John 17:1-23 “Spirit of One”
The day after we got back from Malaysia last week, I was walking Nikos the dog down towards the beach. I looked out and saw that the beach had rearranged itself since last I was there. A few new pieces of driftwood were washed up. The shape of the shore had been scalloped a bit more by the waves. As I looked out over the water, I had to comment to myself that even though the beach had changed, it was in fact the same ocean as before.
This ocean that stretched out before me actually touches everywhere I had just been. It touches the continents of North America, Europe, and Asia. It is in fact one body of water that stretches over more than 70% of the face of this planet. It is one.
Let me just share with you some interesting facts about the ocean. Even though it is one contiguous body of water over the face of the earth, we silly humans have decided to divide it into five parts. We name these parts: Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Artic—and what is that last ocean called? If you are my age or older, you might not have ever learned the name of the fifth ocean while you were in school. It was only in the year 2000 that the International Hydrographic Organization (Who are they again?) decided that we needed a fifth ocean and named it the “Southern Ocean.” So, any water below 60 degrees south is now considered part of the Southern Ocean.
Yes, we humans love to divide things up even though they really do not need to be divided, and the very thought is counter to reality. I am sure that if some bureaucrat could figure out a way to put a TSA checkpoint and passport control in between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, for example, then we would see pods of dolphins lining up with their identity cards to swim wear their species has swum free since creation itself.
Why do we as a species always divide everything up? To be sure, the Bible itself never even uses the term “ocean.” Look at Genesis 1:9, “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place and let the dry land appear.’” This is so clear, all the waters of the planet are one out of which dry land popped up. We here on Kauai have this incredible island view of the planet already. There is only one body of water with a whole bunch of islands popping up all over it. We kid each other and call the mainland “the bigger island of Amer-ri-ka.” Guess what? It really IS just a bigger island than Kauai. (I said “bigger,” not “better.) As big as all of Asia is, it is only an island just like us!
So, recently we celebrated the Hokuleia’s homecoming after sailing around the world. Truly, it just went around visiting one island after the next. They did not have to get out of the boat and carry it across dry land between oceans! They did not have to pay a toll and wait for the gate to lift up!
While taking the train from Switzerland to Germany, I noticed a fellow pushing a cart through the aisle selling coffee, tea, and snacks. I noticed his menu sign and thought that I should order a coffee because I had just that right amount of Swiss Franc in coins in my pocket. I did not react quickly enough, and he pushed on to the next coach before I had decided that I would order a coffee from him. I thought, “That is okay, I will catch him the next time he comes through.” A little while later he comes through with the coffee cart in the opposite direction. I ask him for a cup of coffee and bring out my Swiss Franc. He stopped me and pointed at the menu and says: “We have crossed into Germany. Do you have Euros now?” Sure enough the menu was now in Euros rather than Swiss Franc. So silly we humans are! (He did take my Swiss Franc after all, however.)
Our scripture for today I think addresses this human propensity to always divide things up irrationally. Look at verses 10-11, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I have been glorified in them. Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. . . .that they may be one as we are one.” You see, when we talk about the price that Jesus paid on the Cross, we do not ask if it is Swiss Franc or Euros!
Last week I was in Malaysia for a family wedding. A few years back, a court in Malaysia found that it was too confusing for the native populations of Malays to be allowed to use the word “Allah” to describe the Christian God. This judge’s decision effectively outlawed Christians in Malaysia from using the term “Allah” to describe God even though it is the only word for God in Bahasa Malay—the native tongue of the country.
What is most fascinating about this decision for me is that the term “Allah” comes out of the Christian and Jewish texts. It is merely the Arab form of the term “Elohim.” Christian Arabs still to this day call God “Allah.” Yet, somehow in Malaysia this judge decided on behalf of the rest of us that somehow God and Allah are not the same idea. He decided that there should be a Muslim Allah and a Christian God.
The idea of there being but one God is central to the Islamic Faith—as it is to Judaism and Christianity. It is the Great Commandment or “Shema” of Deuteronomy 6:4. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” In the Hebrew the term “ahad” is used to describe the oneness of God here. This is the exact same term as in Arabic “ahad.”
To be sure, the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran all share this exact same text that God is one God. Yet, we have bureaucrats dividing up God into Muslim, Jewish, and Christian gods because they claim that there might be some “confusion” otherwise.
This would be as if we all were to take a walk down to the beach right now—let me go get my dog Nikos first—to see the wet stuff at the edge of the sand lapping up in waves, but then be told by some bureaucrat that we cannot call all that water the “ocean.” We have to use a different name for it. So, let us call the ocean “Fred” or “Wilma” so that there is no confusion. Does that make sense to anybody? I have always wondered what whales and dolphins call the ocean? Scientists say that they communicate with language and song—they must have a term for “ocean.”
Before this judge in Malaysia made his decision to separate God into Christian and Muslim gods, a Dutch theologian suggested that it might be a good thing if ALL Christians around the world adopted the name “Allah” to refer to God. This was Bishop Martinus Muskins of the Roman Catholic Church. He had served as a missionary to Indonesia for eight years, where he used the term “Allah” to speak with the Christians there.
Okay, our text for today makes it quite clear in Jesus’ own words that there is only one God of the universe. And as much as our human proclivities and sinful nature likes to mess around with this idea, we have to believe the Bible, right? We have to hear the Word of God. There is only one God—just as there is really only the ocean—though we may call it by five different names now. The name of the ocean only matters in so far as where you launch your canoe from!
The Bible also tells us here that we all belong to God. The terminology that Jesus uses is that we “have been given over to Christ” by God. In this way, we are also One with God and one with one another. That is in fact the motto of our larger denomination, the United Church of Christ, that “They May All be One.” That is the very act of the Holy Spirit coming down at Pentecost to make us all one—Acts 2 “They were all in one accord.” God does not want God’s children to be splintered off in so many groups—mostly not talking to one another.
I have to admit that I made a mistake when I preached in Zurich a few weeks ago. I was invited there to talk about the 500 anniversary of the Reformation as marked by Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. I related this back to our own church here through the Calvinist tradition. John Calvinist was a Swiss reformer in Geneva who inspired the Separatists in England, who in turn sought freedom of religion in America, coming as pilgrims to Plymouth in Massachusetts and eventually sending missionaries to the Sandwich Islands, Hawaii, in 1820.
I thought that would be a great way to connect Switzerland to Hawaii. The problem was that Calvin came from the French-Speaking side Switzerland. Zurich is on the German-Speaking side and had its own contemporaries to Calvin, namely Zwingli and Bollinger. So, the pastor in the church got up after I had finished preaching and reassured his congregation that Calvin could not have come up with his reforms without Zwingli and Bollinger.
This reminded me of an episode of Dancing With the Stars. “I will give Zwingli and Bollinger a 10. Luther and Calvin only get a 9 on this dance round.” Really! How many of us here today came to hear about John Calvin? How many of us here came to hear about God’s call to be one in the Spirit?! What difference does it make in heaven today that Calvin was from the French-Speaking side of Switzerland? That would be as if up in heaven God has divided the French-Speaking Christians out from the rest of us!
Let us just read once more verses 20-23 again: “I ask not only. . . .”