We have all been horrified this week with the dreadful gun violence in Uvalde Robb Elementary School, Texas, USA where 19 students and 2 teachers were killed and at least 17 more people were injured on Tuesday, 24 May. The young gunman was shot dead by police.
10 days earlier on 14 May, a mass shooting occurred in Buffalo, New York. 10 black people were murdered and three others injured in a race-based hate crime using white supremacy ideology carried out by a white young man who has been arrested.
It was the 27th school shooting in the US this year. In the US 109 people die of gun violence every day, so far 18,428 this year and there have been 214 mass shootings so far this year.
Our hearts are broken and we weep inconsolably at the loss of innocent lives as we imagine our own families caught up in such circumstances. Yet nothing is changed.
I hear ‘a voice weeping in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more. Matthew 2:18
I have been reminded of our capacity to be appalled and yet do nothing to change, because of the way we think and behave within our own cultures; cultures we no longer question and which we actively defend, denying cause and effect.
So this morning, I want to talk about God’s culture, of oneness and justice as I reflect on the Gospel text John 17:20-26.
Jesus speaks to his disciples in the last few hours before his death on these concerns. Jesus invited his disciples to step beyond their present understanding of themselves, to stand in the doorway of their relationship with God and to step beyond the current constraints of their culture, faith and religion, to spread God’s word to the whole world. Jesus asks them to imagine God being present to the world through them and to trust in God’s steadfast love as he prayed:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe you have sent me (John 17:20-21).
We are called into a relationship of oneness with God and one another, transcending our lives, disregarding our culture and the signs of our times, to see God differently, as eternally displaced from the human establishment. We are invited to see God addressing us from the margins of human affairs, God having chosen the place of the excluded, those who have been forgotten and despised in our world.
So the question we must ask ourselves as we think about our response to God’s invitation into oneness, unity, shared lives and community, speaks to the very legitimacy of our claim to be Christians. We must ask what or who is our culture currently forgetting, because it is there we will find God waiting for us to catch up, to be one with God and with all God’s people.
This reflection is not a demand for us to be choosing or denying either liberalism or conservatism, whiteness or blackness. Nor is it a demand to deny our gender, sexuality, or our shared humanity. The more fashionable and adopted a cause is by the establishment the more likely the crucified God has moved on, the more likely God is elsewhere, keeping company with the crucified ones, the suffering ones whom everyone else has discarded.
As I think about the victims of violence, God is with those who are being shot and killed, not with those determined to defend and maintain a way of life, owning guns at the expense of children’s lives, sacrificed on the altar of freedom for adults to continue as they wish.
This means not only our words but our actions must make visible God’s transforming word upon, in and among us as a faith community. Our faith in God, our spirituality and our lives in God, is inseparable from this call to resistance and oneness by Jesus.
I’ve been thinking about Jesus at these crossroads, asking us which way are we choosing? Not right or left, but Christ’s way. The new way, the pulling apart and pulling together into a new way which is far greater than the sum of the separate paths as we see and experience in the world.
As we become Christ’s body, absorbing and taking on Christ’s characteristics, Christ’s culture, Christ’s way, we find ourselves choosing to share the journey alongside people who are trashed and forgotten, and our humanity becomes better prepared to be alongside the people our culture forgets, despises or terrorizes.
The challenge presented by our culture and our times for Jesus is always to look for the one who is forgotten or pushed to the edges. This is the culture and way of Christ rather than the world and as we are transformed and become one with Christ and God, this loving culture will help us in our processes of discernment. We will find ourselves becoming citizens of a much larger, more life-giving world, a much freer and beautiful world, gloriously in God’s kingdom. We choose Christ’s way instead.
The reality is if all we do is seek to transform ourselves as individuals, a desire which comes out of holy piety and personal faith, then we are wasting our time and missing God in action. The gospel of God (to quote Archbishop Rowan Williams), and the reality of God’s action becomes real and effective if we discern Christ’s culture and walk this pathway, a shared common life of worship and confession, sharing the struggle to look at the world through the scriptures, and the freedom to stand against what actively seeks both inside or outside the church to stop the proclamation of the gospel of Love, always confident in what God has given without restraint or limits to the community of faith.
If we ignore this calling, this faith way, we become a church teaching doctrine, and denying the grace of God through its words and actions. When our piety becomes protected, private territory, available only to a chosen few, absolving us from the need to act as God desires, when we insist on our way, our mind, and our rules before we do anything which might challenge our status quo, then we become a narcissistic church. Let me quote from the previous Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:
…only the newness of a new turn of history, the specific newness of new words, acts and relations, can show the God who will not allow himself to be caught in the circle of ideas alone, and so can show the God who exceeds both the fiercest longing and profoundest speculation of creatures.
I hope I haven’t lost you in this reflection as I take you through the last part of my argument. I have focused on this idea of oneness, not simply because of what has happened in the US in recent days, but also is happening in Ukraine, in our recent federal election and in our church which Rev’d Justine alluded to a couple of weeks ago at General Synod. I want to end with a comment on Jesus’ reference to Justice in oneness.
At the end of the Gospel reading Jesus called God, ‘Righteous Father’ (John 17:25). This reminder is a wonderful, open opportunity for doing justice to the doctrine of justice itself, for revisiting our ideas of justice, and shaping them once again in the way Christ calls us as he walks to the cross. Isaiah 53:7-8 pointed to this new and transformational way of Christ’s living:
He was oppressed and he was afflicted… by a perversion of justice he was taken away’,
Christ’s true and righteous justice is what generates and creates the unity of the church and the world. As disciples we are called to be witnesses, both to our own sharing of justice from and to God, and by giving God the glory as we recognise Jesus’ divinity and oneness with God.
As Jesus speaks to God the father, we hear Jesus’ call to recognise God’s holiness and judgement of human brokenness, recognising God as just and righteousness, and finally, celebrating the Son’s glory and God’s mercy as we live in the oneness of God as God lives in us.
I have made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. John 17:26
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2015. Feasting on the Gospels, John Volume 2. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.
Williams, R. Archbishop’s Speech to the International Bonhoeffer Congress, Poland Friday 3 February 2006