Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: John 17:1-26

Date: September 25, 2022

A young Greek Orthodox monk working in the finance office in Greece, originally from Pennsylvania, dressed in traditional black robe, beard, and long hair in a bun (we did this before hipsters, he said). A pastor working in the women’s ministry from a Pentecostal church in Nigeria. An activist from Fiji working on climate justice for the regional Council of Churches. A pastor in the Salvation Army in northern England. A seminary student from Hong Kong. Someone who worked with the White Fathers Catholic order for decades and now working and living by the site of the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. There were about 20 of us, each from wildly different churches and contexts, and we met daily for sharing and reflection on scripture. 

In the mornings and late afternoon, the entire body, some few thousand participants, met under a gigantic canopy. Worship and prayer times were called by the chiming of a church bell. Song, prayer, litanies, and scripture reading flowed between languages and styles. Armenian chants of Kyrie Elision—Lord have Mercy, to Portuguese reggae inflected, to Zulu traditional, to European hymn in Korean—if not for the massive amount of coordination and months of zoom calls across virtually every time zone, it could have been Pentecost. (Incidentally the coordinator was a German pastor whose brother served in the Brethren Nutrition Program here through BVS in 2000.)

These times of worship and sharing were part of the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting under the theme, Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity. Delegates and participants from, and beyond, the 352 member churches (representing approximately 580 million Christians globally) gathered for joint worship and work. The work was toward greater visible unity and joint mission. This work of peacemaking was both between and within churches as well as in the broader world. 

In the Gospel according to John, chapter 17 we read, what has been called, Jesus’s high priestly prayer. This passage is during Holy Week. Jesus, having entered Jerusalem on a donkey as a triumphant and peaceable King—challenged assumptions of rule and power. Having washed his disciples’ feet—he challenged notions of leadership and authority through service. Immediately after this, Jesus is betrayed and executed by the empire and ruling classes. 

After the opening reflection on Jesus’ ministry and work within the Godhead and on earth, the passage pivots to the relationship of the disciples to Jesus and to each other. The disciples, having been come to know and believe Jesus are called into ministry with Jesus. They have received a gift and calling from Jesus. While Jesus’ departure from the world is imminent, soon at hand, the disciples will remain. Since they have become one with Jesus, they are one with God. As such, they continue to the work of Jesus—participating in the healing work of God. The passage reads

10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Orthodox biblical scholar from Greece, Petros Vassiliadis, notes. “[T]he basic aim of Jesus’ prayer is ‘that thy may all be one.’…and by extension the unity of humankind.” (Petros Vassiliadis, “John in and Orthodox Perspective,” Global Bible Commentary, 417). 

Gifts of grace, life, and unity prayed for, are for the disciples and those who would follow, but the gifts of God are never simply for our consumption. They are gifts freely given and freely received and freely given again. This is not a false unity, or a unity based on glossing over of differences. While a gift it is also work. However, it is good work to be done joyfully. God’s gift of peace is also a call to peacemaking. The gift is also a responsibility. 

Where do you need God and others, in your walk of peacemaking?

By way of confession and transparency—I just hit 13 years of working for the denomination in peacebuilding work—over 10 here in DC (I also just turned 40 as well so perhaps between the 10 and the 40 am being more introspective (or tired)). Given the nature of the work I tend to be focused on crises—war, insurgencies, targeted killing, famine, or food shortages. In the past year or so I have struggled with the question from others, “How are things at work?” If not fully visible, my response has been a sort of sigh and headshaking—I don’t know… things are bad. Work is the same.

While this is understandable on many levels, it also hardly seems how my response should be. However, I don’t think God is browbeating me into a pseudo cheeriness or optimism—that if I just get it right then I’ll fix the woes of the world and whistle while I work. I confess that I need God’s gift of peace—or rather, that I need to be reminded anew of the gift of peace that is already present. 

Where do you need God and others, in your walk of peacemaking?

