God, gives our souls the language of prayer, and grounds our prayer life in scripture. If you have not yet begun, don’t delay and don’t be discouraged. Start today with today’s Psalm, Psalm 4, and continue your practice. The schedule is on Facebook and two weeks’ worth are in your bulletin.
Prayer can also mean to pray like the Lord’s prayer, the model prayer that we discussed last week. In your bulletin is the outline of that model prayer that shows the different ways we can pray. All of those draw us into God’s presence, teaching us about God’s love, instilling it within our souls, transforming us to be of one mind with God.
Prayer makes us of one mind with the Father. And that one mind, the more we gain it, cannot see the world in us versus them lenses. There are, instead, humans, all of us, sinful, in need of mercy and grace. Through the lens of prayer, as we become of one mind with the Father, we see our common humanity in everyone, everywhere. We see God when we look at each other because we all, even if we do not claim his name, bear the image of God. That was how we were created and that is how we remain. And because we all bear the image of God, we are all beloved of God, no matter how much of a them they may be in our minds.
The prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. They will transform our vision, our lenses, to see the world as God does; rather than as our sinful, evil, us versus them mentalities teach us to see the world. That’s the power of prayer. That’s why it’s so important to pray. Today, commit yourself to the life of prayer. If you’re not sure where to begin, pray the Psalms. Daily. Give it a month before you quit saying it’s not doing anything. Use the model prayer of Jesus to help you pray in different ways: adoration, petitions, praise, and lament. Just try. God is there, ready to meet you in prayer.
And when we meet God in prayer, we rise above tribalism. We move beyond the us versus them mentality. We get past biases, prejudices, and even hatred for those we once regarded as them. For there is no longer us versus them; there is only us, humans, children of God, images of God, beloved of God.
May we only see the world in just that way. Pray.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.