Easter VII: We Who are Many are One Body
Homily 2 June: John 17.20-26
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
John 17 contains a prayer that Jesus offers the Father, a prayer for unity both visible and spiritual, that unites the followers of Jesus in the love of the Father and the Son.
The prayer takes place before Jesus and his disciples go to Gethsemane and follows a lengthy discourse at the Last Supper where, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus farewells his disciples and presages the descent of the Paraclete.
Traditionally, this prayer in John 17 and the preceding three chapters are considered to form what is known as the Farewell Discourse.
Today, I’ll be looking at some of the distinctive features of John 17. I’ll also be looking at how the Farewell Discourse ties in with the act of worship that gathers us today: the Sacrifice of the Mass.
I’ll also pose, rather than answer the question: what does it mean to live the unity that the Mass both symbolises and creates in the offering of Christ’s body and blood?
John 17 summarises the content of the preceding chapters, especially the words that were spoken by Jesus in the upper room.
Jesus addresses three topics that involve the disciples: their relationship with him, their relationship with one another, and their relationship with the world around them.
Jesus’ prayer to the Father also summarises the relationship of Son to the Father, as well as the relationship he asks his disciples to maintain with him and the Father after he has ascended.
Jesus’ prayer also posits his equality with the Father, confirming the essential unity of the Father and the Son, who share a common being and a common purpose.
The unity between the Father and the Son, or the unity of the Godhead, is the common spring from which the unity of the disciples. and consequently the Church. proceeds.
As Jesus’ indivisible relationship with the Father gives him authority, so Jesus charges his disciples with the task of proclaiming the good news: God's love for the world, the forgiveness of sins, the offering of the Eternal God, in the here and now, through the life of the Church.
John 17 also relates to the disciples and the struggles they will experience in continuing the mission that Jesus has given them.
Jesus believes that the disciples will continue his saving work through the aid of the Holy Spirit, but experience trials and persecutions in the acquittal of their mission because in following Jesus they have rejected the world.
But, for all their initial and subsequent difficulties, Jesus goes so far as to express confidence in the disciples’ resilience, through the comfort and guidance of the Paraclete.
Perhaps the most striking theme of John 17, however, is unity.
Christ’s prayer is founded on the unity of the Son and the Father and because God is one, his disciples are to live in unity patterned upon the unity of the God.
The unity of Christ’s followers, and consequently his Church, depends upon the indivisible nature of God, and by making God’s undivided nature known to the world, His followers by necessity manifest the reality that is God is one.
However, as God is also one in three, so the people of God are also diverse, possessing distinct dispositions and distinct gifts. The diversity of God’s people is as essential to the Church as the triune nature of God.
But what differentiates the Church from God is that God simply is and always has been. Our creeds describe the three parts of the Godhead: Father, Son and Holy Spirit as co-equal and co-eternal.
The Church is always in a state of becoming, by which I mean it is always changing even if its underlying mission is the same. The life of the Church is linear, and bound in time; the mission of Jesus in living communities is dynamic not static.
While the Sacraments themselves and the truths they disclose do not essentially change, what it means, practically speaking, to minister the Sacraments to God’s people does in fact change.
With this in mind, how do we as beings bound in time, individually distinct, embody unity with the timeless Godhead and with each other in the here and now?
I believe that the Mass, aside from being the source and summit of our community life, is also the visible sign of the unity between God and His people and of our unity with each other.
When Jesus promises his disciples that he will be in us and us in him and that we will see his glory where he is he means it.
In the Mass he is offered for us and by us, and in our common consumption of the one broken body, under the appearance of bread and wine, we become one.
When Jesus speaks of his indwelling in the Father (and vice versa) and of his indwelling in the disciples (and vice versa) he isn’t just referring to a spiritualised reality. He is also referring to a reality as physical as eating itself.
Consider the context of John 17, which takes place at a meal. The outward appearance of the meal conceals the deeper gift that is offered and received, which is Christ himself.
And so it is for us, at the altar of God, that the promises of Jesus become incarnate for us in the here and the now. The generosity of Jesus’ promises lies in the fact that they are a pledge not only of spiritual closeness but also of carnal closeness in the Eucharist.
As it says in Romans 12, which forms a useful frame to the profoundly Eucharistic content of John 17: “We, who are many, are one body in Christ.”
I end these reflections with the same question I posed at the beginning. Considering the faithfulness of Jesus and his unifying body, what does it mean to live the unity that he offers in the Sacrament?
This isn’t an easy question to answer and I won’t attempt the task here. But I believe John’s vision of unity, while patterned on the indivisible nature of God, doesn’t exclude the well-documented differences among the disciples.
There is perhaps a lesson here both for our community and for the wider Church as we navigate the challenges that lie ahead.