God’s Beloved Community—John 17: 20-26
February 16, 2020-Black History Month Service
There was a time when I struggled with the need for things like Black History Month, with displays of rainbow flags, with days set aside for women. I come across a fair number of well-meaning people who struggle with this as well. It can feel like the cohesion we used to have as a society is coming apart. We’re fragmenting into groups based on race, gender, sexuality, gender-identity and more. Sometimes it feels like we’re breaking apart with not much in common anymore.
This same anxiety is the context for John’s gospel (John’s version of the Jesus story). Toward the end of the first century B.C., Judaism and a very early form of Christianity were coming apart. Remember, Jesus was a Jew, he attended synagogue, he wore a prayer shawl, he celebrated Passover etc.…Jesus saw himself and his teachings as being within the bounds of Judaism, as did his first followers. The Romans planted the seeds of the break between Judaism and Christianity with the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. It was a cataclysmic event in Judaism. Religion was the centre of Jewish life and the temple was the centre of Jewish religion. The temple and it’s inner sanctum, the holy of holies was believed to be the literal dwelling place of God on earth.
Consider the anxiety over the climate crisis and multiply its affects several times. With anxiety over the fear of Judaism’s survival ratcheted up, tolerance for criticism and freedom of diverse opinions went down. Leaders within Judaism became less tolerant of what they viewed as revisionist Jews, who wanted to add to or change the tradition. To the orthodox leaders this implied that the Torah (the first five books of the Christian bible) was not complete or perfect. With the temple gone, the Torah became the unifying symbol for the Jewish people. The Jesus followers were a threat to that unity, which meant they only had two options: keep quiet and conform or leave.
In the midst of this fragmentation and breaking apart, John writes his gospel. This context is crucial when listening to and reading John. John is writing as the voice of a community that felt itself disenfranchised from Judaism, labelled heretics and expelled from the synagogues. John’s gospel comes from a position of powerlessness; it is a plea for inclusion to and a criticism of the gatekeepers of Judaism at the end of the first century in Palestine. John’s gospel is an attempt to show those gatekeepers, whose vision narrows with anxiety and fear that Jesus and his teachings were rooted in the fundamental tenets of Judaism and not only that, Jesus and his teachings were a fresh expression of Judaism. John’s plea did not work and the split with Judaism became more pronounced as Christianity began to take root in non-Jewish areas. One of the things we seem to have to keep learning over and over again is that unity is never achieved through uniformity.
In the last few years, many have lamented the rise of so-called “identity politics”. Identity politics is short form for the advocacy for change done by people based on their experiences of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion or social status. Think of Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, the feminist movement or the movement for LGBTQ rights. The lament is these groups are splintering society into factions, that by focusing on difference they are eroding the social consensus that is necessary for a society to function cohesively. In other words, how can we grow, develop, become more productive if we’re all going in different directions, advocating for our own group’s interests? This question is worth reflection and I’ll come back to it. But, often these criticisms lack the acknowledgement that the consensus or social cohesion of the past had it’s basis in an ethos of unity by uniformity. There was one dominant narrative in North American society; one dominant set of values and it came from those in power—those who were, white, male, heterosexual and Christian.
Identity politics grew out of those people who began to say, “wait a minute, this isn’t our story, our experience is different and worthy of respect”. Not only that, “we demand a place in society where we can be fully ourselves, where we have the same opportunities as everyone else without having to give up who we are to the dominant culture.” This is why we have a Black History Month. Jean Augustine, one of the first two Black women elected to Parliament said this on introducing the legislation brought in Black History Month in 1995, “I was an educator.… I recognized that the classroom curriculum was saying very little about African Canadians…Black Canadians were not part of the script and were not shown contributing to Canadian society.” Identity politics is the rejection of unity through uniformity. It challenges the dominant traditional story we tell ourselves about who we are. As it does, these challenges lead to a certain insecurity, fragmentation and splintering as people react: sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes defensively, and sometimes violently. But, I believe that if those in the dominant group and those on the margins can stay in the tension of the moment with courageous, open, vulnerable and compassionate hearts we will see that God is doing something new: Just as God was doing something new in John’s time.
