Ryan Atkinson

Grace and Peace, and Peace and Grace to you all! I greet you in the name of the
almost-week-old baby Jesus, whose love will continue to surpass all understanding! I
invite you to join me in prayer in the way that you feel most comfortable doing:
As a youth, I loved vacation bible school. Ours was usually held in mid to late June and
summer break would have just started, which would have not left us alot of time to get
into any trouble before VBS began. We always had a great turnout with good food, fun,
and fellowship. At the end of each day, we would all gather in the sanctuary to recap
what we had learned and to sing two songs with our beloved pastor. One of these songs
happen to be “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” Now, as an adult, I often wonder do we
actually know what that means; to truly follow Jesus. Sure, we are familiar with his
teachings and the parables, and the disciples fumbling about trying to discern what this
Jesus was all about and what all of that meant for them and us today. I’m not talking
about that. When we meditate upon the title, to follow Jesus, there is no indication of
where to follow. No indication of how to follow. No indication of duration. Nor is there
any indication of quantity or quality. It is a decision plain and simple. Now I know that
some would say that these indications are implied–and they would be right. But I
wrestle with whether we fully honor and accept those implications. And if we do, why
don’t we act like it? We create divisions when we don’t fully follow Jesus to the best of
our ability.
I’ll give you an example: Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as we love

others, we have created a division between the two of us thereby potentially inviting
hostilities, fear, panic, and even hopelessness into the equation. The ostracized person’s
feelings are not taken into account.
Unfortunately, creating divisions has continued to be a cottage industry not only in
America but also in the body of Christ. It doesn’t take someone with 20/20 vision to see
the division right here in Charlotte. We are prominently divided along racial, economic,
political, and denominational lines. These divisions weaken our collective voice and
hinder our ability to serve our communities effectively. Division builds walls that keep
people out and block their vision. Yet, while we continue to drag our feet in addressing
this, churches in this presbytery and across the country continue to teeter perilously
close to the edge of closing. Why is this still a thing in 2023 (almost 2024)? What
message are we sending to the world? What message does this send to the world? To
us? And more importantly, to God? We proclaim and profess that we are the catholic
church unified in Christ, right? Then why don’t we act like it? Why is it so easy for us to
build walls instead of building bridges?
Now, if you recall from a minute ago, I mentioned the ostracized individual whose
feelings were disregarded as they were pushed aside. I believe the exiled Jewish
Christians whom John is writing to felt every bit of that. The Jewish-Roman war that
lasted from 66-70AD, in which Jerusalem was sacked, scattered many Jewish followers
of Jesus into areas that were a bit more stable. However, that did not make matters any
easier. They were in a lot of pain and they needed support. The Jewish believers were
facing persecution and pressure to renounce Christ from two main parties: The

Pharisees, who had removed them from the synagogues. And of course, the Romans. In
order to devote themselves totally to following Jesus, the exiled Christians had to
abstain from civic activities that brought honor to the emperor. And on top of all that,
they were still expected to follow Christ to the best of their ability. That is a tough thing
to do! I don’t even know how anyone could do that in such dire conditions. No one here
would hold it against them if they decided to bail. Think about our LGBTQIA+ siblings
who aspire to follow Christ but have experienced rejection from the church and ongoing
punishment from the government due to their identity. Think of those individuals who
are kept out of certain churches because they dress or look a certain way. How on earth
does Jesus expect them and us to even begin to follow him when, as we see in the next
chapter, one of his most trusted friends sells him out, and when his own people tried to
kill him multiple times, then extradited him to the state only to face a sham trial and be
summarily executed? That’s a legitimate concern, and I’m willing to bet that Jesus
thought so, too. A follower’s life is a difficult journey, to say the least. There are pitfalls,
potholes, and perils that derail us throughout our lives that threaten to scatter us
mentally, physically, and spiritually, and that’s just from within ourselves and the
church. We also have to contend with a world that is intentionally attempting to split us
up, compels us to pick a side, and threatens us with persecution if we don’t choose the
right one. This situation is analogous to that of our Jewish Christian siblings who were
dispersed over ancient Greece, Judea, and Israel. God desires those of us who profess to
be Christ’s followers to always remember that our identities are inextricably linked to
Christ. Should we not conduct our lives in accordance with this reality? God knows us
and is aware that this is a challenging mountain to climb, one that is riddled with

