Isaiah 55; John 17.20–end
a sermon at the Ecumenical Vespers, Caravita Church, Rome
22 October 2008, 7 p.m.
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
Some people today say that the ecumenical movement has run out of steam. Others say that it is only just beginning. I prefer to take the second, more hopeful route, and I see this evening’s service, and your generous invitation to me to come and preach, as a sign of that hope. We have come a long way in the nearly 100 years since the generally acknowledged start of the modern ecumenical movement at the Edinburgh Conference of 1910. Indeed, a great deal that we today take for granted in ecumenical circles would have been unthinkable, or at best a wild fantasy, a century ago. My distinguished predecessor Hensley Henson, when he was a parish priest in the 1890s, used to accept invitations to preach at Dissenting Chapels and then, when his Bishop wrote angrily to remonstrate, used to frame the letters and put them on his mantelpiece as trophies of a battle then just beginning. We have learnt a huge amount since then; and we have, perhaps without always realising it, created platforms on which we can build fresh structures; or, perhaps better, created new seed-beds in which we can plant fresh hopes and pray for the watering of the Spirit.
That image, indeed, points directly to this evening’s Old Testament text, which in turn sets the creative and dynamic context for our New Testament reading, one of the most famous so-called ‘ecumenical’ passages in the whole Bible, the prayer of Jesus himself that all his followers might be one. I hope that by setting that prayer in its larger biblical context, of which Isaiah forms a crucial part, we may gain fresh vision of, and energy for, the task that lies before us. The Synod of Bishops, the last three weeks, has been considering the Word of God in the life and mission of the church. I want this evening to invite you briefly to consider the Word of God in the renewal of creation and, within that, the church’s vocation to unity.
‘As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,’ declares the Lord by Isaiah (55.10f.), ‘and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth: it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.’ And that sense of the powerful Word by which the living God accomplishes nothing short of new creation (as the next verses indicate when they speak of thorns and thistles being replaced with flowering shrubs) links back to the start of the long section, in Isaiah 40, where God promises that he will flatten the hills and smooth out the valleys so that his glory may at long last return to Zion: ‘the glory of YHWH shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together’. This promise, of YHWH’s long-awaited return to Jerusalem after the exile, is repeated in chapter 52, right before what we call the fourth Servant Song. The pagan idols will be overthrown, the Servant will complete his strange work of dying and rising, thereby renewing the covenant between YHWH and his people (Isaiah 54) and so renewing the whole creation (chapter 55), inviting all people everywhere to come to the waters and drink. And all this will happen because of YHWH’s powerful Word, the word of creative command by which all things were made: ‘all flesh is grass, and its glory as the flower of grass; the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever’ (40.8). As you know, Isaiah chapters 40—55 form a single great poem at the heart of the larger book, a poem about the triumphant return of YHWH to renew both covenant and creation and to do so, strangely but it seems gloriously, through the work of the Servant.
But, as so often in prophecy, traditional expectations are radically adjusted in the light of the new vision. The glory of YHWH is coming back; that was a given of post-exilic theology, not least through Ezekiel, and repeated for instance in Zechariah and Malachi. YHWH’s glory, the tabernacling presence that had dwelt in the tent in the wilderness and had then flooded the Temple in Solomon’s day and in Isaiah’s opening vision, had left the Temple because of idolatry, left it to its fate at the hands of the Babylonians. But part of the whole promise of return from exile was that YHWH himself would return, would come once more and dwell in the midst of his people – to fill not only the Temple but actually the whole world, the whole earth, the whole creation with that same glory. As Isaiah and Habakkuk saw, there is coming a time when the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of YHWH, as the waters cover the sea. The Temple, it seems, was to be an advance foretaste of the creator God’s intention to flood the whole of his creation with his glorious presence – so that, as I have written elsewhere, the beauty of the world as we know it is explained not least because we glimpse it as a vessel ready and waiting to be filled with that glory.
