Who We Are, and Why We Serve
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
-- Gospel: John 17: 11b-19 NRSV

One of the ways of approaching this Gospel reading is to look at it as a statement about belonging, about belonging and the identity that is ours precisely because of who we belong to, because of what our roots are, because of what we claim -- or what claims us -- as the origin, the source of our being. "Who are you?" cannot be separated from "Whose are you?" These are inseparable questions, because your identity and mine can never be fully determined in isolation, but only as we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, something which precedes us and follows us and embraces us. And I believe that this is the reason why we are always trying to understand our past, the context of our lives, and moving from that to what our destiny might be. This is the foundation for us, so that we can move forward into the future. We do not, and cannot, live lives of splendid isolation.

So all of this then raises the question, "How do we, as Christians, identify ourselves?" Or to take it another step in the direction I want us to go, "How do we establish our identity as the people of God, in this generation? Is it by our good works? by how we gather together for worship? Is it by the way we treat our children? our elders? our enemies?" No, it's not by any of these ways. For the Gospels tell us that we're not identified first by anything that we have done, because God has taken the initiative, because, almost regardless of what we do or do not do, we have already been identified as a people by the prior action of God in human life. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.

This is what today's Gospel lesson is pointing us to. God has chosen us and then has sent us out into the world where we are to live our lives as God's people. To use a phrase that's not my own but the title of a book by Stanley Hauerwas, you might say that we are "resident aliens" on this earth, that we are the people of God who have not yet come to live in the Kingdom of God, but that we are nevertheless citizens of that Kingdom who are still living in another land. We are strangers in a strange land. The Son of God was here on this earth with us for a while. But now he has ascended into heaven, and we are yet here a little longer. And, in a way, we are here as resident aliens in an often hostile world. So in today's Gospel reading, Jesus is praying for us, just as he does every moment of every day of all time.

So today let's listen carefully to his prayer. Today, let's feel its impact and seek out its implications. And let's try to grasp the enormity of this truth: that Jesus, the Son of God, is praying even now for you and for me and for all the people of this earth. I stand in awe before this realization.

It strikes me that the first, and perhaps the major, thing that Jesus asks for in this prayer, which is called the High Priestly Prayer, the first thing Jesus asks for is our protection. "Holy Father, protect them," he says, "guard them, for they do not belong to this world." Jesus knows all too well that the world's ways are not God's ways. And he also seems to anticipate what we are now experiencing, that it's not an easy thing to live a Christian life in the midst of a society of different values, different standards and great pressures -- religious, economic and social standards -- which like it or not have a powerful effect on us and on our children with every choice and decision we are faced with making. For example:

*What are we to do when our desire to be generous and responsive
to the needs of others collides with our need for a sense of direction
and security for ourselves and our families?

*What are we to do when our longing to be free from the destructive
power of prejudice is confronted by the reality of how much will
need to be broken down and torn apart before we can even begin to
build up and mend the social fabric in which we all will be clothed?

*What are we to do when following in the way of Christ and
standing boldly for the principles of our Christian faith bring us
into direct conflict with the self-preserving ways of the world
in which we still must make our living and our way?

What are we to do? And the response to all of these questions that comes to my mind is the familiar saying:

"All that it takes for the forces of evil to prevail in the world is for enough good people to do nothing."

Perhaps we are resident aliens who live in this world while our citizenship is in heaven. But nonetheless we are the people, you and I, through whom God is building the Kingdom. And that brings me to the other emphasis of this High Priestly Prayer of Jesus which was read this morning. For in it Jesus also prays for us in this way: "Protect them," he says. "Protect them in your name, that they all may be one, even as You and I, O God are one." Can you hear the power of that petition? Jesus praying that all the people of this earth may be one, may be united, bonded together by the power of love and by the power of caring for one another, that we may be made one even as God and Jesus are one and are united by their love for one another? Can you hear the power of Jesus' petition? It's a tall order, but I am convinced that it's the only way humanity can survive, and that Jesus knew this only too well, and that that's why he prayed as he did: "Protect them and make them one."

Then he sent us out into the world. And that's where we are today, as resident aliens whose destined homeland is the Kingdom of God but who are living here on this good earth for yet a little while. But remember that Jesus is praying for us still, praying that we not abandon this great heritage of ours, that we not forget who we are or who we belong to forever.

I remember something I once read that has made a profound difference to me, both in the way that I understand life and in the way I understand eternity. This is what it said: Each of is living in eternity. We live in eternity before we are born; we live in eternity while we are on earth; and we live still in eternity even after our death.

Now, if this is so, and I believe it is, then we cannot not really be resident aliens. Rather, we are living in that seamless reality called eternal life. So I think the challenge for us then is how to live this eternal life with the confidence and the courage that befit a person who is nothing less than a child of God and a full-fledged citizen of heaven, with all the benefits and responsibilities that belong thereto. How will we do that? The one thing I'm sure of is that we will need the power of God and the support of one another. So let's not tarry any longer. Let's get to our work as honored citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven right here and right now.


Delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, June 4, 2000.

Copyright 2000 Calvary Episcopal Church

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