Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sermon: The Unifier

John 17:1-11

Both of the puppets wanted to climb the tree, they both wanted to pick the fruit. Neither of them wanted to have the job of holding the basket. I shared with them that Jesus prayed for us to be of one heart and one mind. That was a bit of a simplification for the kids, because what Jesus actually says is, “May they be one just as we are one.” In other words that we may have the same kind of unity that Jesus and God have. And that concept is hard enough to explain to adults let alone to kids. So let’s struggle with what it means to be one like God and Jesus are one.

For some churches being one means that we all have to believe the exact same thing, so they make sure that they have very detailed statements of what they believe, and all of their church members have to ascribe to these statements of belief. This was very true during the protestant reformation 500 years ago. So they often had detailed teachings with questions and answers that people were expected to answer. For example the Geneva Catechism has 373 questions and answers. The Heidelberg catechism only has 129 questions and answers but the answers about three times as long.

For other churches being one means that we all have to dress alike: women should have long hair, men short hair; women must wear dresses, men wear button down shirts and ties; John Wesley our own United Methodist founder discouraged wearing jewelry. The Amish are probably the most extreme example of this type of unity.

But I am not convinced that either of these are what Jesus meant, when he spoke about us being one as he and God are one. Listen to the scripture and see what you think Jesus is saying. This is from John 17:1-11

When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created.

“I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this 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 comes from you. This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.

“I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.

As I listen, what I hear is that Jesus and God are one in their work, they have the same goal of bringing eternal life to humanity even since before the world was created; but then Jesus takes their oneness deeper, he says that everything that he and God share all things, everything that is his is God’s and everything that is God’s is his. Including their name. So what might that mean that Jesus and God share a name?

Well when I think about it, the people that I have the same name as are my family. We share the McPherson name. We share a connection that suggests we are relatives and connected.

Likewise, “The United Church of Canada has, since 1944, had the words “that they may all be one” on their crest. These words appear in John 17:11 and 17:21. In 1980, they added the words in French, recognizing that they are a church in a bilingual nation. In 2012, expanding their recognition of the First Nations context for the church, they added the Mohawk expression: Akwe Nia‘Tetw√°:neren (aw gway nyah daydaywaw nayrenh) meaning “All my relations.” Similar to John 17:11 and 21, this phrase expresses an awareness that we are all connected. Perhaps this was what Jesus intended in his prayer as he was leaving this earth – a plea that we would recognize how we are all related.” (Seasons of the Spirit)

Certainly that is an area in which our modern culture can grow. We are more likely to see people as opponents than relatives. Some of our older traditions have a lot to teach us. For example, a Caucasian man speaks of the first time he was invited into a Cree sweat lodge: “When we entered the sweat lodge Stanley, our guide, told us we needed to respect the hot stones in the centre. ‘Those are our grandmothers and grandfathers,’ he said. Just that statement brought me to a new understanding of my connectedness with all of creation.” (Seasons of the Spirit)

So perhaps that is what Jesus means by our being one with each other: that we are to be like family, to treat each other as relations, to understand our connectedness. Remember he says this not long after he acknowledges that everything that is God’s is his. We all belong to God and to Christ.

But even as Jesus encourages unity, this passage sets up a challenging dichotomy. It talks about Jesus’ disciples being people that came from this world, that still dwell in this world, and yet there is something different about them from the world. He even says he is praying for his disciples, but not for the world.

So it leaves me asking the question of who does Jesus intend to be included as his disciples in his prayer, and who might be outside the circle. There is a tension between who is “all my relations”, who are my grandmothers and grandfathers, and who or what is not. This is not easy.

Some Christians draw the circle of disciples very tight including only their own denomination, a select few and suggesting these alone are who Christ is speaking of. Other Christians draw the circle very wide including people of all faiths and traditions suggesting that Jesus is asking for unity among all people. I personally draw the circle quite large, because that is how I interpret the biblical texts, but you may disagree. And there is where we get to practice our unity. How can we work together as Christians, when we have disagreements? What does it mean to have unity when we are not always of one heart and one mind.

Even among this small group of people being as connected as Christ and God are is a huge challenge! Let alone when we try to take that to the global Christian community!

One of our issues is that we have a problem seeing the difference between unity and uniformity. That phrase comes from our recent small group study here in the church called Different Not Divided.

In the study the presenters remind us that unity is not the same as uniformity. Uniformity is when we all look alike, we all believe the same things, pray in the same ways, talk the same, think the same, vote the same, we come from the same socioeconomic background, ethnic group, and so on. Uniformity is comfortable because we know what to expect from each other. But unity is not the same thing. All we have to do is look at the early church. These were people Jews and Greeks, people who spoke different languages, men and women, slaves and masters, rich and poor – they were clearly not uniform, but they were united. Their unity came from Christ’s spirit at work in their lives.

You might compares us as human beings to a group of trees, saying that what unites us is that we are all planted in the same soil: a passion for Jesus Christ, shared inspiration and a desire to live God’s ways. Yet each of us as trees looks different, bears different fruits. We should not despise the others for their differences, but rather honor the fact that we share a common soil. Or in the words of the scripture we share the common name, we are relatives.

So how do we do that? And I begin by acknowledging that it isn’t easy. The study suggest several practices but the all boil down to one essential thing.

Share your story, your opinion, your perspective. Share from your experience, share personally. It is our stories that make us unique, and ultimately it is our stories that shape our opinions and our differences.

As we do that we must honor one another’s stories. We must listen to understand how their differences spring from that common soil we share. We need to try to avoid saying things that shut them down as they tell their story, don’t force them to withdraw or defend themselves, don’t try to make them conform to you.

By doing this we become united even in our differences, because we share a common name, a common soil. We are rooted in the same ground, and share the same foundation. Our fruit may look very different, our opinions may be very different, our approach to life and even ministry may be very different, but we grow from the same source.

All my relations, you and I are called to unity, not sameness. To interconnection and relationship, as God and Christ are interconnected and in relationship. So are we. Let us celebrate the soil we share, even as we see such differences between us.

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