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John 17:20-23, John 13:34-35
May I begin by asking you a question: Why are you here? Why are you here on your life journey? What is the purpose of your Christian life?
May I suggest an answer? To be ONE.
Let’s see what Jesus himself says. We can see what the Christian life is all about in Jesus’ prayer for us..Jesus’ hopes for us in John 17.
John 17:20-23 (ESV)
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
When I suggested that the purpose of our Christian life is to be ONE, did it conjure up images in your mind of people holding hands and singing songs like ‘One Voice’? I used to think this was what Jesus meant when he was praying for us to be one. I thought he was praying for unity between us believers. But recently I was reading this book, ‘A Deeper Journey’ by Robery Mulholland, and I realized that what Jesus was praying for us is something much more profound. I mention this book because some of the thoughts from today’s sermon come from there and I want to give proper credit.
“We should note that when Jesus prays that we may all be one, he is not praying for some kind of sociological or theological or liturgical unity.” He is not asking for homogeneity that cancels out all diversity. He is not saying we should all have the same mind and spiritual practice, and there is only a single “authorized” manifestation of the Christian life or community. The unity, the oneness Jesus prays for, is illustrated by his own relationship with God: As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” Jesus is praying that you and I would live in a similar kind of relationship with God that he has as the revelation of true humanness in the image of God. Jesus is saying that the purpose of the Christian life is a life of loving union with God at the depths of our being.”
We see the profound nature of Jesus’ prayer when he says, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” “Glory” is a translation of a Greek word “doxa” that represents the essential characteristics or nature of a person or the things that make them who they are. Thus the glory of God means God’s very nature, the whole essence of who God is. God’s infinite, intrinsic worth and esence.
That’s why when we say we glorify God, what we mean is that we are declaring and expressing with our lives and beings who God is — God’s worth, God’s nature, God’s essence.
So Jesus is saying, “This glory of God…this infinite goodness and love, kindness and patience, compassion and wisdom..all of this God has given to me and I have given to you.” Do you understand what that means? Can you comprehend the fullness of Jesus’ statement? Jesus has given us the glory of God…the essence and nature of God. And he didn’t say he will give this to us one day…he said he has already given. God has given this glory to Jesus and Jesus has given this glory to us. You have within you the nature and essence of God right now. Doesn’t that blow your mind?
Now that we know this, the question is what are you going to do about it?
Glory = likeness
“From glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18)
When Paul says we are being changed from glory into glory, he means we are being changed from what we are in our unlikeness to Christ into his likeness. So when Jesus says he has given to us the “glory” that God has given to him, he is saying that he has made it possible for us to once again be formed in the image of God, to share God’s nature as we were intended. Jesus is telling us he has imparted to us God’s nature that dwells in him. He has made possible the restoration of union with God.
Is this union with God a private possession for our personal benefit? No! There is a much larger purpose for our union with God: “That the world may believe..so that the world may know that you have sent me.” Union with God results in our being a person through whom God’s presence touches the world with forgiving, cleansing, healing, liberating and transforming grace. “As he is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17)
The world will not belive in Christ because of our impressive theology, our passionate convictions, or our well-defined mission statement. The world will believe when it sees Christlikeness manifested in our life. The world will know that God has sent Christ not simply because we pronounce it to be so but when they see Christlikeness lived out in their midst in and through our lives.
Such Christlikeness can only be the consequence of a loving union with God. This is why Jesus finishes his prayer for us with the words “that the world may know that you..have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). The source of a loving union with God lies in God’s amazing love for us. Think of it – Jesus says that God loves you in exactly the same way that God loves him! To respond to such love with the love of our total being is our honor and privilege! To respond to such love draws us into that loving union with God for which Jesus prays.
To be like Jesus, then, as it is portrayed in the New Testament, is a matter of both “being” and “doing”. It is being in a relationship of loving union with God that manifests itself in Christlike living in the world.
