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Christ's Last Words
based on John 17:1-11
by Chuck in DC

In last week's service we read the apostle Paul's last words to the church. We talked about how important the last words of a person are and how we especially honor those last words.

A few moments ago, we read Jesus's last words to the church. He spoke these words right before he was taken up into heaven. That's why we celebrate Ascension Sunday today. Jesus is taken up by God and is no longer physically present with the church. And before Jesus leaves, we find him praying for the church, and blessing the church. One last time the disciples gather around the Master and listen intently to his words of prayer.

And how appropriate are Jesus' words of petition for the church. He prays for the church's unity, for oneness in Spirit, so that the church may keep the revelation of the one true God of love and peace. And as we look around us we realize how urgently we need this prayer: instead of being one we find ourselves separated. We find ourselves putting up dividers, fences.

Fences differ in function and purpose. Some fences are actually good. The ones we put up in our back yards, for instance, may serve for the protection of our little ones so they won't get hurt by the cars that go by. Then there are fences that deter burglars from breaking into our homes, prevent wildlife from destroying our gardens and dogs from using our backyard for their business.

Fences to keep out, fences to keep in, fences to protect or to guard--we are surrounded by fences. Our neighborhood is full of crisscrossing fences. And the thing about fences is that we tend not to see them until something happens to draw our attention to them. And if we do notice them, we are likely to say with Robert Frost: "Good fences make good neighbors!"

But, then there are also those barbed wire-fences from behind which we see outstretched arms and terrified faces, like those surrounding concentration camps, POW camps, refugee camps. There are fences or walls separating whole countries like the ones that separate Yugoslavia into Albanians and Serbs.

Our obsession with fences, whether they serve a right or wrong purpose, is really a reflection of our conflicts with one another. Would we really need fences if there was no such thing as burglary? If we got along with our neighbors? If there was unity and harmony in our neighborhoods and communities? Robert Frost, in the same poem I quoted above says, "Something there is (within us) that doesn't like a wall." In an ideal world, we feel, there is no need for fences. We hardly think of God's kingdom in terms of fenced-in properties, do we?

And the worst kind of fences--and the most difficult to detect--are the ones that are invisible to our eyes. Where are those invisible fences that keep us from being united with our neighbors and God, from being one in the Spirit? There are fences based on physical appearances, separating persons of different race or ethnicity or gender. There are fences based on nationality, regions, or language, or even accents. There are fences between different generations, between people of different theological, ethical, or political persuasions.

We do not easily agree on which fences to preserve and which to tear down in our Christian communities. Some say we must keep distinctions clear, those whom we allow to come to the Lord's table and those we need to refuse. Fences are erected over such issues as birth-control, sexuality, euthanasia, when or how Jesus will come again, whether or not women can preach, whether we should be one sort of church or another. We disagree over the length of the service, what kind of hymns or instrumentation is acceptable, what prayers should be included, who should or should not do certain parts of the service, how people should dress, and much more.

And amidst all our squabbles over where fences should be erected or preserved and where they should be torn down, amidst our disagreements and confusion, we find the Founder of the church praying--one last time. And he prays for unity, for peace and for love among the people of God. And as we listen to Jesus praying for the church's unity, we are reminded of Jesus ministry to the people. We see Christ with arms open wide, welcoming, forgiving, accepting, loving, healing, not just some, a few--no he stretched his arms out to all.

Jesus certainly gave us guidelines, he gave us fences, but Jesus certainly also abolished some of the fences of his time. His ministry was to all--even the outlawed, the unclean, the sinners: "For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, that whosoever believes shall be saved--whosoever!!--not just a few elect...Teacher, how can you fellowship with the ceremonially unclean and with sinners? is the question the Pharisees asked. Jesus answered: "Those who are healthy, do not need a physician, those who are sick do. I came to seek and save the lost." It seems to me that Jesus erected fences of good standards, healthy living and morality, but never to a point where people were shut out. When it comes to dealing with people, he never turns his back on anyone--not even the one who crucified him. Remember his prayer: "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do?"

So, as we argue over which fences to erect, which to keep, and which to tear down, we should keep this in mind. It is true, God calls us to hate the sin, but he also calls us to love the sinner. Just like Jesus, we must pray for love and unity. Jesus knew that the enemy was out there, ready to cause dissention, to cause strife and hatred among God's children.

I would like to close with a little anecdote from the Tales of the Hasidim:

An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. "Could it be," asked one student, "when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it's a sheep or a dog?" "No," answered the rabbi. Another asked, "Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it's a fig tree or a peach tree?" "No," answered the rabbi. "Then when is it?" the pupils demanded. "It is when you can look on the face of any person and see that it is your sister and brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night." Amen!