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"ONE AS WE ARE ONE"

COMMUNION, UNITY AND WITNESS

ACCORDING TO JOHN 17:20-26

Gilles Bourdeau

Gilles Bourdeau was born in Quebec, and since 1962 has been a member of the Order of the Friars Minor.  He was ordained in May, 1967.  Following studies at St. Michael's College in Toronto (M.A.) and at the Faculté de théologique de l'Université de Montréal (Ph.D.), he taught spirituality at the Dominican Pastoral Institute in Montreal.  Many people have experienced his competence as a speaker, a retreat preacher, a spiritual director, and a counsellor for Christian groups and movements.  Several periodicals have recognized his talents as a writer.

From 1971 to 1987, he co-animated a Franciscan community whose focus was spiritual experience and contemplation.  Within his order, he has served in various positions of responsibility in the formation of new members and in government: Novice Master, Formation Director, and Provincial Minister (1987-1991) for the Franciscans in Eastern Canada.  He served for six years as a member of the order's international leadership team in Rome (with its 20,000 members located in 105 countries and on every continent); there he was Vicar General, responsible for the order's diplomatic relations, and Vice-Chancellor of the Pontifical Athenaeum Antonianum.  He returned to Canada in the summer of 1997.  Since October 1999, he is the Director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, Montreal.

The Gospel according to St. John, chapter 17, verses 20-26

20. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me
through their word,

21. 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 that you have sent me.

22. The glory that you have given me I have given them,
so that they may be one, as we are one.

23. I in them and you in me,
that they may become completely one,
so that the world may know that you have sent me
and have loved them even as you have loved me.

24. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me,
may be with me where I am, to see my glory,
which you have given me because you loved me
before the foundation of the world.

25. Righteous Father,
the world does not know you, but I know you;
and these know that you have sent me.

26. I 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.

(Taken from the NRSV)

In the final message at your last International Congress in Geneva, from July 23 - 28, 1998, you emphasized the importance of your spiritual experience as mixed marriages. For yourselves and for your Churches, this is undeniably part of your vocation and your witness, and as a result, an evangelical experience for all. You wrote: "We as interchurch families live day by day a life of love, seeking after unity. We are therefore able to bear witness to our calling to work towards unity, and to our need to work towards a greater openness to, and identification with, those who do not feel truly welcome in the churches." Other major statements followed on the indivisibility of the Church of Christ, on unity in diversity in the various denominations and on your dynamic experience of "We ask our churches to recognise this rich diversity as a gift."* It is this concern for a spiritual experience rooted in the Gospel and interdenominational in nature that I wish to develop by contemplating Jesus’ Hour, as the evangelist offers it for our contemplation.

When Jesus experiences and celebrates his last moments with his closest disciples in the course of a meal, he performs certain actions and says certain words that both for them and for us are hallmarks of fidelity and what it means to live out the Gospel. For Christians at the end of the first century, Jesus’ farewell discourse describes the kind of Church they already constitute by the will of Christ. He reveals to them how he has acted throughout history, by inviting them to unceasingly receive the gift of the Spirit and calling them to experience the sacramental presence of the Risen One within a community of brotherly love: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 15:12). The discourse after the Last Supper is addressed to disciples that Jesus had left a long time earlier as if he were still there among them, because their membership in him must constantly be reconsidered and deepened.

The Johannine discourse is divided into three parts: a prologue and first discourse on the union of the disciples in faith and love (13:31-14:31), a second discourse on the meaning of communion (15:1-16:4) and a third on Jesus’ spiritual presence (16:5-33). It closes with the great prayer of benediction frequently referred to in the Christian tradition as the "priestly prayer" (17).

In this prayer, the modern-day ecumenical movement finds the main guidelines and criteria for aspiring to intercede for others, that all disciples may welcome Jesus with his experience of communion, unity and mission. In this truly universal prayer, the life and experience of our communities can be rooted in the memory of the disciples and traced back to historical reality, illuminated and enriched by the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

With an awareness of your spiritual experience as "domestic churches", I would like to meditate on some questions raised by the last few verses of this benediction (17:20-26). In this final message of Jesus to his disciples and to our communities, our experiences shed light on Jesus’ words and actions. Everywhere, his presence, his actions and his final words reveal the depth and meaning of our human and evangelical journey, our sincere intentions as well as our ecclesiastical tensions. I believe that the presence you as couples and families are called to welcome and understand is encountered here in Jesus’ final wishes. They form the charter of the presence, communion and mission of Christ and the Church in the world.

