Saturday, May 11, 2013

May They All Be One

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C

 Common Malaysians are still reeling from the shock of communally divisive campaigning, probably the worst in Malaysian history, leading up to the recent elections. Sentiments were fanned to intentionally pit one community against another. Ethnic and religious stereotypes were reinforced to instill fear among the various communities. We are still suffering the fallout a week after the elections and the damage is hardly mitigated with the on-going blame game. In fact, the damage is aggravated with both factions blaming the other side for fanning racial discord. The invisible elephant in the room has finally emerged, as the chorus sings “Racism is in the air!” Although the beast has been named and there is a general agreement (if only lip service) that we need to move forward, no one seems to have any concrete blueprint for change beyond the clichéd exclamation that we are 1 Malaysia.

What happened to the ideals of 1 Malaysia, the ideals of authentic national integration and inter-ethnic harmony? Many have grown skeptical. Today’s gospel reading is certainly a welcome breath of fresh air. At last! Someone is truly serious about the issue of reconciliation and unity. It’s none other than Jesus himself.  The gospel is an excerpt of a longer prayer of Jesus found in Chapter 17 of the Gospel of John, which is traditionally called the “High Priestly Prayer”. Its name is derived from the action and words of Jesus who now intercedes with the Father in Heaven, as a High Priest, on behalf of his friends on earth. Although, it is composed of simple words, this is a potent prayer and Jesus meant every single word of it. It is not a declaration of what is, not a blueprint for oneness, but intercession for what shall be.

Jesus here 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 Jesus 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.” Jesus prayed these words in the Upper Room on the night of his betrayal, knowing that crucifixion would follow with the coming sunrise. The words are part of his final words, and final words have a history of being intense, focused and passionate. So it was with Jesus. Never before had the disciples heard him pray like this. You could say that Jesus’ giving himself to die for us was the embodiment of these intercessions; and his resurrection embodied the Father’s answer to that prayer.

We need to note here that Jesus asked God to give us unity as a request. That means that unity is given and not achieved. 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 center, Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus prayed that "may they be one in us." For that is the source of the power of that unity. How glorious it is to contemplate that we have been invited into that perfect unity that exists with the Father and the Son.

Where are we now as we hear the prayer of Jesus? What steps must we take for this to become a reality? Pondering these questions, it becomes clear that we must begin by becoming one within ourselves. The prayer of Jesus challenges us to look deep into ourselves. We must allow Jesus to restore the inner unity of our very soul, which so often has succumbed to sin. Our society is divided because our souls are splinted. It is easy for us to accuse others of being racist, but it takes great courage and self-honesty to recognise our own penchant for stereotyping, prejudice, ethnocentricism, and racism. No one readily acknowledges himself as a racist. But we see the tentacles of this evil spectre in the form of our preoccupation with our own self-interest and selfishness. Martin Luther King, perhaps the most socially transformative preacher of our time, once wrote that the redemption of a society trapped in racism “can come only through a humble acknowledgement of guilt and an honest knowledge of self”. Becoming at one within ourselves prepares us for the greater blessing of becoming one with God and Christ.

After having looked within ourselves, we must begin to look outwards, outside our petty little world. Too often we are tempted to allow our Christian lives to remain in air-tight compartments, limited only to Christian friends, in a sort of Christian hot-house, from the womb to the tomb. Our Beloved Pope Francis, who strongly champions a Church who is more evangelistic in its outlook, notes that “a Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms”. If we confine our discussion of unity within the ranks of the Church or just among Christians, we may suffer from the self-referentiality which the Pope condemns. Self-referentiality is unacceptable for the Church because its mission is love, and love seeks to reach beyond itself in generosity. Therefore, for the sake of a confused and sinful world which is facing enormously complex problems, Christians must not, dare not, isolate themselves from that world. No, the church exists in order to reach the world. The church is here to be God's instrument by which human life in every area and at every level is penetrated by the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ, that men may see that in Jesus Christ there is the authentic voice of God to men; that in him is the ultimate issue of human destiny, and in him we come face to face with all that is important in human affairs.

Finally, as we come to the end of the Easter season, the readings that the Church gives us directs our gaze upward. If our view is only confined to ourselves and others, we will most certainly find the drudgery of life unbearable. Our looking inwards and outwards only prepares us for this final viewing. The model that Christ gives us on the eve of his own death, as reflected in his priestly prayer at the Last Supper, shows us a man serene, charitable and intimately united to his Father. Union with the divine gives him the serenity and peace to face the suffering of the cross. In our first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about the martyrdom of St. Stephen, and we hear that he “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand”.  It is the same union with the divine that gave St Stephen the same serenity as Jesus possessed. Those of the world "covered their ears" at the mention of the Gospel message, but those of us who listen to Christ will find solace. St John, in concluding the Book of the Apocalypse, invites us to look up at Christ who is the morning star and pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  And in today’s Gospel reading, as he finishes the Last Supper, Jesus begins his prayer by “raised his eyes to heaven.” As we look up to heaven, what do we see? We see an embrace, a clasp of deepest friendship, a union of hearts and minds greater than the most satisfying earthly relationship could ever be. 

The prayer of Jesus that “may they all be one” still haunts as well as inspires. It is wearisome, deadly wearisome, to endure the tension, the conflicts, the hate speech and demonising that continues to plague our society. The blight of triumphalism, of power games, and the obsession with always being right still throw up huge, offensive roadblocks against Jesus’ prayer. Such sin drags us back to the Upper Room, to dull disciples among whom we now sit, to the grief of our Lord over our tearing apart the seamless robe of unifying love in which he would wrap us. Yet he comes to us with Easter’s treasure. Despite the sins which continue to splinter, to separate, and to divide, we are comforted to know that there is One who is not only praying for our unity, but who assures us that he is protecting “not only these, but also those”, and he does so in the Father’s name. The outcome of the prayer, “May the all be one”, will never be just left to us. It will always be in his strong hands. Thank God for that!

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