Easter 7A 2005 John 17:1-11
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” This
is one of the key passages in the Bible and especially central to the Fourth Gospel, the one we know more familiarly as the
Gospel according to Saint John. The other passages central to John are the new commandment, that we love one another as Jesus
loves us. And to abide in him.
But this passage today is a plea for the unity of the Church. Throughout the Fourth Gospel, Jesus says things like this:
From the lovely Good Shepherd passage: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also
and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (10:16b) And: My sheep hear my voice. I know
them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father
and I are one.’ (10:27-31)
And at the center of the high priestly prayer: “’I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those
who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they
also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them,
so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I 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. (17:20-23)
Indeed this is a good time for the Episcopalian members of Jesus’ fold to listen to Jesus’ voice. As we know,
one of the reasons there are four different gospels is that in the remainder of the First Century AD following the death and
resurrection and ascension (and today is also the Sunday after Ascension Day) – in that 70 years when the gospels were
set down in writing, each was directed toward and addressed the particular circumstances that a rapidly spreading church was
facing in each particular time and place.
Our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles was in the first week after the Ascension. It suggests a period of unity that lasted
until the day of Pentecost – next Sunday. But following the arrival of the Holy Spirit, unity became a lasting issue
within the church. Acts is also the story of disputes among the Apostles over various ecclesiastical and theological questions:
And whether or not Gentiles were bound by all of the Levitical code. In Saint Peter’s vision of the animals that had
been declared unclean in the Levitical code, Peter heard the voice of God saying three times, “What God has made clean,
you must not profane.” This vision led Peter to the conversion and baptism of Saint Cornelius the Centurion and all
of his Gentile household. (Acts 10:1-11:18)
And whether or not Gentile males had to be circumcised or not before they were baptized – which was really about whether
or not Gentiles had to become Jews before they could be Christians. Saint James, the brother of our Lord, declared, after
an impassioned plea by Peter, fresh from the conversion of Cornelius that “We should not trouble those Gentiles who
are turning to God” and enjoin them only to obey the spirit of the Ten Commandments.
One can, from the perspective of almost twenty centuries, hope that that would have been that. But no sooner had these questions
been settled than others appeared. We get echoes of this in Paul’s letters, particularly to those he called “You
It was necessary for the Emperor Constantine to convene the great ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. to unify the church,
divided over whether Jesus Christ, was a creature or not, of the same substance as the Father or not. And it required the
Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD to establish the creedal orthodoxy of the full humanity as well as the full divinity of Christ;
that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human at the same time. This became the central orthodoxy of the western part
of the Church which tends to be more completely Trinitarian than the Eastern Orthodox Churches. As theological professors
put it, the West focused on the Trinity of God and the Eastern Churches focused on the Unity of God. This, of course, like
all such simplicities, obscures as much as it explains.
But it does help to explain part of the theological underpinnings of the first great lasting schism in the Church beginning
in 1054 AD. This schism had been long coming on ecclesiastical and political grounds. But the theological issue was essentially
Trinitarian. In the West the filioque clause was introduced into the Nicene Creed. It is the version we use in our Book
of Common Prayer: that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Filioque is Latin for “and the Son”
There was one draft book in the process of developing our current prayer book that removed the filioque clause, but it failed
in the next draft and in the final 1979 edition. On this point the Western and Eastern branches of the Church seem adamant
– so the schism will continue, although there is great cooperation at the local levels – where ecumenical effort
rather than an ecumenical theology or worship has generally been the rule.
In the West, Rome survived the late 14th, early 15th Century schism which had three popes reigning simultaneously –
survived, that is, until the Protestant Reformation exploded across the Continent of Europe in the Sixteenth, followed shortly
by the Reformation in England. The ultimate issues – those that prevent unity in the West with Rome – now include
papal infallibility, which, however little used, remains something Protestants cannot accept, and the Roman doctrines concerning
Saint Mary, and celibate unmarried exclusively male clergy. The issues that divide Protestant Churches from each other are
too complicated and numerous to attempt to address today. Protestant denominations seem particularly susceptible to ongoing
and recurrent schism.
As we know, schism is not unknown to Anglicanism in general and the Episcopal Church in particular. Methodists split off
in the early 19th Century. The evangelical Reformed Episcopal Church split off in 1873 over Prayer Book Revision and the
growing influence of the High Church Oxford Tractarian Movement.
Curiously, during the American Civil War, unlike many large Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church reunited immediately
following the War.
The most recent schisms have occurred in the 1970s, with those who opposed the ordination of women and prayer book revision,
leaving to form various so called Anglican or Anglican orthodox churches, which are neither Anglican or orthodox.
When I think of the fact that schism is more common than unity in Christendom, I am reminded of Jesus in that shortest verse
in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”
I believe that the schismatic process familiar to the Episcopal Church is continuing today. I believe we are on the threshold
of another schism as groups such as the American Anglican Council – ACC – and the Network of Associated Anglican
Parishes and Dioceses, aided and abetted by Archbishops from Africa and Asia, coalesce under the aegis of the Anglican Mission
in America – the AMIA. It is a movement that is very unAnglican. It is radically fundamentalist in theology and method.
It reminds me of the early theological issues facing the Early Church over the divinity and humanity of Christ. The issue
facing us today is whether we deny the humanity of a particular group of people among us.
I can only say this – if we cannot hold on to Christ’s words about unity, then for his sake, let us hold on to
his words about loving one another as he loves us.
And if we can't do that then we'd better turn out the lights and lock the doors.