John 17:20-26

This week I was at a Synod event, organised by UME, Uniting Mission and Education, at which a surprising number of the organisers, and a high proportion of those attending, were recent arrivals from other denominations – mostly Baptists and Anglicans, many of them former leaders in their denominations, but now identifying with, and working for, the Uniting Church/

Although the thrust of the session was quite Evangelical in flavour – the theme was Church planting, a topic far more often spoken of in more conservative Christian circles – there was a strong sense that there was something about the Uniting Church that held an attraction. Several of them specifically named that attraction as being a culture of inclusivity – our partnership with our indigenous siblings, or our embrace of LGBTIQ Christians – but one of them put it in a way that really struck me.

“The Uniting Church’s time has come,” he said, “because you’re a non-denominational denomination in a post-denominational world”.

Unpacking that, he explained – for centuries the basic shape of the Christian Church has been defined by denominational distinctives. The things that made us Methodist, or Baptist, or Catholic, or Pentecostal, or Orthodox, or Presbyterian, or any of a thousand others, all too often seemed to be more important than the things that made us Christian.

The South African Missiologist, David Bosch, explained this phenomenon, the ‘denominational paradigm’, as arising inevitably from a culture in which Christianity was the default position – for if the vast majority of the population are, nominally, at least, Christians, then the easiest way to ‘succeed’, to grow as a Church, is to convince people of the superiority of your particular flavour of Christianity.

So you emphasise the differences, critique the theological positions of other Churches, grow your group by drawing from others. But in a post-Christian culture, that paradigm is fighting for a larger slice of a shrinking pie.

When the speaker described the Uniting Church as being non-denominational he wasn’t suggesting that we don’t have a distinctive character, distinctive theology and practices. We do, of course.

But – at least at our best – we don’t weaponize them.

Sureka has described something similar being said by the leaders of the Chinese Christian Church, who talked about the attraction of the Uniting Church as that “you value being together more than you value everyone believing the right thing”.

Now I have to admit, those are generous ways of looking at the Uniting Church, but at our best I think it is what we at least aspire to. And I think it reflects the prayer of Jesus that we heard read to us today.

That those who follow him – not just those original friends, but all who will come to believe through them – might be one.

But what is really significant in this prayer, I’d suggest, isn’t so much what Jesus asks for, as why.

that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

He prays that they – we – might be one, so that the world may know.

So that the world may know that it was indeed God who sent Jesus; that the mission of Jesus was truly the mission of God.

And so that the world might know that God loves.

Starting with the second of those, then: Jesus prays for unity amongst Christian people so that the world might know that they are loved by God.

Because if the people of God genuinely show the sort of unity that Jesus is talking about – the sort of unity that he knows with God, family, closer than family – if the people of God show that sort of unity across classes, across nations, across difference of theology, politics, understandings of morality – if the people of God love each other enough to overcome all those sorts of barriers and be one – then people will know that there is something going on.

If it is true – and I believe it is – that we are able to love because we know that we are loved, then our ability to love others enough to overcome difference; the sort of love that ‘covers over a multitude of sins’; comes from our knowledge of the love of God.

Elsewhere, of course, Jesus will tell his friends that it is “by this that all people shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”.

But – and though I’ve said this before, I really do think it bears repeating – the sort of love that we are talking about here is not the sort that Jesus refers to in the sermon on the mount with the dismissive “even the gentiles do that”, “even tax collectors do that”.

It’s the love that reflects the love of God.

But there’s more to the reason Jesus gave for his prayer.

He prays that his followers might be one, not just so that people will know that they are loved by God, but so that people will know that Jesus was sent by God.

And I think this is point us towards something else in the work of Jesus; something that Jesus has hinted at, in his references to peace, to the Shalom that he was giving, or leaving, or sending; something that the Apostle had described (probably before John’s Gospel was written); that God was, in Christ, reconciling all things.

That the unity Jesus prays for his people to show is not just a demonstration of the love of God – it is supposed to be an illustration of the Shalom of God.

That we – God’s people – are called to be a visible sign of the reconciliation of all things, the bringing together of all of creation into right relationships.

It’s not often I quote theologians in a sermon – today we’ve already had David Bosch, and now we have Henri Nouwen. Nouwen talked about the role of the Church as a sign, a witness, and an instrument of the reign of God.

We are called to be a sign, pointing towards the reign of God. Think of the sign up at the corner of Lord Street and Hill Street that says “Uniting Church” – that sign isn’t a Church, it doesn’t look like a Church, it just points towards a reality.

We, in the Church, are called to point towards something else, something beyond ourselves; towards God, and the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed.

And we quite often speak of our role as instruments of God’s work; that we are called to work in the world for the things of the reign of God, to work to bring justice, peace, healing, reconciliation, in spheres big and small.

But today’s reading reminds us of our role as witness. A witness witnesses to, provides evidence of, the truth of which it speaks, or for which it works. The Church is a witness of the reign of God when we walk the walk; when we live together as a community that has the shape and character of that reign. We witness to the work of God in Jesus, restoring Shalom, when we are united by faith rather than divided by difference.

How powerful a witness could that be? If we, as God’s people, were able to show the world what Shalom looks like?

For that, Jesus prayed. To that we are called.