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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Mother’s Day, May 12, 2013


Psalm 97; John 17:20-26

             The word “one” can be used in very different ways to convey very different thoughts.  A popular rock band in the 1970’s, Three Dog Night, sang, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”  (How you “do” a number I have never been sure, but I guess it is poetic!)  In the epic World War II Stephen Spielberg movie, Saving Private Ryan, James Frances Ryan is the only son left to a family that has lost their three other sons in the Normandy D-Day invasion.  The whole premise of the movie turns on the fact that Mrs. Ryan has only one son left.

             But “one” can also be used in the powerful, life-giving sense that Jesus uses it in His High Priestly Prayer in John 17, where Jesus prays for His disciples, even for us.  In the prayer Jesus prays that we would all “be one,” even as Jesus the Son is one with His heavenly Father.  In this sense, “one” is a call to unity, a summons to togetherness, even a call to be family.  This sense of the word is the opposite of loneliness or of being the only one, and it is to this prayer of Jesus that I want us to attend on this Mother’s Day.

             In Jesus’ great prayer for us, we learn first that Jesus is one with the Father.  “Father,” of course, was Jesus’ favorite way of addressing God in prayer.  In His baptism Jesus hears a voice from heaven speaking words found in Psalm 2, “You are my Beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus’ identity is thereafter firmly rooted as the Beloved Son of the God He calls “Father.”  Yet in John’s Gospel, Jesus goes even further in identifying with God.  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us….”  Jesus understands Himself to be one with God the Father to whom He prays.  Indeed, in John 10:30 Jesus says it: “The Father and I are one.”

             This means that to pray to Jesus is to pray to God.  It is the heart of the Church’s Trinitarian faith, that Jesus is one with God the Father, that Jesus Christ is God, just as Jesus’ Heavenly Father is God.  I love Will Willimon’s definition of a Christian: “A Christian is anybody who looks at this Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly and says that in Him we have seen as much of God as we ever hope to see.”  Jesus is one with God.

             But on this Mother’s Day, I want us to focus on Jesus’ prayer for us.  The heart of this prayer is that we will be one, even as Jesus the Son is one with God the Father.  Jesus prays for us, and the heart of His prayer is that we will be one.  “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” 

             Actually, according to Dr. Francis Collins, we all are one, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Dr. Francis Collins, since 1993, has headed up the Human Genome Project, the federally funded project to map the genetic code of the human family.  Francis Collins grew up in an agnostic home, and as he earned his Ph.D. from Yale in genetics, he became a quiet atheist, convinced that the material world was all there is.  In a surprising turn of events, he then went off to medical school to earn his M.D. at Chapel Hill.  One thing Collins noted as a resident and then as a physician was how many of his terminally ill patients found comfort in their faith in God.  One day a dying woman shared with Collins her faith in Jesus.  As she did, she turned to her doctor and said, “What do you believe?”  Collins realized in that moment that while he was a scientist, he had never really looked at the evidence for this faith in Jesus that so many of his patients had.  He asked a Methodist minister neighbor for some advice on where to look for help, and the minister gave him C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  In reading Lewis, Collins became a believing Christian, and lectures widely on what he calls “evolutionary Theism.” 

             But what really strikes me about Collins is what he discovered about us.  In his book on mapping the human genetic code, a book he named The Language of God, he calls DNA “the language by which God spoke life into being.”  And this DNA code, some 3.1 billion letters of it, shows that we human beings are all 99.9 percent identical, regardless of which two individuals from anywhere in the world may be compared.  Collins says that within our own human species, there is a remarkably low level of genetic diversity.  Collins writes, “We humans are truly part of one family … having descended from a common set of founders … who lived most likely in East Africa.”

             Jesus prayed that we, His followers, would be one.  Genetically speaking, we are all in fact nearly one.  The things that differentiate us as human beings make up .1 percent of our genetic coding.  This is, of course, what the Book of Acts affirms when Paul says from Mars Hill: “God hath made from one blood (or one ancestor) all nations to inhabit the earth.”  God has made us one.  Jesus prays that we will live as if we truly are.  This is why Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father.”

