One With God and With One Another
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
June 1, 2014
Acts 1:6-14, John 17:1-11
In the gospel of John, Jesus spends his last evening with his disciples speaking with them about what he has taught them and what they can expect in the future. He calls them his friends, and he urges them to love each other. He tells them not to be afraid, that they will do even greater things than he has done, and that God will send God’s spirit to accompany them so that they will not feel abandoned or orphaned. This long conversation is known as the Farewell Discourse and begins in chapter 13 and goes on through chapter 16. It ends with Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17, which is not only a prayer to God for himself but is also a prayer for and with his disciples about the future than lies ahead for them. Jesus prays for their protection, that they may speak the truth, and that the world will come to know God because of their witness.
Repeatedly he asks God for unity among them. In verse 11 that we just read, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” And again, in verses 20-23, he asks that their unity be a sign to the world of what is possible through the love of God. He prays that not only his group of disciples will remain unified, but that those who will come later (that would be you and me) also believe and be one in God through the example and teaching of Jesus.
In his last prayer with his disciples, Jesus prays for the disciples and for us – not that we will be happy, or successful, or safe – but that we will be unified, that we will love one another. Obviously unity matters to God. But sadly, of all of Jesus prayers to God, this is the one that seems to have gone unanswered. Keeping that sense of identity and unity among the disciples was an immediate challenge and has been ever since.
In the passage from Acts that Sharon read earlier, we are told that after Jesus’ departure from his disciples, they were unified. They returned to Jerusalem, and all went to an upper room, and devoted themselves to prayer together. Everybody was there in that one room – the disciples, and “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
But that unity didn’t last long. They found new challenges right away that they hadn’t encountered before: Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch who wishes to be baptized, although tradition would have prevented it. Peter is commanded in a dream to meet with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, whose home was by tradition off limits and unclean. Although the book of Acts tries to put a unified face on the various issues that sharing the good news of Christ inevitably caused , it isn’t difficult to see that unity and love are difficult to maintain. Before you know it, the disciples are embroiled in debates over what to do about new people and new places and meet in Jerusalem to discuss their problems. What should they do about the Gentiles? How do their reconcile their Jewish traditions with these outsiders? Can they be a part of The Way? If so how? What’s the protocol for receiving them? The Council decided to write an official letter to Gentile believers, instructing them in what to do, what to believe and who to believe, so that they would get the true information from legitimate representatives.
We don’t need to have much familiarity with the history of the Christian church to know that Christians have not experienced a lot of success in the unity department. From the time of Paul who wrote “I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that . . . you be united in the same mind and the same purpose,” to just two days ago when Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner wrote an opinion piece in the Methodist Response, entitled “United is More Than an Adjective,” Christians have been struggling with the unity that was so precious to Jesus.
Division, rather than unity, has characterized the Christian church since its beginnings as various groups think only they have direct access to the truth and thus their way is the “only right way.” They feel no need for balance or for compromise and they are willing to tear the body of Christ into smaller and smaller pieces to uphold their rightness over both large and pitifully small issues. On the small side, I think I have told you before about a split that occurred in Pentecost UMC in Winder years before I served as their pastor, when a member of the church left to found Hope Baptist church after a dispute over the color of new roofing shingles was not resolved to his satisfaction.
And of course on the large issue of full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the United Methodist Church continues to be an issue for us with some saying the time for a split has come, while others continue to pray for a way through that won’t yet again fracture the body of Christ and be another witness to Christian disunity, rather than the unity for which Jesus prayed.
It is truly said that Jesus spent his last moments with his disciples praying for unity among themselves and with God, but our tendency, as human beings, is to separate ourselves from one another based on our differences rather than join together based on our love for God and Christ’s call to follow. We have the terrible tendency to define ourselves by what we are against, rather than what we are for. “No” seems always come easier than “yes,” because with yes comes fear of possible loss of position or of control. But to be one in Christ, to have that unity for which he prayed on that last night, we have to start with acceptance, with not too quickly labeling, analyzing, or categorizing things as in or out, good or bad, right or wrong. We have to leave God some room for God’s grace to operate; we have to let there be less of us and our way, so that there can be more for God and God’s way. Our egos have to let go of control so that our soul can be led to greener pastures than we know.
Whether it is within the local church with inevitable differences of opinion and priorities, or within the larger church as it struggles with changing times and understandings, the only way we can find unity instead of resigning ourselves to what seems to be inevitable division is through the grace of God. It isn’t anything we can do on our own. And God’s grace makes certain claims on us. First, that we confess our own sinfulness – whether it is the sinfulness of self-satisfaction, or self-justification, or worst of all, self-salvation. .
God’s grace also requires us to realize; that God is God and we are not. Only God can judge our neighbor. Judgment is God’s job, not ours. Our job is to invite, to offer welcome, hospitality, and acceptance. God will sort us all out.
And finally, God’s grace requires us to accept whomever God accepts. At the beginning of Jesus’ last conversation with his disciples, he says “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Only after acceptance of each person as a child of God can we begin then to discuss effectively and negotiate honestly, much less come to agreement, even if the agreement is to disagree.
Jesus prays for our unity, our unity in our love for him, our love for God, and our love for God’s people and world. This is not to be confused with uniformity; it does not mean voting the same way on every issue, or avoiding controversy at all costs, but unity based on love, despite differences and disagreements. The kind of unity that we have in our families that allows brothers and sisters to squabble or parents and children to disagree within a context of love. If my grandchildren can fight over a toy one minute, and then hug one another then next, why can’t we?
If unity matters to God, it should matter to us. If it is a priority in heaven, it should be a priority on earth. Sadly, it seems easier to plunge into the depths of pettiness than to rise to the challenge of greatness. But we are called by Christ to differ without disliking, to contradict without condemning, to debate without hate, and to love the one we perceive for the moment to be our enemy even while we hold him or her in conversation.
None of us possesses the truth in its fullness. None of us sees with perfect clarity. And if we are serious about our faith, we will spend our entire lives with deep humility trying to unravel the mystery of who God is, what God wants, and what it means to be in relationship with God. But I am pretty sure of one thing. When we stand before the judgment seat of God, Jesus Christ, our judge, will not ask “Did you have all the right answers?” He will ask, “did you love me above all else? And did you love your neighbor and live in unity together as I asked you to?”