Without a doubt, the greatest writer in the English language is Shakespeare. Though he composed many sonnets, he is best known for his plays. The dramas he wrote for the stage all have a distinctive feature, a literary device called the "soliloquy". The stage darkens, and a spotlight draws our attention to the main character who addresses a monologue to the audience. The best known of Shakespeare's soliloquies is the one delivered by Hamlet which starts off with the words, "'To be or not to be?'" Shakespeare uses the soliloquy to give the audience insight into what the main characters are thinking and into the emotions which are driving their actions.
If the gospel of Saint John were a Shakespearean play, the passage we heard proclaimed today would be one of its soliloquies. We are given a glimpse into the mind and heart of Jesus as he speaks intimately in prayer with his heavenly Father. Through his words, we are given insight into what is important to him and what he cares about.
Whom is Jesus praying for as he lifts his hands to heaven? He is praying for those who will believe because of the testimony of his disciples. He is praying for us.
This prayer takes place after the Last Supper. Before he faces his trial and execution, we who will come to believe in him are on his mind. It is natural that he would be thinking of us at such a time because it would be for our sake that he would endure the tortures of the cross.
And what is Jesus praying for? He is asking his heavenly Father that we be "one". Our Lord wants all believers to enjoy unity through love. This unity is not a matter of dressing alike, sharing the same taste in music or liking the same foods. Rather it is a matter of sharing the same beliefs and living according to the same moral code. It is a matter, ultimately, of loving one another as Jesus has loved us. Jesus wants us to have unity so that others may also come to believe that he is Lord and that he died to save them.
Throughout the Easter season our first readings have come from the Acts of the Apostles which chronicles the lives of the apostles and their first followers. We are told that the early Christians were one in mind and heart. They shared what they had with one another so that no one suffered want. It was because of the love they showed one another - their unity - that they were able to draw others to join them as believers.
In our day there are many who are skeptical about the good news of Jesus. It is not because they do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God or that they reject the Church's teaching. Rather, many people stay away because they do not see us acting with love toward one another. They see the pettiness and bickering that so often goes on and get turned off. We might not even be aware that we are doing it much of the time, but people notice, and they stay far away because of it.
If we are going to be a place where people can encounter the Risen Christ, then we must demonstrate a unity based in love. What are some of the ways that we, the ones who have come to believe in Jesus, make his prayer for unity among believers a reality?
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a clue. It is the story of Saint Stephen, the first to give his life for the faith. He is dragged outside the city walls and stoned to death. Yet, with his dying breath, he prays that God will forgive those who have killed him. If Stephen, like Jesus, can forgive those who killed him, what right do we have to not forgive those who have hurt us. If we are carrying around bitterness because someone has offended us or hurt our feelings, then we cannot be filled with the Spirit of Christ who commands us to love our enemies. If our minds are constantly going over the wrongs others have committed against us, then we cannot radiate the love of God whose sun shines on the good and the wicked alike. And so, the first step toward answering Jesus' prayer for unity among us is that we must forgive one another from the heart.
The second step toward becoming a more loving community is for each of us to make a commitment to not say a negative word about another and to avoid gossip at all costs. Few things are more painful than learning that someone you worship with on Sunday is spreading rumors about you on Monday. Few things devastate the unity of a Christian community more quickly than cliques of parishioners each talking badly about the other. Even when our criticisms are true, it is best that we address them with the person face to face or keep them to ourselves. None of us is perfect, and we would all prefer that our good qualities be noticed and our not-so-good qualities be overlooked. We should treat each other in just that way remembering that the reason we are here in the first place is to put our faith into action through love so that the good news of Jesus may spread far and wide.
Jesus did not only pray for us at the Last Supper. He continues to intercede for us in heaven at the right hand of the Father. His prayer continues to be that we be united in mind and heart. Jesus' will is always done. If he is praying that we be united in love, then it will happen. We have to cooperate with him, however, by forgiving one another sincerely and by endeavoring never to say an unkind word about one another. He left us the sacrament of his Body and Blood, a sacrament we call "Holy Communion", so that we can be in communion not only with him but with one another. We who share the one bread are one in Christ. As we draw closer to Jesus, we draw closer to one another. By the love we radiant, more and more people will be drawn to this place, and they too will come to believe that Jesus is Lord, and that he will come again.