             And this is one of the most important things for our children to learn from their parents.  It is what the very best mothers teach their children.  We are meant to learn in our own families how to live in the family of God, how to thrive and flourish as a member of the human family.

             If you have been yet to see 42, you are in for a powerful, beautiful treat.  It tells the story of Branch Rickey’s efforts to break the “color line” in baseball in 1947 by signing Jackie Robinson to a major league contract.  In a beautiful scene in the movie, Robinson is being subjected to all kinds of ugly racial slurs in his early days in the majors.  The movie depicts well how hard it was for Robinson to endure all the abuse.  The hatred almost undid this proud young man.  At one key point in the movie, with fans shouting ugly slurs to Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, the little shortstop for the Dodgers born in Ekron, Kentucky, walks over to Robinson on the field and puts his arm around his teammate’s shoulder, and stands with him.  It was as if to say to all those hate-filled taunters, “We are one.”

             The greatest Christians I know of in the twentieth century lived their faith out in ways that embodied this oneness with the whole human family.  Think about it: Albert Schweitzer went to medical school and then to the heart of equatorial Africa to serve the poorest of the poor as a healer.  Mother Teresa left eastern Europe for Calcutta, India to serve the poor of our world’s largest city, what we today call Mumbai.  And Billy Graham listened to three bits of advice given to him by his father-in-law, a career missionary doctor of the Presbyterian Church in China.  Nelson Bell told his son-in-law, “Practice the same financial accountability that local, mainline churches do.  Open your crusades to all churches, all denominations.  And invite to your crusades all races.”  And this was in the American South in the 1940’s and 50’s.

             We either work to bring people of this world together or we work against the prayers of Jesus and the purposes of God.  On this Mother’s Day, let us give thanks for mothers everywhere who teach their children how to embrace the human family, and how to live together in this world bringing peace, building community and living in love.  Good mothers create families where children learn to live productively and creatively as members of the human family.  And there can be no higher or holier calling.  Good mothers teach their children how to find what we hold in common rather than to major in what divides us. 

             Let me tell you on this Mother’s Day that I grew up in a woefully imperfect family.  It was weird in some ways!  I used to fret over this, but after thirty-three years of ministry, I have learned that all families are weird.  All families are!  (All families are peculiar as all get out!)  My family was forever changed when I was in college.  One night driving home from a Sunday night dinner at our house, my cousin Carol’s car was hit head-on by a car that swerved into her lane, and in an instant, her husband Butch and their four-year-old son Darren were killed.  My grandmother was in the backseat, and she was almost killed.  She never recovered her physical capacity, and after a stroke took even more of her ability to function, she could no longer live on her own, and she moved in with my parents.  My father had just retired, and he became my Grandma’s caretaker, along with my mother.  They never complained, but I could see that it totally changed their lives.  My mother had one older sister, who lived a mile away, but my Aunt Betty and Uncle Dick never had time nor the inclination to help out with Gram.

             My parents never said a word, but I know it steamed them.  Eventually, years later, my grandmother died.  And days after her funeral, my parents received a letter in the mail from my Uncle Dick and Aunt Betty’s attorney asking for a full accounting of my grandmother’s estate, and all but implying that my parents had taken advantage of their share of my grandmother’s meager estate.  It infuriated me, and I think it did my folks, though they never said so around me.  Soon after my Uncle Dick died, then my Aunt Betty suffered a stroke and had to move into assisted living.  I went home to visit my mother every few months in those years after my Dad had died, and I discovered on one visit that my Mom went every day to the nursing home to visit and care for her older sister.  One day I couldn’t stand it, and I said, “Don’t you remember how Aunt Betty never helped out with Gram?  And don’t you recall that letter from their attorney after she died?”  My mother said, “Of course I do.  But she’s my sister, and what else can I do but love her?”

             Epictetus said everything has two handles, but you can only carry it by one of them.  I think my mother instinctively knew this.  She could not carry things by the handle of her hurt, or by that of her resentment and disappointment.  Things could only be carried by the handle that said “sister.”  And life can only be carried by the handle that is labeled “family.”

             Jesus prays that we would be one.  He prayed that the love that was in Him would be in us.  It is a prayer that demands our best and finest response.


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