(a sermon for May 8, 2016, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on John 17:20-26)
As it’s just us here this morning, I think it’s safe to let you all in on a painful little secret: Christians sometimes don’t agree on things (now don’t go and say anything about it; I wouldn’t want this secret to get out!).
It’s true: we Christians talk a good game about unity and “the church universal,” but so often it’s conflict and disunity that seems to take a prominent role in our life together. Never mind the fact that there are now more than 250 separately organized denominations in this country alone, each one with its own spin on the truth of the Christian faith; or for that matter, that there are countless independent congregations across the fruited plain that exist out of disagreement on some point of theology, church doctrine or, quite frankly as the result of deep division over the color of the sanctuary’s new carpeting!
The story goes, for instance, that there is a church in the Appalachian Mountains that has long been known as the “No Ice in the Summer Southern Baptist Church.” It’s named that because sometime late in the 1800’s a well-meaning parishioner came to his hometown church and told of an incredible “miracle of God” he had recently witnessed in the city: an ice-making machine that was capable of producing ice even in the heat of summer! He spoke to the congregation about the wonder of such a thing and tried to persuade them as to what a blessing this could be for them as a church. However, the hill people of that congregation, believing that such a thing was a violation of the natural order and thus could only be the work of the devil, steadfastly refused to accept what he had to say. Before long, the congregation was solidly split between “ice” and “no ice” people, to the point where the latter group left to form a new church: “No Ice in the Summer Southern Baptist Church.”
Now we might well laugh at something like that, but isn’t that the irony of who we are as the church; that despite the beauty and vitality of our faith and service to God in Jesus Christ, it is nonetheless true that sometimes we have a hard time getting along! We get territorial with one another; we lay claim to certain seats and certain positions and certain traditions and then dare anyone to cross into our particular space. Sometimes we don’t share as we ought, we’re petty about things that ultimately don’t matter, we don’t always work and play well with others (especially those we perceive as dwelling outside of the circle), and more often than we’d like to admit we hurt each other; mostly inadvertently but sometimes in a very calculated kind of way.
And the thing is… none of this should shock or surprise us in any way!
And that’s because we Christians are not perfect, and churches will always be far from perfect because the church is made up of sinful people; or to put it more simply, we’re human! Moreover, it would be foolish of us to think that all we Christians are always going to be on the same page about everything; always of one mind, one direction, one course of action. Certainly, as good as I think we are around here, our congregation’s not like that, and I dare say there’s not a single congregation anywhere that can lay claim to that kind of all-encompassing unity.
Which, when you think about it, makes it all the more interesting that when Jesus prays for the church – and for you and for me – as he does in our scripture reading this morning, he prays “that they may all be one.”
Once again this week we’re turning to part of what are known as “the Farewell Discourses,” the last things that Jesus had to say on the eve of his betrayal and death. And so what we’ve shared from John today is Jesus’ own prayer, prayed with all the hope and love and intensity and anguish of that moment of his life. Jesus is looking toward the future; his own, certainly, but more pointedly that of his disciples and the church that is to come out of his death. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,” he asks his Heavenly Father, and at first read it does seem as though Jesus is asking that which we know by our own experience in the church is impossible: a single community that walks, acts and thinks in lock step with one another.
But look again, and you realize that there’s more to Jesus’ prayer than that; that he’s saying something about what this unity is about, as opposed to what the church is supposed to look like. What we find is that there is not only to be a purpose to our unity, there is a progression about it: yes, we are called to closeness with one another, but in fact, we are to be as close to one another as Jesus was to his Father in heaven; and that closeness is to be so evident that the world might see and believe: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me… and have loved them even as you have loved me.” In other words, what Christ was praying for was that his disciples – and indeed, each one of us – should find our unity in closeness to him; and in that closeness, in our oneness to Christ, we find unity with one another: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.”
Now, if like me you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind around an idea like that, think of it this way: on a wagon wheel or a bicycle tire, there are spokes that all go out from the center of the wheel. Think of the center of that wheel as being like God, in that it is the central hub that holds all the spokes together and thus keeps wheel strong and solid. At the outer circumference of the wheel, the spokes are spread out at wider intervals from one another, but as you get closer and closer to the hub these same spokes also get very close to each other. To put this in terms of geometry, it does not matter where two objects are on the circumference of the circle; for as they move toward the middle, they also move toward each other. So it is for you and me as concerns our relationship with God. We are spokes in the wheel of life, friends; as we spread out into the world, sometimes we find ourselves far removed from each other. But no matter where we are in life, as we move closer to God we cannot help but draw closer to one another.