1. "HE DEIGNED TO PRAY TO HIS FATHER FOR US"

When Francis of Assisi left for the Middle East in 1219, he did not expect to be coming back. He wrote a farewell discourse and benediction to his brothers. He marvelled at this prayer of Jesus’ for himself and for his own, saying: "He deigned to pray to His Father for us" (1 Rule 22:41). With the same fervour, he felt compelled to write a letter to the faithful of his time, outlining the foundations of Christian life, and borrowing passages from Jesus’ prayer (Letter to the Faithful, I:13 and II:56). If there is one thing a Christian home must be aware of, it is the spiritual presence of Jesus praying in each person and in the community we are called to form.

It is easy to understand Francis’ ecstatic admiration when he realizes that he and his contemporaries are already held in God’s heart and in Christ’s love and prayer. Daily prayer, through "inexpressible groanings" or words recommended by church or family tradition, is simply becoming aware of this presence which gives birth to, accompanies and fulfills all Love in our loves. In the tension of welcoming Christ and his words, and our ongoing experience of conversion, a strong and profound conviction is forged: He is there today, He was there yesterday, He will be there tomorrow. He prayed for us, He is still praying for us.

These words emphasize the fact that Jesus has been praying throughout human history and our journey as families. If our spiritual experience has a source and light, they are revealed and lived out in faith and prayer in Christ Jesus. Jesus’ prayer is unique because it expresses God’s desire for the human person. God’s will and desire is for Christ, Living Word and Image of the Father, to be expressed in humanity. This prayer is the model of a true human prayer, made in truth, a prayer that "asks in Jesus’ name" and in communion with Him (14:13-14; 15:16; 16:24-26). Although we find joy and sometimes pain in daily life as we discover each other, accept each other, pray for each other and forgive each other in love, Jesus assumes all our prayers and desires. He attunes us to each other and brings us into harmony with the Father.

Through all the forms and styles our prayers can take as spouses and as members of a family gathered and united in love, Jesus reveals and shows a way of being with others, together, with and in others: "You are in me...I am in you." This is basically the way of authentic love and prayer. Teresa of Avila speaks the same way of the highest summit of contemplative prayer: "He is there, I am there, we love each other." For those who love and who love each other, can there be any more transparent and meaningful reciprocity than this mysterious relationship between Christ Jesus and the God he calls Father? Surely wanting and loving God must mean wanting and loving God the way Jesus does.

2. THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN JESUS "THROUGH THEIR WORD"

What is fascinating about this passage is its emphasis on receiving and transmitting the faith experience: "I ask on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word" (17:20). Jesus alludes to the believers who will welcome him and his words through the witness and preaching of the apostles. He is looking ahead to disciples and communities that do not know him directly yet but will receive him by hearing about him, and thus by the witness of another or of others.

This is our experience as Christians. This is our experience as disciples. We always receive our knowledge of Jesus through others, in a never-ending process of listening, proclamation and sharing, reflection, conversion, believing and obeying. If we are able to confess that Jesus is Lord, we are also affirming that we have been born in faith through the community, a father and mother, sisters and brothers, authentic representatives of Christian life. Being born again is itself a sign that we receive and have access to God through Christ and in the Church.

Passing on the faith through the ministry of the word is of the greatest relevance to us when we start to understand that our experience as couples and families is a special place to seek out God and test Him, to learn more about His actions and His weakness, to know and love His face and His heart. Baptized in water and fire, we understand that the experience of love - our own and that of others - gives God and gives to God. Words may reveal this and yet language will never be sufficient to say it completely. Showing that we are a sign and word of God is imposed upon us in fear and trust.

