Being the Mystery
June 1, 2014
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
Yesterday was a very difficult day in the life of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos. For those of you who are new to the world of Presbyterian-speak, a “presbytery” is the local collection of Presbyterian churches, who work together and live together in a covenant relationship. Our presbytery, Los Ranchos Presbytery, geographically covers about 2,000 square miles and has about 56 churches. I say “about 56 churches” because yesterday’s meeting involved 3 of those churches gaining permission to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and joining another Presbyterian body, which is more conservative theologically and biblically than they perceive the PC(USA) to be. But, I also say “about 56 churches” because there is new life that is constantly forming around us, and some of those expressions of new life are not your typical “church” but also very much like a “church.” Some of them will never – by design – be a “church” and others are on their way to becoming a very good, strong, and dynamic “church.” So, we’re “about 56 churches” and we will swell and recede and do all the things that living bodies do. But, yesterday was hard, because we voted to give 3 of our churches permission to leave.
Many of you have been in this process far longer than I have and, in fact, some of you have been personally affected by the dynamics of this process along the way for many years. I’m deeply sorry for your pain. But, I must admit, if these differences are what brought you here to be part of our worshiping community, there is an upside to it all, from our perspective. St. Mark, by our leadership over the years and our current commissioners to the Presbytery, has a significant role in all of the controversies. In this presbytery, we might be called the “loyal opposition.” In other presbyteries where I have been a member, we would have been part of the majority. Some in this presbytery have said that we have a “prophetic voice.” Others view us as the kind of church that makes them want to leave the PC(USA) in the first place. At every step we are called to exercise both the force of our convictions and the humility of knowing that other churches, likewise, speak out of their conscience.
Yesterday, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, First Presbyterian Church in Westminster, and Trinity Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, were all dismissed from the Presbytery of Los Ranchos and the PC(USA) to become part of a new denomination called the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. There is a lot to the story – much of it procedural, political, theological, and economical – but yesterday’s actions were the result of a long, painful journey. There is more to come for our presbytery – seven other churches are in the process of being dismissed – and there is the possibility that yesterday’s actions will be reviewed and perhaps overturned by a higher branch of our church’s accountability. So, the story is not over and the folks at these churches will not just disappear. So, there is some way in which we will continue to live –together or at least side-by-side.
It is all very maddening and I am full of opinion about it. But, please understand, it is not my place nor my intention to go to a presbytery meeting that is fraught with very different perspectives, then to come back here and give you all my perspective as if that is the only one that matters. (That is such a temptation whenever one preaches, because I preach out of the same set of convictions from which I speak at a presbytery meeting.) At the same time, your commissioners and your leadership attend these meetings as your commissioners and your leadership. As such, while we act and speak according to our own conscience, we are there because you have invested us with the right of representation. So, we have some obligation to share with you what has transpired and to speak of what it means for us in our journey of faithfulness to God. And I have the call to interpret it biblically and theologically before God and before you, knowing that I can never speak beyond my perspective.
Our reading from the Gospel of John today is often called “Jesus’ prayer.” John does not have “The Lord’s Prayer,” like we see in Matthew and Luke. Instead, there is a whole chapter – chapter 17 – that is given as a prayer. You may notice that I am using qualified language to talk about this prayer, because, frankly, there’s a lot about this prayer that makes me think it is much more than a prayer. For example, the first three verses could have been spoken by anyone, since every reference to Jesus is in the third person. The first person voice doesn’t kick in until v.4. So, while our Bibles often subtitle this chapter “Jesus prays for his disciples,” the first three verses very easily could have been called “The Disciples pray for Jesus.” Verse three is curious also. It is an explanation of what eternal life means. (It means, in this prayer, to know “the one true God and Jesus Christ whom [God] sent.”) Why would Jesus need to tell God what ‘eternal life’ means? And, finally, Jesus’ language in this prayer indicates that he is not actually stopping in his conversation with his disciples and offering this prayer, the day before he is arrested and put to death. Jesus says, “I have completed what you sent me to do” and “I am no longer in this world” during this prayer. That wouldn’t make sense for a prayer that is given on Maundy Thursday.
My suspicion is that while this prayer has the literary setting of being a prayer from Jesus to God, it is intended for the community for whom this gospel was written. John’s first century community and we, not God, to have ‘eternal life’ defined for us as ‘knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.’ The church, not Jesus, needs this prayer. We need this prayer, because something marvelous happens in this prayer.
Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus over and over proclaims that he and God are one. Those claims sounded haughty then and sound haughty now. “He who has seen me has seen the father.” “The father and I are one.” “What is mine is God’s and what is God’s is mine.” Jesus claims a close identity – “oneness” or “sameness” – with God repeatedly throughout this gospel. And, of course, it is in John’s gospel that Jesus uses, over and over, the language that God used when speaking to Moses from the burning bush, “I AM.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It was an audacious claim then, and it is an audacious claim now. If you struggle with it, that only means that you are taking it seriously, because it messes with our neat boxes of the difference between God and humanity. It is an audacious claim, but there is another claim in this prayer that may be even more audacious.
Jesus’ prayer has a petition. It is not, “God, may I be one with you.” That is the assumption behind the prayer. Jesus’ request is that we – the church that prays this prayer with Jesus – may be one, just as Jesus and God are one. If there is anything more audacious than the claim that Jesus and God are one, it is the claim that the church is one. It means that despite all of our differences, despite all of our brokenness, despite all of our struggles, the prayer for the church is that we might be one, as Jesus and God are one. That is why we each are invited to take a piece of the bread and a share of the cup: Our prayer as a church is to participate in this mystery of being one, each of us, sharing the same loaf and same cup as the one Body of Christ. That is why we sing together: Our prayer as a church is to participate in this mystery of being one, each of us lifting our voices in one song. And that is why we pray a confession of sin: Our prayer as a church is to participate in this mystery of being one, yet we fail miserably at it.
I’m sure it is everyone else’s fault. But, of course, therein lies the problem. And that is why Jesus’ prayer, that we may be one, is always a prayer and has never been a full reality. It is a desire, a partial truth, a noble aspiration, and an impossibility. Which is to say, it is a prayer. And, in a world of conflicting religions, multiple Christian churches, deep cultural segregation in worship, deep theological conviction – even among Presbyterians – we can only make this a prayer, filled with hope and confession. “That we may participate in the mystery of being one.” Amen.