So it turns out that true Christian unity does not come about by our own human effort, nor does it exist in our being exactly the same on every issue that confronts us. As it turns out, unity is a gift: the direct result of the love that can only come from God. What is it that it says in the first Epistle of John? “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) It’s love that brings us closer to God, and as we grow closer to God we do find unity with one another. And as that unity finds its expression in the depth of our caring for one another, in the difference it makes in the world and in individual lives, we become a witness to all the world of Christ’s glory and God’s love. We become the testimony to the truth of what we proclaim!
So ultimately, you see, it doesn’t matter so much that we church people don’t always agree on every point; but… and this is important… it does matter how we go about disagreeing. To put this another way, it is of lesser importance that we differ on small points of theology or doctrine or structure or even vision, but it is crucial that we have a common understanding of what it means that God loves us, and that we, too, should love one another. Our unity will not be determined by the decisions we make, but in the ways we choose to live with each other as we are making those decisions.
A few years I was asked to officiate at a wedding where while the bride and groom were very much in love, the families of each were not yet exactly sure how to approach each other. Part of that had to do with the fact that the families had quite literally only just met on the week before the wedding; some of it was geographical, as the groom’s family were from the deep south and the bride’s family were born and bred New Englanders; and, to be honest, a good deal of it had to do with race, as the groom and his family were African-American and the bride’s family were about as “white Anglo-Saxon protestant” as it gets! So there was, to say the least, some tension on both sides of the wedding aisle as these two diverse family traditions were blending into one!
But it happened that the groom’s father was an elderly evangelistic preacher of the African-American tradition; for years he used to do tent revival services throughout the south, and though his failing health had precluded him from officiating at the wedding he did agree to stand before the bride and groom and offer up a blessing for their marriage. I’ve got to tell you, it was one of the most stirring and eloquent evocations of love and faith that I’ve ever heard; moreover, it was rich with the language, and cadence and tradition of the black church, which is not something you hear a whole lot of in the State of Maine! And as a preacher, I loved it; I mean, even after he was finished, I remember thinking, never mind the bride and groom, you just keep going! (In fact, I went up to him afterward to thank him for taking part in the service, and told him that he could preach in my church anytime he wanted, and I’ll never forget his reply: “Son,” he said, “I’m retired!”)
This man said all the things to the couple that you might expect: about love and compassion, patience and forgiveness, about the important role of Christ as the third partner in a marriage. But then he said something else I’ve never forgotten, something that in fact I’ve taken to saying to couples myself; however, in this case it was clear as he looked around the sanctuary he was not merely speaking to the bride and groom, but to both of these families who were struggling with this new found relationship: “And if you’re gonna disagree,” he said, in a wonderful slow southern drawl, “disagree agreably!”
That’s right, you know? Isn’t that what marriage, or for that matter, any loving relationship all about; to address the inevitable conflicts of life with the same loving compassion with which we greet its joys? And isn’t that also central to the church’s mission? How could anyone who is loved by God and knows that Christ dwells within them act any differently? To disagree agreeably; to let our lives be grounded in God’s purposes first; to let God inhabit our thoughts and actions, and to shine through our words and deeds: this is what it means for us all to “be one.” And it is in that kind of life, wholly devoted to God’s love and purposes, that we see his glory in our lives, in our world and in his church.
The thing is, you know, I believe it’s true what the Psalmist has said: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” (Psalm 133:1) Despite our rugged capacity for being human and our occasional stumbling, it is a wonderful thing that in infinite love, God has brought us together as his people in this place. It is incredible to me the things that happen here; the insights that arise and the healing that takes place wholly because God has worked in and through the lives of those who sit in these pews.
It makes me realize that when Jesus prays “that they may all be one,” he’s not simply offering up an intercession for peaceful coexistence, but for God’s glory to be seen in what it is we do here; it’s for our witness as God’s people in this place to shine forth as a beacon to those who need that light and love in their lives.
So might it be, beloved. So might it be with God’s blessing on the road ahead.
AMEN and AMEN.
c.2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry