Sunday after Ascension Day: Glorious Unity

This week Helen Harding, a musician who moved to beautiful Switzerland two years ago with her husband and two children, and is a Reader in Training at La Cöte Anglican Church, reflects on John 17.20-26 the lectionary Gospel reading for the Sunday after Ascension.

This passage comes at the end of Jesus’ Great Prayer. He entrusts his disciples, those through the ages as well as those in front of him, to the Father, who will continue the work of keeping them safe. It is a prayer for unity, and not just outward, head nodding, superficial agreement over whichever issue is up for debate, but a genuine unity, mirroring the unity between the Father and the Son.

Such an image of perfect unity is at odds with our current situation in Europe, where one commentator suggested that ‘the most prominent takeaway from the results of the elections for the European Parliament are fragmentation and polarization.’[1] The situation for British ex-pats, like myself, is tense as we watch the seemingly ever widening splits in UK politics, wondering what the impact will be on ourselves and communities back in the UK.

Amidst these divisions, we are reminded that Jesus’ prayer for unity is not for our own benefit, although life is more pleasant without bickering and wrangling, but ‘so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me’. To demonstrate unity in a divided world is radically counter-cultural and should resonate with those who witness it.

The word ‘Glory’ in verse 22, given to Jesus, and passed on to us, does not to me indicate a vanilla flavour, one size fits all, uniform unity. I am not sure what ‘glorious unity’ would look like but looking out at a wild flower meadow with the Alps as a backdrop, I am never far from a reminder of the infinite creativity of our infinite creator God. How are we able to mirror this unity, in which each is allowed to flourish in their own way, while remembering that we are all equally, and infinitely loved and cared for by the Creator?visser tapestry

The tapestry in the Visser t’Hooft Hall at the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, Switzerland. This tapestry at the home of the World Council of Churches includes, in Greek, Jesus’ vision ‘that they may all be one’, drawn from this week’s lectionary Gospel.

Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers is not an instruction, an order to fall into step, but an invitation to join in the perfect relationship between Father and Son, with, in the words of Jesuit Richard Hauser, the ‘Holy Spirit… as the bond of love between them.’[2] Between Ascension and Pentecost thousands of Christians, globally and across denominations, will be praying using the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘Thy kingdom come’ material. Global movements such as this remind us of an already existing truth – that unity of purpose far out-weighs the unity of opinion. In the words of Episcopalian Bishop Charles Henry Brent: ‘The unity of Christendom is not a luxury, but a necessity. The World will go limping until Christ’s prayer that all may be one is answered. We must have unity, not at all costs, but at all risks. A unified Church is the only offering we dare present to the coming Christ, for in it alone will He find room to dwell.’

We are one in the spirit; we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the spirit; we one in the Lord,
And we pray that our unity might someday be restored,
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love[3].Amen

[1] Article New York Times 27/05/19

[2] Quoted in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation 21/05/19

[3] Peter Scholtes 1966

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