obstacles that are both natural, influenced by the world and those that we ourselves
have made. That’s why we have this beautiful, insightful and intimate prayer between
Jesus and God. Some commentators believe that this prayer is informative, practical,
and instructional. While I don’t disagree with them, I’d like to add that it is also a love
letter to generations of believers filled to the brim with universal truths and dripping
with unconditional love. We see in this real prayer that we are not just offered a
masters-level understanding of why we follow Jesus. We are treated to a divine
dissertation on why we follow Jesus and how we can begin to change our professions
from wallbuilders to bridgebuilders. It feels as though we are being reintroduced to
Jesus. If we venture back to the first chapter of John and pair that up with the ending of
verse 5 (5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in
your presence before the world existed.(E)), we are reminded that Jesus has always been
here. Now, I understand that we know this, but you can feel the relief and joy
emanating from John’s audience. “So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with
the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” So why listen to the
world when Jesus was there before there even was a world? Just before this, he gives us
another reason in verse 4. “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave
me to do.” The fact that we have a relationship with God as a result of Jesus’ life and
ministry represents the completion of his work, according to Jesus. His final aspirations
do not center on the celebration of himself but rather on the acknowledgment that his
life and ministry are windows into the love and salvific purposes of God. Hence, Jesus
prays that people would have their relationship with God deepened through him. Jesus

wants us to know God through his ministry and life. John encourages the people who
are listening to him and us to remain steadfast in our recognition of Jesus Christ as the
ultimate Lord and the one who brings about the fulfillment of hopes even though we
are up against significant social pressures.
Now that we have a pretty good foundational basis for following Jesus, we still
have to deal with these divisions among us. Now, I understand that we’re not going to
get rid of all of them, but maybe we can begin to chip away at the stone this morning.
Let’s take a look at the tail end of verse 11 (in seminary, we would say verse 11b). “…so
that they may be one, as we are one.” (Read twice) Wow! Let that marinate for a second.
For context, if we look at this chapter as a whole, and the gospel up to this point, we can
feel and see the inwoveness and the divine intimate intimacy between the Holy Trinity.
And this is what Jesus desires and prays for us today. To be as close and intimate with
our siblings in Christ no matter what denomination, interpretation, or connotation they
may possess. To inspire community members to maintain their beliefs during troubled
times rather than push people away. But this is tough! How do we “ become one and
Christ and God are one?” It feels as though it is a lost cause, and in some instances, I
believe that it is (WaPo Article). But therein lies the rub family. Yes, Jesus is praying, and
that is good. But it’s just that. He is praying! The very act of praying displays’ Jesus’
hope. NOTHING is a lost cause with God! When we pray, we have trust that God hears
our prayer; but, we rarely feel that by praying, we are in any way influencing God’s
decision or presenting God with information that God does not already possess. When
we analyze the “results” for the individual who was prayed for, the enigma does not

become any less clear. We have faith that intercession will bring about healing or
restoration, but the specifics of how, when, and why this will take place are beyond our
understanding. There is just one fact about prayer that can be directly apprehended,
and that is that it alters us. Our relationship with God deepens. We are connected to one
another in a deeper and more substantial way. One of my mentors stated recently in his
sermon that “when we pray for others–our loved ones and our enemies included, we
bring them to God with us.” The love between followers is vital not just for the benefit
of the community but also the world; There is hope for the hopeless, peace for the
peaceless, and guidance for the wayward in Christ Jesus.
So I challenge you, and me, to continue to dig into what it means to follow Jesus. To be
a bridgebuilder instead of a wallbuilder. We live in a world of division and grief that
unsettles our faith, fuels our fears, and calls us into deep spaces of lament. When we
recognize that our ultimate hope is in Christ Jesus, we find assurance of divine
support. We know that with Jesus’s power, we can overcome the most perplexing
circumstances that continue to keep us apart.
Together, we can find comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone in our struggles
and that we have a source of hope that will never run dry. Let us encourage each other
to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who is the author and perfecter of our faith. Amen.