The word, once received, is to be passed on. From one spouse to the other From one to another within the family and domestic church. Those who love each other this way are in a ministry situation, which calls for discernment and commitment. Passing on the faith in our mixed marriages may become a stumbling block, or it may become the cornerstone of marital communion. What we experience and what gives us life, how can we not share them and pass them on to others, not only between parents and children, but also among those around us? Especially when our Christian roots give us life in and through various and similar experiences of church.

Our responsibility changes and grows when we understand that others could come to know Jesus and believe in Him if our words intentionally bear His life. Beyond the difficulties and tensions to be resolved as to the denominational character of Christian initiation, there is first and foremost the fundamental decision to become Christians and pass on what has brought us out of death into life: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit" (3:5). As part of this dynamic, birth in faith and growth in Christian experience are arts that demand as much care as any other dimension of human experience.

3. "AS WE ARE ONE": SOURCE AND END OF ALL LOVES

What the disciples learn to believe in and live out is the communion of will, love and action between the Father and the Son (10:30). After all, Jesus said: "I and the Father are one." Believing in Christ is plunging into this overwhelming and fascinating experience of unity. Believing in Christ together also means patterning ourselves on this communion, receiving it and living it out in our own story and in the world.

It is obvious that the unity among his disciples that Jesus prays for in John 17 is infinitely more than concord and tolerance, getting along with each other or even unity in the faith, as we most often see it. It is a unity and communion of beings and persons in the image of the unity and communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit:"That they may be one, as we are one" (17:22) "...so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them" (17:26). How the divine persons are "one" is a mystery that fascinates our intelligence, overwhelms and inspires it. To have an inkling of what it means, we must approach it from an existential perspective, with faith and simplicity, with the spiritual perception characteristic of those who live in intimate relationship with God:"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Mt 5:8).

The God of the Bible has always been experienced by those who believe in Him as a personal God who creates and watches over creation, protecting and preserving it, and is constantly at work (Jn 5:17). And it is because He is personal that God cannot be in eternal solitude. Real people cannot exist without being in relationship with others. They are made for relationship; they are born out of communion. What makes us more and more human is growing into more and more perfect communion. The opposite, withdrawing into ourselves, leads to death. The absolute Person is absolute communion. Communion between persons is what ensures our unity.

In God, the Persons in an eternal communion of love are "One". Their single being, of which the Father is the source, is not divided up into Three. Each Person contains it and expresses it in relation with the other two in an absolutely unique manner. Thus, as Olivier Clément writes, "The Three in One, in a never-ending reciprocity, each one unique but containing the others without confusion, suggests the astonishing fullness of life in communion (translation)." In God, there is absolute unity and absolute diversity.

Communion in God thus seems to be their unity. Unity in God and of God is the source and end of all communion and all unity. This unity of the Father and the Son is what is to be known and what gives life (Jn 10:14-15). It is this love that Jesus wants to see his followers experience and in which to find a home."I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (17:23).

What is also to be known is what we have experienced, and what is in the future. In every church, however humble – "wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them" – brotherly love is the fruit and expression of divine love and divine communion (cf., the powerful image of the vine and the branches in 15:1-16:4). Mutual knowledge and mutual acceptance in love are pathways and conditions that lead to intimacy with God. Fraternal communion carries on the revelation of Jesus and reveals his presence in the world. If the Love of the Father and the Son, the Spirit, is given to us, it is so that every experience of communion, permanent or occasional, becomes a venue for knowing love and growing in love. It is in the love and communion that is the Spirit that we remember Christ, that we understand and that we start to be and remain faithful in faith and mutual trust (14:23; 14:15-16).

4. TESTED IN COMMUNION

In this prayer of benediction, the verb "love" is used only in the final verses (23 and 24). Yet, this is the core of all prayer, just as it is the core of Christian existence. It is understood only at the very end as one of the great works of God and of life. Believing in love is a work of faith, and in faith: "So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them" (1 Jn 4:16). The great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar expressed this in the title of one of his most important works: L’amour seul est digne de foi (only love is worthy of faith).

As Jesus sees it, we constantly grow in our knowledge and experience of love:"I 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." (17:26). Communion and love grow unceasingly, the love of God as well as our own loves. To be fulfilled in love is to enter ever more deeply into the love that has no end and which, all things considered, is more a gift than the result of our efforts, more a grace-filled Pentecost than a demanding Passion. Communion and love are offered and given. After so much effort and attention, they can only be received, because they are a gift from God – the divine Agape – and welcomed with joy.