Jesus also addresses the disciples being in the world, not of the world, and for the world. Our call to peacemaking is worldly—in the fray. While we are called to be and act differently, our call is deeply connected and engaged to what goes on around us. For one, we are called to truth seeking and telling. We are called to repentance and community discernment. 

16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth….

23 I in them and you in me, 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. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

Our work is in and for the healing of the world.

How have you, and this congregation been called to work in peacemaking? 

A few weeks ago was the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. The first Assembly met in 1948  in Amsterdam under the theme: Man’s Disorder and God’s Design –not long after the World Wars. In these wars, nations and people, substantially identifying as Christian killed each other in vast numbers. Under this shadow of a failure of Christian unity the statement of the first Assembly was “War is contrary to the will of God.” While statements and themes are not everything, this is an important marker of discernment.

There were several resolutions brought to the Assembly for consideration and approval. Liz Bidgood Enders, the Church of the Brethren delegate was added to the Public Issues Committee as a voice from the Historic Peace Churches. In a resolution on Palestine and Israel there was significant disagreement on whether or not the analysis that the situation constitutes apartheid by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch could be included. 

The German Protestant churches were opposed, at least in part, because of their complicity with the Holocaust. However, this pits them against the requests of the historic churches of and in Palestine. In the end, the passage on apartheid was modified to say that while some churches support this analysis, some do not. This work of peace, which necessarily includes justice, is a process and an invitation to ongoing prayer, discernment, and difficult work. 

Another resolution on Russia’s war in Ukraine, had members from both the delegations from the Ukraine Churches as was as the Russian Orthodox Church raising concerns and objections eventually being adopted. 

Additionally, though we had beautiful worship and prayer services we were never celebrated Communion as a body. Indeed, even the naming of these services as “morning and evening prayer” rather than “worship” was an indicator theological division. Given the centrality of the Eucharist for many churches, this a glaring absence and sign that our unity is not yet complete. 

After the Assembly, my family joined me in Germany. We conclude our trip in Schwarzenau, at the site of the beginning of what we now know as the Church of the Brethren. As we drove into the town along the Eder river, many of the hills overlooking the Eder River are bare from logging dead trees or are still standing with dead pine trees. A very dry last two years, which mirrors the impacts of climate change around the world, has pushed beetles to burrow into the bark and is killing the trees. A sign of our collective connectedness and collective need for change. A need to make peace with all of creation.

 After visiting the home of Alexander Mack where the first Bible study and worship took place, we went down to the river. In the waters of baptism in the Eder River, the first Brethren committed themselves to lives shaped by Jesus through discipleship. They sought to radically follow the Spirit in prayer and reading of scripture together, in nonconformity and simplicity, in resistance to the violence and allegiances of the ruling powers. They baptized as a sign of Christ’s peace. 

How are you and this congregation called to continue or recommit to the struggle for peace?

Jesus’ prayer for the original disciples and for us is that we would be one with God and with one another. With one another, not only in this congregation or this denomination but with all followers of Jesus—with all Christians. This unity is not only for us but for the world—that all things would be reconciled in God and through God. This not a sentimental hope that brushes aside injustice but must work through the hard edges of historic trauma, and policies (both in the church and the state). This requires truth telling, repentance, and reparations. It requires overturning, dismantling, and healing. In Ephesians we read, 

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power; 11 put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, 12 for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present[b] darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.[c] 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on the evil day and, having prevailed against everything, to stand firm.

 14 Stand, therefore, and belt your waist with truth and put on the breastplate of righteousness 15 and lace up your sandals in preparation for the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Ephesians 6:10-18

Death is overcome. “Where oh death is your victory? Where oh death is your sting?” War is overcome. May the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and minds. May the peace that passes all understanding be over us and in us and through us. 

This is a present reality through the Spirit.

A future hope and promise in God’s creative power.

It is our calling and vocation today. 

It is not yet fully visible—often painfully so. 

It is a blessing and gift to be received but not controlled.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

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