So does this mean we don’t have to care about being united with others? Since this oneness has to do with just God and me? Well, Jesus was just emphasizing what this oneness means in these few verses. He was trying to help us appreciate the gift of our union with God – that God wants us to have God’s nature and essence in us. That is first and foremost. That lays the foundation for our Christian life. But does that mean unity and love is not important? No. But it does mean we don’t have to be the same in order to love one another. We don’t have to have the same thoughts, convictions or experiences in order to love one another. Earlier on in John’s gospel, remember what Jesus told his disciples after he washed their feet?
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35
So there’s no escape. Yes, we are called to a life of union with God but we can’t just be little islands nurturing our own relationships with God. In fact, I would take the risk to say our relationship with God can only be fully nurtured when it’s lived out in community with others. It’s only when we live out our love in community with others that our hearts are stretched, challenged and enlarged. We all know how hard it can sometimes be relating to and working with other people. As a pastor, every week I hear different people complain…I mean, share with me about how they are having a hard time with another person. And I experience it too.
My observation is that while this issue exists in every organization where there are people, it may be even more evident in our church. That’s because we have a high level of diversity within a relatively small community. Recently at Amplify, someone was remarking to me that the folks from GSKL seem so close and bonded. GSKL became a Chinese-speaking congregation in recent years and I observed that homogenity helps. Being human, we like those who are like us. This is true for all of us. That’s because similarities between us help us bond and understand each other more easily. So where does that leave us here at FCC? Will our diversity make it impossible for us to come together and forge a way forward?
To be honest, it can be hard and it will be hard. But I am reminded we don’t have to be the same in order to love one another. Perhaps, in loving each other in spite of our differences, we are a living witness and testimony of God’s love. When we sing ‘One Voice’, it doesn’t mean we have to think, say or believe the same exact things. Of course, we do have to identify the core things that pull us together as a church so that we can move forward as one body. That’s why we are inviting you to stay for the AGM later because your voice matters. ‘One Voice’ means our diverse voices come together to be Christ’s likeness in this world. It means we live out our oneness with God and strive to love one another as Christ loved us.
One of my seminary professors said, “Remember that we all express our spiritualities differently but all our different expressions are equally valid.” That was one of the wisest things I took with me from seminary, especially when I came to FCC. But even when we understand and agree with this fact, the reality is that it is hard. There is a lack of trust when we lack understanding of the other. Different spiritualities, different church backgrounds, different convictions about God, different approaches to spiritual growth. It’s hard to really trust people we don’t understand and don’t easily identify with. It’s very easy to write them off or to imagine things about them before we get to know them personally as the unique and complex human beings that they are. We box each other up and that is sad because we are all so much more than that. We are all better than that.
This new commandment that Jesus gave us is hard. We are to love one another…and not just love one another…we are to love one another just as Jesus loved us. How hard is that?! It’s almost impossible. That’s why we do have to practise on our loving one another. It’s not an easy natural thing. But the good news is it comes as an outflow of our union with God. In fact, our loving each other in spite of our differences will show the world that God is here. And we don’t have to depend on our own strength. God is saying, “You don’t have to draw from your limited reserves to love one another. In fact, I don’t want you to love each other from the very limited hearts that you have. Here! I am giving my very nature of love and patience, my essence of forgiveness and perseverance, my overflowing grace and compassion. Just as I gave Jesus, I gave them to you too. I have poured all of myself into your heart and soul. Love one another from my glory, my nature, my essence in you! And when the world sees this love you have for one another, they will know it’s me.”
Some of you may say, “ This is all good but it’s nothing new. I’ve heard all this before.” Well perhaps. As the writer of Ecclesiates said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” What I want to say to you today is that it’s not about how much we know. It’s about how much we are living this out.
I remember a long time ago when I was a student in NUS, I joined a Christian campus ministry. At that time, I was going through a discipleship bible study program and I remember rolling my eyes at first. “This is all so basic…I already know all this…I’ve been through this a hundred times.” But God humbled me to realize that the true challenge is in how I am living out these fundamentals in my life. That’s when the transformation takes place. That’s when the magic happens.