But what we are never told directly, merely left to infer, is the answer to the question: what will it look like when the glory of YHWH returns? What will people actually see? We might suppose it will be like the pillar of cloud and fire in the desert; or perhaps like the whirling wheels of the throne-chariot which Ezekiel witnessed. But what Isaiah tells us is that if we want to see the returning glory we must look at the Servant. And that, of course, is where St John picks up the story.
‘In the beginning was the Word’. Why not ‘in the beginning was the Glory’? or perhaps ‘In the beginning was the Love’? Both of those, after all, are central for John; indeed, after the Prologue is finished, Jesus is never again called logos in the whole book (and the term is only used in two verses of the Prologue itself). I think part of the point at least – leaving aside a possible dialogue with the philosophers! – is that for John what we have in Jesus is above all else the word which accomplishes new creation, as in Isaiah 55 or Psalm 33.6, 9; 147.15–19; 148.5 and so on, all looking back of course to Genesis 1. Jesus is the powerful Word who goes out from the Father to accomplish his purpose, and who will not return to him empty but will complete his task. And when the Word became flesh, declares John, we beheld his glory: the glory that Israel had expected to fill the Temple and then, perhaps, the whole earth. This glory, instead, dwelt bodily within Jesus. It was glimpsed through the ‘signs’ which upstaged the institutions of Judaism, not least the Temple itself, signs which reached their peak in the greatest Sign of all when Jesus, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of the Servant (which John quotes and applies in 12.37–41), is lifted up on the cross to draw all people to him (12.32), thus glorifying the name of the Father (12.28). Jesus himself is the new Temple. The glory of the living God has come to dwell in him.
And this glory is revealed supremely on the cross. Because, as John makes clear throughout (but especially in chapters 13 and 17), it is on the cross that Jesus, ‘having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the uttermost’. He did for them everything that love could do, the love which lays down its life for its friends (13.1; 15.13). This is the glory, this is the love, that the world cannot glimpse, and indeed which overcomes the world, as God’s glory in Isaiah overthrew the pagan idols (cf. 14.17; 14.27–31; 15.18–25; 16.33; etc.). That is what we see in the extraordinary dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in chapters 18 and 19. It is what Jesus promises his followers in the ‘farewell discourses’ of chapters 13—16. And it is only with all this in mind that we can hope even to begin to understand the great prayer, the so-called ‘high priestly’ prayer, of chapter 17, the prayer whose climax is that all Jesus’ followers should be one. I hope you see how we have been tiptoeing towards this central Holy of Holies, making sure we understand its outer resonances before approaching its inner secrets.
The point is that, with the promise of the Spirit, the Spirit who is to be given when Jesus has been glorified on the cross (7.39; 20.22), the place where the returning glory of YHWH has come to dwell is not just Jesus. It is those who follow Jesus and believe in him. It is those who, having responded to his love, discover the same love not only for him but for one another. It is those who, like Moses, recognise his glory and come to know his name (17.6). It is those who are then sent into the world so that they may be, throughout that world, the Temple in which the glory of the creator is revealed so that all flesh can see it. Indeed, they are the advance sign of what the creator intends to do in and for the whole world: in overthrowing its idolatry and power structures, he comes to fill the whole of creation, to renew it as in Isaiah’s vision, so that when we find Jesus raised from the dead in a garden, full of signs of new creation, we should think once again not only of Genesis but also of Isaiah 55. The Word has come down like rain and snow and has accomplished the creator’s whole purpose, and now the thorns and thistles are replaced by flowering and fruitful plants.
