June 2; 7th Sunday of Easter; Year C

7th EasterMay They All Be One

As we continue our Novena to the Holy Spirit which began on Ascension Thursday and which will culminate on Pentecost Sunday, it is most appropriate that the Church should invite us to “raise our eyes to heaven” in imitation of our Lord in today’s gospel. On Ascension Thursday, our Lord instructed the Apostles not to leave Jerusalem, but “to wait there for what the Father had promised,” the gift of the Holy Spirit. They should not just wait idly but they should keep vigil in prayer. But what sort of prayer are we speaking about? What should they be praying for? What would be the ultimate fruit of their prayer? Well, the answer is found in the example given by St Stephen the Proto-martyr in the first reading and our Lord Himself in the gospel. And the fruit of their prayers would not just be the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost but the union of Christ, the Divine Bridegroom, with His Bride, the Church.

Let us first turn to the prayer of our Lord in the gospel. Today’s gospel presents to us a part of the prayer of our Lord taken from Chapter 17 of the Fourth Gospel, a prayer made during the Last Supper, a prayer commonly known as the “High Priestly Prayer,” because our Lord appears in the priest’s role of intercessor and mediator. The prayer is divided into three basic sections: our Lord prays for the mutual glorification of the Father and Son to be revealed in Him (verses 1-8); then He prays for His present disciples, especially for their mission to the hostile world (verses 9-19); and lastly He prays that all His disciples, present and future, will be united with one another and God (verses 20-26). The last part is found in today’s gospel.

Here, Our Lord prays for the whole world, asking that the love with which the Father had lavished upon Him might also be ours, and that through us the Father’s love might be evident to the world. That is what He died for. This prayer is not just empty rhetoric. The prayer puts into words the very mission of Jesus, the project of Jesus. “Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one.” The Lord’s death on the cross, the gift of Himself to us, was the embodiment of these intercessions; and His resurrection embodied the Father’s answer to that prayer.

And so the prayer of our great High Priest, that “all be one,” transcends time and space. This unity is not meant to be sustained by a long history of human endeavour. In fact, just like in the past, human endeavour to preserve unity had often proven inadequate and the weak members of the Body of Christ had been responsible for causing great divisions and injury to the unity intended by Christ. No, the bonds of unity among the disciples of Christ have to be built on a much stronger and studier foundation. The unity of God’s people can never be fabricated by man. It must be generated by the Spirit of God. Because this unity proceeds from grace, the life of God, it is therefore patterned after the life of God, a pattern of unity unlike anything else on earth. It is nothing less than the unity of the Father and Son. It is not merely a unity of organisation, purpose, feeling, or affection. Neither is it a unity that comes from commonality in terms of interest, nationality, ethnicity, language or culture. Just as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, we are to be so united. Christians are drawn to one another because they are drawn to a common centre, Jesus Christ Himself. For that is the source of the power of that unity.

St Cyril of Alexandria describes the disciples’ union of love as an icon of God. “Christ wishes the disciples to be kept in a state of unity by maintaining a like-minded-ness and an identity of will, being mingled together as it were in soul and spirit and in the law of peace and love for one another. He wishes them to be bound together tightly with an unbreakable bond of love, that they may advance to such a degree of unity that their freely chosen association might even become an image of the natural unity that is conceived to exist between the Father and the Son.”

The participation in this divine communion that our Lord offers is not limited only to that first group of disciples but also extends to include all future disciples in later generations, including us in this present generation. He describes this later generation as “those also who through their words will believe in me.” This already suggests that the disciples’ mission to the world is not just the proclamation of the good news but, has as its goal, to bring people to know Jesus and the Father and to bring them into this mutual divine communion. The union of Christ’s followers with God and with one another makes them capable of and ready for their mission to the world. The Church’s unity is meant to be a prophetic witness to the unbelieving world, inviting them to believe in the truth revealed by Christ, and to enter into this perfect communion with Him and the Father.

Human association, that is having a place where you feel you belong, is a universal experience. There is something utterly intoxicating about banding together with others and overcoming obstacles as a group, a community, a team to achieve something significant. And its intoxicating draw is no less so for the Church. But we must be weary of the danger of thinking that we can manufacture this unity merely through our own efforts. This is a false notion of unity. Just see how the people, who built the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis, had accomplished an uncommon oneness, a true sense of “team”; so much so that God made this observation about them: “And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” It is a powerful thing, this man-made unity. But don’t miss the vision upon which those people based this unity: “and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” What they wanted was to build a powerful community that would hold them together, but would condemn them to be cut off from the rest of the world.

God’s vision, as reflected in the prayer of our Lord and in the feast of the Pentecost which we will celebrate next week, exposes this false notion and its narrow purpose. Being dispersed over the face of the earth was God’s vision for them. This is the story of Pentecost. The unity which God hopes to build will be one that will compel us to cross boundaries and to reach out to the periphery, in fact to the ends of the earth, for how else can we proclaim the good news if we are merely confined to the four walls of our church. Pope Francis notes that “a Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms”. The Church’s mission is love, and love seeks to reach beyond itself in generosity. Therefore, for the sake of a confused and sinful world, Christians must not, isolate themselves from that world. No, the church exists in order to reach the world so that, in every area and at every level of society, all mankind are penetrated by the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ.

And that is why the Church and the Holy Spirit, in today’s second reading, issues this invitation to all, “Come!” It is an invitation to everyone to join their voices to the call, “Come!” “Let all who are thirsty come; all who want it may have the water of life, and have it free” “Come!” We await the approaching feast of Pentecost, but our waiting is already here in the Holy Spirit. We beg for Him, with His refining light and fire, so that together with Him we might all the more longingly call for the Bridegroom to come, the Bridegroom who continues to pray for us and all peoples of the world, “May they all be one.”