“Christianity is not merely a philosophical theory or a moral code, but involves a direct sharing in divine life and glory, a transforming union with God ‘face to face’. Prayer of the heart therefore means not just ‘affective prayer’ but prayer of the entire person…a state of reintegration, in which one who prays is totally united with the prayer itself and with God to whom the prayer is addressed.” -Kallistos Ware
Prayer itself becomes the experience of loving union with God. Doesn’t this provide you with a whole new perspective on Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17)?
If we live in this loving union with God, the goal is every thought, word and deed flows from the divine center of love in our lives. Of course, venturing into a deeper journey into this loving union with God would neccesitate passing through difficult terrain because it would surface our darkness and challenge the ugly parts of our ego. Some of us may have already decided to give up even before trying. But to those of you who agree that the purpose of your Christian life is a life of loving union with God at the depths of your being, my question to you is: how much do you desire this loving union with God?
Regardless of where you are on the scale of desiring this loving union with God, may I suggest we begin this journey with prayer? If you’re not really sure what the purpose of your Christian life is, I invite you to pray. If you agree intellectually with the purpose but your desire for this loving union with God is very weak, will you open up your heart and pray?
Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us. How are we ever going to accomplish that? I suggest we begin with prayer. Is this starting to sound repetitive? I suggest prayer because I know how limited my own capacity to love is. I know if I want to love you as Jesus loved me, I’ll need help. I need to first live out the oneness I have with God. I need God’s nature, essence to actively be at work in me. I know if I want my soul to connect with God’s Spirit, if I want this union with God, then I need to create space in my life for God to move in me. I’ll need to pray.
As we start this new year, may I ask you: how is your Christian walk? Is your prayer life active, half-hearted or almost non-existent? I’m asking this not because I want to judge you or measure the devotion of your prayer life. Prayer is something I’m working on myself. While spiritual disciplines are important, God is not a sadist or a hard taskmaster. The Spirit of God calls us because God wants to pour into us the best of God’s nature and essence. But when we are so full of ourselves, our concerns and our problems, there is no space for God to work in us.
Prayer can take many forms but I’m not talking about those half-hearted prayers that we mumble for the sake of doing it. I’m talking about the attitude of prayer. I’m talking about desperate prayers of longing that come from a heart that waits on God, clings onto God…prayers that comes from a heart that knows unless God builds the house, the workers labour in vain.
You know, Jesus is the most compelling example of prayer. He prayed before he ate. He prayed for children. He prayed for the sick. He prayed with thanks. He prayed with tears. He prayed when he was with people. He prayed when he was alone. Jesus prayed for his disciples and he prayed for us – his future disciples. Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth, the commander of heavenly hosts, yet he prayed.
As we begin this new year, let’s start it right. As individuals and as a community, let us wait on God together. Waiting is not a passive thing. In Hebrew, the word for ‘waiting on’ is qavah. Qavah has both a literal and a figurative meaning. The literal meaning of this word is to entwine, to bind together like a cord. It doesn’t mean to tie a cord around a bundle of sticks to keep them together. It is more like the process of making a rope by twisting or weaving (binding) thin threads together to form the rope. The more strands that are twisted or woven together in a rope, the greater is its strength. Can you picture each of us as a thread and God as the center? And as we draw near to God and wrap ourselves around God, as every one of us are bound together with God, God’s strength becomes ours. God’s strength fills the gaps of our weakness and that is how we are renewed day by day…..that is why we can love beyond ourselves, that is why we can wait in hope and anticipation as we cling onto God together.
Jesus prays, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Recognize that God has already given you God’s very nature, the whole essence of who God is and inputed all that into your heart and soul. God loves you in the same way as Jesus was loved. Jesus calls us to love one another as he has loved us. So that the world may believe..so that the world may know God loves them too.
Are you ready?