Unity

Easter 7
Jn. 17:20-27

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus talks about unity. He speaks of unity that you and I have, or should have, with one another. Jesus also speaks of His unity with us, our unity with Him, and His unity with the Father. When St. John pushes a line of thought, his thinking becomes circular. He fastens on something and pushes deeper and deeper into it. His style is a contemplative style, but it yields passages like today’s “I in Him, and they in us, and we in them, and you in me, and I in them.” Every time I hear a passage like this I am reminded of the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First?” routine.

Now I want to tell you a story about something that happened last Monday. You can, if you want, pass it off as “just a chance encounter.” But I was profoundly moved by it. Last weekend I had a wedding rehearsal and dinner on Friday, a wedding and dinner on Saturday, two Masses on Sunday plus my wife and I attended a performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis by four members of St. John’s Choir and 130 of the Greenwich Choral Society plus orchestra. Sunday night my wife insisted that I stay home on Monday, my “day off,” and try to get rested. I got up Monday morning in a grouch. The coffee was cold, the dog was a nuisance and I had to Xerox some papers before delivering them to CT Social Services. Bah. Humbug.

But I kept getting nudged. I’d be better off Xeroxing at the office than at the convenience store. Well, if I am going to the office I might as well put on my black shirt and dog collar. If I have that on I had better shave. I might as well take along my briefcase and stuff. So I arrived at church to discover that Hemsley house was locked. Owen had told me that he was taking the day off and Gladys said she would be in later in the afternoon. Leander was at a meeting. Peace and quiet at last! I worked on today’s passage at my desk until my clock reminded me it was time for Noonday Prayers. Should I bother going down since there was only me? Well, I have all these people to pray for, so I might as well. I discovered that the chapel and the sanctuary were locked. Why bother opening up? It was only me. Nobody is going to come and it is not worth the bother. But something nudged me. “Open the place up, you idiot. At least make a statement.” So I opened all the doors and then busied myself lighting the candles. Finally I settled down and offered my funk up to God, asking Him to chase some demons out of the heads of those whom I hold dear. As I was tidying up, the sanctuary doors opened and a solitary figure, dressed in a trench coat, came in and slipped into the pew where my wife usually sits. I did not feel charitable towards the individual. “Great, now I will have to come back and lock up and make sure that things are okay!” I filled out the register, put away some books and looked back into the sanctuary. Something nudged me. “Go over there and make sure that person is okay.” “Oh, why bother.” “Move it.” “Okay.” So I approached the figure, who was crying. “Say something, idiot.” “Okay, okay.” “Things are kind of bad for you?” “Yes.” “I’m sorry; what’s the matter?” And so I listened to the story of the death of a loved one in a far away country and the pain felt in the heart of the one who loved her. I offered the hospitality of the sanctuary for as long as the person needed it, my own help if necessary, and the assurance that heaven awaits those whom we love. There with angels they know our love and love us in return. A poor comfort to a stranger.

Humbled, I went upstairs to my office. I had done nothing unusual and didn’t want to glorify or dramatize myself. But something odd had happened. I hadn’t wanted to come in, but felt I had to. I didn’t want to go to prayers, but felt I had to. I didn’t want to open up, but felt I had to. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but felt I had to. In return the stranger had found sanctuary, hospitality, some reconciliation and peace. The Church had done the job it is supposed to do. There are a lot of things that the Church can’t do. but for now it had fulfilled one of its missions.

We have in the Eucharistic prayers the phrase, “That He may dwell in us and we in Him.” Over the last few years I have been fascinated with that phrase, It assures us that you and I are the body of Christ’ that He lives in us and that we do His will when our will coheres with His. We cannot will this unity, it just is. We do not always know when we do His will in unity. It happens. We are given occasional epiphanies that intimate His presence. Was Monday’s one of those? I think it was. I hope it was.

In my office I thought about the ways in which you and I share unity with others. Memorial Day commends the common experiences of bloodshed and trauma that have united the people of this nation. The recent movie “Pearl Harbor” evokes a national experience that many of us shared, and it honors a debt which we owe those who served. We honor those who have served subsequently as well. The common experiences of nation and war are often referred to as “blood and soil.” More sinister battles for unity in blood and soil are played out in Palestine, the Balkans and Africa.

There is of course the unity that is shared through the family experience of a wedding, in which disparate clans are joined. Ironically the death of someone often unites people in the sobering experience of loss. There is also a unity that is felt at the time of birth and certainly at the time of baptism as well. When we get older we often experience a sense of fraternal unity with others which is associated with college. I spent eight years at Yale, and when Bush spoke at commencement I was surprised by my mixed feelings. “I had worked hard there. What’s he doing joking about goofing off and earning “C’s”?

So we share various experiences of unity: family, national, blood, soil, fraternal, common happenings. None of those are the kind of unity of which Jesus speaks in St. John’s Gospel, or of which the Eucharistic prayer speaks. Over the years some have suggested that our unity is a dogmatic one, based on creeds and confessions. Others have seen our unity as manifested in church polity, as is true of the Roman Church. Some have sought our unity with one another and with Christ through theism, or a unity of broad generalities. There are those who have explained unity with Christ and God in terms of mysticism. Others have explained it using the concepts of ecumenicism. There is some truth in all of those explanations, as well as a lot of dead ends.

What makes sense to me is to say to you that you and I as Christians share a unity in Jesus Christ. By the act of incarnation, God incorporated our humanity in His divinity. In Jesus we have the embodiment of the love and purpose of God in real flesh and blood. In His death and resurrection our lives are forever changed. The powers of darkness and death are pushed back in an ultimate defeat which shapes the destiny of the world.

Jesus Christ lives within us through the power of the Holy Spirit and we receive His flesh and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Through the sacraments, as well as through the life of the Church we receive the life of Jesus Christ and thereby share a common life. Yes, there are doctrinal moorings. Yes, there is a continuing apostolic life and tradition. Yes, there is the eternal presence of the Word. Yes, through confrontation with the evils of the world, and with serious issues of life, morality and death, the Church is alive through its social action. But in simple everyday terms, for folk like you and me, we share a unity with Christ when we manage to be the Church - when we somehow are nudged and compelled to get out of our own way and offer hospitality, compassion, sanctuary, peace in the name of Christ and in the presence of the sacraments.

Memorial Day reminds us that the world cries out for imaginative and bold actions which will meet its needs. But occasionally an epiphanic moment reminds us that the Church sometime simply needs to be the Church in order to be united and in order to be the body of Christ - for Him to dwell in us and we in Him. Amen.