The prayer that we might all be one, therefore, is not merely for the pragmatic sake of mission. We do not read ‘that the world may believe’ merely in the sense that ‘if we all sang from the same hymn-sheet the world might be less sceptical’, true though that undoubtedly is. The prayer that we might all be one is rooted in nothing less than the eschatological and trinitarian vision of the revelation of the glory of the returning God: ‘I have given them the glory which you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them just as you loved me’ (17.22f.). And it is aimed, not simply at our unity or indeed our mission in pragmatic terms, but rather at the eventual goal, which is the creator’s promised filling of all heaven and earth with that same glory and that same love. Here John’s gospel joins up with the letters to the Romans, the Colossians and the Ephesians, and indeed with the closing chapters of the Revelation of St John. God’s design is to rescue the whole creation from its slavery to corruption and decay, to defeat all the idols and false powers that have held creation, and ourselves too, in their grip, and to complete at last the long purpose of Genesis 1 and 2, that the creation, formed by the outpouring of God’s powerful love and creative word, should become the cosmic Temple filled with his glory, ruled over in wisdom and love by his redeemed people, themselves glorified.
The unity of the church is thus a sign, a foretaste and a means of the creator’s eventual plan. We have for too long seen the ecumenical task either within the framework of a merely pragmatic mission, or even within the framework of a dualistic rejection of the creation (let’s huddle together and let the world go its own way). Or, indeed, we have conceived of it on a lowest-common-denominator theological basis; let’s not emphasize our particular theologies too much and then we can all agree, can’t we! Instead, it is the highest theology we have – Trinity, Christology, Pneumatology, the victory of cross and resurrection, the remaking of creation, the coming together of heaven and earth, the eschatology of promised glory – that grounds the vision of unity. And this is why, of course, it matters that we work towards full sacramental unity. The sacraments are themselves precisely the sign of creation being taken up and transformed by the flood of God’s love and glory.
All of this may seem very theological and exegetical; though I don’t apologise for that. If you ask a biblical scholar to reflect on a theme, this is the sort of stuff you’re going to get! But let me close with three, I hope pertinent, more practical comments.
First, and most obviously, our thanks must go, under God, to all those who have worked so hard in recent years towards this unity. We know that we are engaged in a complex and important process, and that we shouldn’t expect trivial or cheap ‘solutions’. We give thanks for the work of Don Bolen, who has been a good friend to so many of us, and for whose future ministry we pray with gratitude. We thank God for Mark Langham coming to take his place. We give thanks for the whole Receptive Ecumenism project, not least for the energy and enthusiasm of Paul Murray, and indeed of the still very youthful Cardinal Kasper in this as in much besides; for the work in Durham of which the new book is one of many early fruits; for this church and its ministry of welcome; and so much more, with apologies for those people and projects not mentioned. All of these are street-signs on the way to that larger hope, both for the unity of Christ’s followers and the larger filling of the whole creation.
Second, however, as we face the future, our study of Isaiah and John leads us to suppose that the way to unity and cosmic renewal is costly, and will demand the dethroning of idols. It it simply going to be a matter of embracing all that we can embrace from one another in a spirit of hopeful receptivity, important though that is. The world, and the powers of the world, will be concerned to keep us apart; we must recognise those pressures for what they are and defeat them through the victory of Jesus’ cross and resurrection and the power of the Spirit. It isn’t simply a matter of better organisation, more conferences and deeper friendships, vital though these all are. It is hard enough to see idolatry in our friends, almost impossible to see it in ourselves, yet if we are to be true to the Word we must, in the days to come, make the effort.
But, third, therefore, we must stress that the ecumenical task is a project of prayer as well as action. You know and I know that the only truly worthwhile things done for the kingdom and glory of God are those things which are rooted in and soaked in prayer. Pray for the Word to do its healing and recreative work. Pray for God’s glory to be revealed afresh in our common life. Pray above all that the love with which the Father has loved the Son may be amongst us too. Join in prayer with Jesus himself, that the glory which was promised ages ago, the glory which filled the Temple and filled Jesus himself, may fill our common life, overcoming all the barriers which still separate us, and that in the dangerous and threatening world of tomorrow, with postmodernity, credit crunches, neo-nationalism and all kinds of other delights facing us, we may show the world by our unity that Jesus is Lord, that God raised him from the dead, and that the Word which was spoken in and through him will not return to God empty, but will fulfill all his purpose, until the earth itself shall be full of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.