John 17 (NRSV)
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
“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. 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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
I know some of us desperately try to remain indifferent about the stuff that happens outside our church, work, and home bubbles, but one thing it seems none of us can hide from is the invisible, but rigid, dividing wall that has been erected in current American culture. Some have remarked that our country is the most divided it has been since the Civil War. I don’t really know if that’s true—my frame of reference is not quite as long as it is for some of you—but recent research into polarization within political parties, in particular, suggests that we are more divided now than we were during McCarthyism in the 1950s and the Vietnam protests in the 1960s.
We can see evidence of this division all around us in the names we call each other. We don’t relate to each other on a first name basis. Rather, we identify others based on the name of their party (Democrat or Republican), their leaning on the political spectrum (Conservative or Progressive, and sometimes more crass names that I cannot say in church), or their news source (whether it’s CNN/Fox News, the Wall Street Journal/New York Times, or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Tribune-Review).
A Pew Research poll from just under 2 years ago suggested that, not only do we sharply disagree on where we should go as a country, but we see each other as a threat to our nation. 41% of Democrats and 45% of Republicans think that the other party is a threat to our nation’s well-being.
I wish we could say that those numbers have declined since the 2016 election cycle, but they haven’t.
Truthfully, I find this example more amusing than anything, but have any of you gotten off the Bavington exit on US-22 recently? I’m sure you know that in just under a month, the current 18th District of PA will be voting on March 13th for Tim Murphy’s temporary replacement in the US House of Representatives. You’ve seen the signs. Well, off the Bavington exit a sign was first put up for Republican Rick Saccone, then one right next to it for Conor Lamb. A few days later, yellow arrow-shaped signs popped up next to the original two, suggesting that Saccone’s sign came from his rich friends on Wall Street while Lamb’s sign was paid for by your neighbors. Then, after a week or so, another sign was put up in response, pointing to the Lamb sign and saying that your neighbors paid for their sign with their 401(k) earnings from… Wall Street.
Many of you have seen the ads on the local news as well, suggesting that one of the candidates is a sheep for party big-wigs and that the other is coming for your social security.
All of these things just illustrate how we talk over each other, rather than identifying with our common American identity. In our national discourse, we’ve resorted to attacking people rather than debating ideas.
Nothing is a better example of that than the flippant posts I saw on Facebook following the slaughter of 17 people, children and adults, at a school in Parkland, Florida. Rather than identify our shared pain and prayerfully develop a response as a nation, we all just retreated into our ideological corners.
I think that we can agree that such division is not the best way to order society together. But, this is church, and not the place for us to settle issues of state and national policy.
The disheartening thing is that this division is just as visible within the body of Christ, the Church, often along the same lines. Conservative and Progressive Christians, have their own news networks, blogs, denominations, and seminaries. They each have their approved reading lists of authors they trust, not wanting to be corrupted or persuaded from the other side. They each, at times, attack the other group over the way they minister to mothers with unexpected pregnancies and the babies they carry, people caught in cycles of poverty or criminality, and people of other religions. We don’t just disagree about these issues, we fight tooth and nail about them (or, we desperately avoid the fight because we’re right and we don’t even need to talk to those with whom we disagree). Most of all, it seems that the Christian church, far from being one body, throws grenades from one foxhole to another over how we should best minister to people who are Gay, Lesbian, or Transgender.
Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, and Lutherans have all fought this fight and divided over the issue. (Of course, this hasn’t stopped the gunfire from one side to the other). Now, as the United Methodist Church has been debating and studying and hopefully praying for a way forward, it seems that something will have to change within our structure to allow us all to follow our convictions.
But we don’t even have to look at these issues at such a macro level to see the pain of division. Though we may not harbor any ill will toward them, we are divided in various capacities from our Christian brothers and sisters at Tucker and Colliers UM churches, Cornerstone Mennonite, Paris and Burgettstown Presbyterian, Our Lady of Lourdes, Abundant Grace Church, Crossroads, or any number of the churches in Weirton. Sure, there are reasons why we come here rather than going there, but how easy it is to view it as a competition? Deep down, we want our church and our style of worship to thrive and for those other people to come and see our light! Even if we don’t harbor such feelings, we still do nothing to contribute to our unity.