Christian life is contemplation in action, in other words, committing ourselves without looking for anything in return, in fraternal love and the eternal love of God (1 Jn 3:2). There is a discipline of love and unity for people and communities that have made life commitments. The communion which is the being and action of God calls for our free participation and our cooperation. Like Jesus, his witnesses teach that we have to sacrifice our own inclinations if we want to advance in reconciliation and love. The Orthodox liturgy sings most appropriately when the faithful receive the body and blood of Christ:"Give your blood and receive the Spirit". This sums up the participation between God and humans as one of the basic characteristics of spiritual life and growth.

All communion and all unity are demands on us. They bring a burden, they bring both joy and suffering. This discipline frees in us the action of the Holy Spirit so that the new creation, clothed at baptism, can manifest itself more and more. There is no other way of checking this new reality taking shape within us, except our ability and our willingness to love God and our neighbour more and more unconditionally. Especially the "neighbour" who has chosen us and with whom we have chosen to obey the commandment to love. Real persons are full of love for everyone and for all creation. They bear their families and all humanity in their united and peaceful hearts, and even in their flesh. Unity is the fruit of love, and love means self-giving.

Jesus’ Hour, in the Gospel according to John, is gripping. The destiny of Jesus and of the disciples is summed up in a deeply moving thought and action: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (13:34-35). John’s words are a fierce argument for Christ made flesh. Outside this conviction, there is no Christian faith! Love of his brothers is present with him, he cannot escape the human condition. This is what it means to move from death to life - to eternal life.

Believing in the Son and loving the brothers have the same status: a communion of love as part of revelation, just like the coming of the Son, of which it is the permanent reflection. Through the love they have for one another, the world God so loved can "know" that which Jesus was unable to convince it of, that he was the one sent by the Father.

5. WITNESSES OF UNITY

"So that the world may believe that you have sent me" (17:21), that is the issue: being known as I am, as a man. John’s words are bold. Through them, John leads us into a fullness that defies all the commentaries. In their wake, he places the humble reality of the communion of disciples in all the "homes" of the revelation. Who has given this verse such a scope?

John does not seem very interested in Church structure, ministries or constitution. His thinking about the Church is as unecclesiastical as it can be, which some have found rather disconcerting. If communities have become more meaningful recently, it is not because they have some superior status because of the integrity of their lives or because they have a monopoly on sacrifice or humility. Communities – including all Christian homes – are simply places where we pick up the basin but also allow ourselves to be served (13:1-20).

John’s morality, his thinking about the Church and his concept of human beings are an inextricable part of his great design. God is not without Jesus, Jesus without God or the Church without them, or they without the Church. Having one without the others has no truth or life. Proclaiming and living the gospel consists of hidden relationships, because God is love. In the first days of the Church "...the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common" (Acts 4: 32-33). That is why great power marked the apostles’ testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

This is perhaps what Jesus is reminding the disciples when he says: "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (17:21). It is to such a test of communion, such a demand for unity and such a witness that we are called by our baptism, and that we live out in our homes as centres of evangelical life.

Gilles Bourdeau, ofm

Edmonton, August 2001

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Text of John 17: 20-26 (NRSV)

Introduction

1. "He deigned to pray to his Father for us"

2. Those who believe in Jesus "through their word"

3. "As we are one": Source and end of all loves

4. Tested in communion

5. Witnesses of unity

* Extract from the Final Message, Geneva, July 27, 1998, I. Our spiritual experience

N.B. In this reflection, I am indebted to the exegetical studies of Jean Radermakers on the Gospel of John and commentaries by professors Michel Bouttier of the Institut Protestant de Théologie in Montpellier, and Romul Joanta, of the Institut Saint Serge in Paris. I read some of the abundant literature on mixed marriages, mainly in English and French. I decided to centre my presentation on a spiritual approach to the theme, knowing that Craig and Michèle Buchanan would be focussing on dimensions close to the experience of interfaith couples and families.