Sunday, May 28, 2017
Jesus says at the end of today’s gospel reading, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” With how divided our country has become recently, I have been wondering a lot whether Jesus’ prayer that we as Christians be one as God the Father and Christ the Son are one will ever actually happen. We live in a world where we’re quick to judge and to label “Democrat,” “Republican,” to call people names or troll on social media, and too often how we identify ourselves is based on how we can separate ourselves from others, rather than on what might unite us and make us one.
We can look at how divided the world is, but just within the Christian world, it’s debatable how different researchers get to the number, there’s at least around 1,100 Christian denominations in the world, some argue as many as 30,000. Even though we know as Christians that we’re supposed to get along and be united as Jesus prays for us to be, being divided is not new for us. Ever since Jesus walked the earth and the early church was formed, people have looked for reasons to break apart from one another. Have you heard this joke? There was a man rescued after several years of being alone on a deserted island. They found three buildings the man had constructed and inquired about them. “Well, this one is my house, and that one over there is my church,” the man answered. “What about the third building?” one of the rescuers asked. The man on the island responded, Oh, that’s the church I USED to go to.” Division and separation seems to be human nature. One of the first Christian controversies you can read about is in the book of Acts. Gentiles, not just Jews, had heard about Jesus the Messiah and wanted to become a part of the church, but Jewish Christians insisted that the Gentiles must be circumcised to be a part of this new Christian church. This changed when Peter had a vision where God told him that what had previously been considered unclean by the Jews was clean in God’s eyes – circumcision was not a prerequisite for being a Christian. Not everyone jumped on board with this new policy right away, though. As we learned in our Lenten midweek discussion on what it means to be “one,” the Nicene Creed was established in 325 AD to define a Christian church based on some basic theological believes, like Jesus being the son of God, both divine and human. But some broke off at that point because these holy men couldn’t agree on whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father AND the Son or just the Father. The Roman Catholic Church separated from the Eastern Orthodox church in the Great Schism of 1054 AD, if you remember that from history class. And of course, 2017 is the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses and opened the door to the formation of many Protestant denominations apart from the Roman Catholic Church.
The question then is with our fractured history, our current hostile and divisive situation, and our human tendency to disagree with one another, what can possibly make us still one? Unity is not uniformity, as we learned this past Lent. It’s not Christ’s intention that everyone who follows him look the same, think the same, and act the same. I’m pretty sure the God of the universe who knows us better than we know ourselves knows this is impossible for human beings – to ask us all to be the same. It’s good news that being one in Christ is about being unified in our diversity and not about uniformity. God models this one-ness for us perfectly in God’s very being and nature: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not all the same, – they are three and yet one. That’s what Jesus is trying to tell the disciples and us today in this gospel – we are one because God in Christ brings us together, not because of anything that we can do on our own to get along. We share a common identity with Christ at the center.
Perhaps you are starting to wonder like I was when I first read the gospel passage for this morning what Jesus is actually talking about, though. It get confusing, admittedly – so, Jesus wants us to be one but it’s still Ok to be different? What’s really the difference between unity and uniformity? Or you might just plain be thinking, “If you’re going to tell me to get along with a Trump supporter or a Bernie Sanders socialist liberal you can forget it.” While I was on parental leave, I thought about what might be a helpful analogy as we try to envision what makes us one as Christians – what we mean when we say we are “one” in Christ. Ever since we’ve started introducing Grace to people after she was born, we hear: “She looks just like her sister!” Now, when Erin was born, most people said, “She looks just like Rich!” Or they will ask us, “Who do you think Grace looks like more? Does she look like you when you were a baby?”
Now, we get that question still as adults sometimes, especially at family reunions or when we’re out with siblings or our parents or adult children. I’ve been told I look a lot like my mom. When I look at old pictures of Rich’s Grandma Addie, whom Grace Adelaide is named for, I realize my sister-in-law looks a lot like her. Whether you’re a spitting image of one parent or some combination, as family we resemble one another. We can’t help but inherit some traits, good or bad, from our ancestors. And this, I think, is at least partly what it means to be one in Christ. We can’t help but look a little, act a little, sound a little like Christ because we have inherited the riches of his grace – we have some of Christ’s genes, so to speak. We resemble Christ because at our baptism we received his name, “Christian” and became children of God. We can disagree about all kinds of things as Christians – how we do communion and what it means, women’s roles in ministry, how or when we baptize, and so on. What unites us is our identity in Christ – we are a part of God’s family, and that means we bear God’s resemblance.
The challenge, of course, is like our blood relations, we may resemble one another, but that doesn’t mean we always get along or present a united front to the world. We need to not only know that we look a little bit like Christ but also act like we’re actually related to him. How do people with whom you interact on a daily basis know you’re a Christian? It’s not just the bumper stickers you put on your car or the cross jewelry you wear. To use the body of Christ imagery throughout the New Testament, do you feel like God has particularly gifted you to have Christ’s hands, ears, eyes, or feet? Perhaps his voice or his heart? How are you being uniquely YOU while also resembling Christ in your daily life? That’s what being one in Christ is about.
What’s more is that we need eyes to see that our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are just that – our siblings who also resemble Christ. That’s where the whole getting along piece gets hard, and where Christ’s prayer for us to be one in unity with him and God’s children sometimes seems like wishful thinking. We have to get beyond the labels and stereotypes to recognize our commonalities as Christians, not just our differences. I can be a proud Lutheran and still do great work with my Methodist colleagues. I know why I’m a Lutheran and can still appreciate worshipping in a nondenominational or Catholic church. I can even strongly disagree with some of you here in my own church in my own congregation but at the end of the day, you are my church family and Christ unites us, not the issues we agree upon. One of the most powerful ways we can recognize our oneness in Christ is when we pass the peace. This isn’t just a casual hello or catching up on the week – this is looking people in the eye to extend Christ’s love and even sometimes forgiveness. We are acknowledging that we are one in Christ – and we have a striking resemblance to him! Be attentive to that this morning as you look into each other’s eyes and shake hands. These are your brothers and sisters in Christ, and isn’t it amazing?! Maybe like your blood relatives, there are some people here that you’d NEVER otherwise associate with or even be acquainted with, but that’s what Jesus does. He brings otherwise completely different, unique people together. And so we pray with Jesus, “Father, protect us in your name that you have given us, that we may be one, as you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are one.” Amen.