John writes of a different way to achieve and maintain unity, the way they experienced it in the life and teachings of Jesus, to be one as Jesus and God were one. The way to do this is through surrender. Jesus was rooted in his Jewish tradition; he was a Jew. However, his religion was not static, his religion did not just consist of a set of inherited beliefs that demanded obedience. His religion and its beliefs were a way to enter into a living relationship with God, a living relationship with God means surrender to God. We put our lives, as fragile and broken as they may be, in the service of love. We ask and we pray for guidance to do our part, to use our gifts so that we can make real, can incarnate the love of God in our time and place. We offer our agendas, our egos and especially our fears to God’s guidance and care.
What all this means, is that we are always open to something new, we are always open to a fresh expression of God’s love in our time and in our place. We are not fixated on defending what we know, rather we are aware of the incompleteness of our knowledge and experience, of how interconnected we all are, of how much we need each other. We are therefore open to the ways in which God’s Spirit is calling us to wholeness. That is what John is saying to the gatekeepers and defenders of Judaism, “God is doing something new here; Jesus is a fresh expression of God’s love for our time.”
John says to the early church that the basis of unity is surrender; do not make the same mistake that the gatekeepers of religion made. You can’t achieved unity through right belief, which is uniformity; right relationship is the basis of unity, when a group of people commit themselves to listening for and doing the will of God in their time and place. Then the words of scripture make sense, “the goal is for them to become one heart and mind—just as you, Holy One, are in me and I in you.” When we live like this we see the world and creation as God sees it—a web of relationships, each creature with its own gifts and purpose contributing to something that is greater than they are. When we see the world this way, it inspires awe and wonder and it is beautiful to behold. It is John’s wish for his community in the words he attributes to Jesus—“Holy One, I want those you gave to me to be with me, right where I am, so they can see my glory, the splendor you gave me…”
That’s the hope that lies at the heart of Black History Month and oppressed groups everywhere finding their voice and dominant groups finding their ears; that we might not be content with either a unity based on uniformity or a fragmentation based on grievance. But that this moment might be seen as one where God is doing something new, leading us to a fresh expression of the sacred in our time and place. That we are being lead deeper into that web of relationship where a new unity, a new consensus will emerge based on the foundations of right relations: compassion, respect and justice.
Martin Luther King Jr. said this in the midst of the turmoil and violence of the civil rights movementw:
Those of us who live in this century are privileged to live in one of the most momentous periods of human history. It is an exciting age filled with hope. It is an age in which a new social order is being born. We stand today between two worlds–the dying old and the emerging new. Now I am aware of the fact that there are those who would contend that we live in the most ghastly period of human history… They would argue that we are retrogressing instead of progressing. But…the present tensions represent the necessary pains that accompany the birth of anything new. 
That’s the hope, that the pain of fragmentation are the necessary pains that accompany the birth of something new. The hope is that we are heading toward a new unity, one based on right relationship. We are heading toward a more complete wholeness. On this Black History Sunday, the hope is that Black peoples are heading toward full inclusion in the benefits of society and the recognition of the contributions of Black peoples. For white people the hope comes in recognizing the privileges granted by virtue of skin colour and using these privileges to speak against and root out racism in our own circles of influence. That through this white people will be partners with God in the healing of the world.
God is at work in Black History Month. The Spirit is constantly doing new things; static belief is dead faith. At its best faith is constantly trying to catch up to where the Spirit is heading. A faithful response to Black History Month is surrender to the reality that God creates us all in the divine image; it is surrender to the possibility that our neighbours and we ourselves might be vehicles for God’s work that is manifest in right relationships. It is right relationships that create unity and community. This is the gift from God, not a set of beliefs or theologies to defend but an outstretched hand to engage the world around us. What a challenge, what a gift this Black History Month and always. Thanks be to God. Amen
 John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture, p. 235.