We know too the way our church, here in Eldersville, has been torn apart in the past by disagreement and by differing loyalties—in many ways we still have not healed from that pain.
We know this is not the way it is supposed to be. We know the words of Jesus in his high priestly prayer, that we may be one, as Jesus is one with God. So what can we do to live into Christ’s prayer?
Some suggest that unity is only important within our particular faction. So, they say, it doesn’t matter if people who disagree with us leave, because then we will be able to get back to doing what we wanted to do all along. And so, we separate ourselves into smaller and smaller factions, until perhaps, we’re the only Christian we can stand being around.
Over 30 years ago, Emo Philips told a joke that gets at this kind of “Christian unity.”
Okay, maybe that’s not your idea of Christian unity. Perhaps your approach is to enforce unity through uniformity. You dream to yourself, “what if everyone became Methodist!” I actually have a friend at seminary who is convinced that the way to Christian unity is for all of us to join the Orthodox Church, of which he is not even a member.
Even still, you might hope that maybe someday, we can all come together as Christians under one denomination. An attempt was actually made on this front in the 1960s through the “Consultation on Church Union,” involving Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. They worked on this project for 40 years, but realized something that we should have known all along.
The unity of Christian witness does not require that we all be the same, because the truth is, Christianity is as diverse as is humanity! And such diversity is actually a reflection of the differentiation within our Triune God. Jesus is one with the Father, but Jesus is not the Father. The Spirit is one with the Father and the Son, but the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. Together, inseparably, God works for the salvation of the world. How much more would we, then, be able to work for the salvation of the world if we were one as God is one?
What if we lived out the truth, expressed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we are one body, and we cannot separate ourselves from another member of that body? The truth is that the “arm” is going to annoy us sometimes, the “foot” may sometimes want to go its own direction, but we cannot separate ourselves from our Christian brothers and sisters. Because, one way or another, whether we like it or not, we’ll have to live within that diversity in the heavenly kingdom.
Even if you haven’t heard the last joke before, you’ve certainly heard this one:
A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “denomination?”
The man says, “Methodist.”
St. Peter looks down his list and says, “Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “denomination?”
“Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
A third man arrives at the gates. “denomination?”
“Go to Room 11, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?”
St. Peter tells him, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
Friends, don’t be like the Baptists in the joke who need to be convinced that they’re the only ones who are going to make it to heaven. Because, while there may be many rooms in God’s heavenly kingdom, it is one church, (and the Pentecostals are really going to enjoy all the tongues that are going to be spoken there).
Now, this obviously has profound implications for how we live our lives as Christians within the Christian community. But I would argue that it also has implications for our relationships outside the church. For, only when we understand and appreciate the rich diversity within our Christian family can we truly learn to love our neighbor. Only when we learn to live with and love our brothers and sisters in Christ do we realize that the people “out there” who we’re afraid of aren’t really that much different from those “in here.” I’m not saying that we’re all ever going to agree—I think the Rabbis will be impressed with the amount of theological debate that occurs in the heavenly kingdom—but it does mean that we will love and assume the best of those with whom we are in conversation.
Working for unity that maintains our distinctiveness and our difference is hard work. But the good news is that as Jesus prayed for us before his crucifixion, he still intercedes on our behalf from his throne on the right hand of God the Father. The prayers of our Savior are powerful and effective. In Christ, through Christ, and in the power and unity of the Holy Spirit, we will become one body.
We will become one body, which is taken, blessed, broken, and given to our world as a living sacrifice. In unity, we will display the glory which was displayed in Jesus Christ so that the world will come to know and believe the good news.
This is our most important and powerful witness—that we would be one, as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father. Only then can the world come to believe in Jesus who was sent to love the whole world.
May it be so. Amen.