Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 16:16-34; John 17:20-26
In the name of the risen Christ. Amen.
The story is told in the congregation I grew up in, that 100 years ago, the congregation experienced a major theological disagreement. The specifics of the disagreement are lost to history, but the disagreement was serious enough that the congregation split. A number of parishioners left the congregation to start another congregation and those two congregations continue to exist today.
But that’s not the end of the story. In their split, they couldn’t decide what to do with the church organ. Which group did the organ belong to? So do you know what the stubborn Germans did, these faithful disciples and followers of Jesus? They removed the organ from the church, put it in the middle of the road, and lit the organ on fire. They destroyed it so that neither group could have it. (For another possible explanation, see the note below.)
If you took a poll of Christians in the United States on any of the issues before the country, you would find Christians as divided as the rest of society. The political success of what some have called the “Christian Right” has given rise to what others have called the “Christian Left.”
In these, and so many other countless examples, Christians seem to be anything but “one.”
And yet, oneness is what Jesus prayed for in today’s gospel. In today’s gospel, Jesus prayed for his disciples, and through them prayed for us, that we might be one. Three times, in this short prayer, Jesus prayed that his followers would be one.
What does oneness look like for us, as followers of Jesus today? What does it mean when it seems like Christians are so bad, or at least no better than anyone else, at being one?
Theologian Melinda Quivick acknowledges that the unity longed for by Jesus has not been achieved. She is honest about the division among Christians. Nevertheless, she writes: “the call to oneness endures. And might we consider the call itself as the unity sought? That, in fact, we are made one by virtue of Jesus’ invitation to us.”
Quivick’s observation invites us to consider the possibility, that like peace, in last week’s Gospel we heard Jesus saying that he does not give as the world gives, oneness is not given by Christ as the world gives. That the oneness Christ prayed for is perhaps something different than our experience of oneness and divisiveness.
Oneness that the world gives, oneness reinforced by consumer capitalism that tailors products and services to wide variety of customers, is achieved by surrounding ourselves with people who look like us, think like us, and act like us. Oneness is an outward manifestation of uniformity, conformity, and agreement. It is found in turning away from those who are different, and turning instead to those who do not challenge us and to those who reinforce what we are thinking, and what we are doing.
That is the oneness the world gives, but that is NOT the oneness Christ gives.
The oneness given by Christ is described right there in the prayer, recorded in the Gospel reading today. Jesus prayed that the disciples would be one, as he and God were one. What is this oneness shared by Jesus and God the Father?
We confess in the Athanasian Creed …“The deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty. What the Father is, the Son is, and so is the Spirit.” God and Jesus are one in identity, one in being, one in majesty.
And yet, we worship one God in trinity. In faith we are called not to confuse the persons. To put it simply, and acknowledging that anytime we try to explain the Trinity we are skating on thin ice above waters of heresy especially if we say we have a simple explanation, but might we say that God the Father and God the Son are one in identity, even as they are distinct in expression. One identity, three persons, three expressions.
From our Trinitarian God, then, might we learn that our oneness is found in our identity, even as that one identity is expressed differently?
That our oneness is not found in uniform actions or agreement in opinions or even right dogma and theology, but is found in the one invitation of the Spirit, we have all received, into the heart of God through faith in Jesus Christ?
That our oneness is found in the fact that we are washed in the same water, raised to life in the same Word, and nurtured in the same meal of the table.
That our oneness is experienced in our shared need for Christ, our shared invitation to enter into God’s presence through faith, and our one call to share God’s love with the world.
Oneness in identity … not diminished but enhanced by diversity of expression. That’s not oneness as the world gives. That’s oneness that Christ gives, and that Christ prayed for, and that we today are called to recognize and celebrate.
Back to my home congregation of 100 years ago …
To be charitable, might we understand the initial theological dispute resulting in the split, and again I’m not sure what it was, but coming from one place of love? Because the two groups were one in their love of, and concern for, right preaching and teaching about God, about how a community formed itself in faith in God’s love, and about how to live as disciples, that their one love of God simply led them to two different places. That they decided to live out their faith as two congregations in different places need not in itself be seen as a sign that oneness in Christ was broken, in fact, it is the basis for ecumenical relationships today.
We as ELCA Lutherans, through full communion agreements with Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Moravians, and the Reformed Church in America celebrate oneness in identity found in the gospel, even as we have differences in how we live out that faith. This congregation has a covenant with Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Parish in Worcester, the powerful covenant celebrates one faith, even as we express that faith differently.
At the same time, in the flames of the destroyed organ 100 years ago, we must acknowledge that sometimes divisiveness and disagreements among Christians do not come from faith, they come from sin. The reality is, there are times when Christians, because we are sinners, and because we remain curved in upon ourselves, are simply rude, nasty, belligerent, stubborn and hurtful. In those times, we need to be honest with one another. Disagreements arising out of sin do untold damage to the body of Christ. In honest confession, each of us needs to consider our own motivations and how our actions either build up the body in love, or tear down the body in our sin.
Oneness is no trivial matter. Jesus prayed that we would be one – so that the world would know God’s love. The purpose of oneness, is for the sharing of God’s love with the world. And with the insight, that we are one in faith, even as we are many in expression of a shared faith, might we consider the possibility that we, as Christians, were made for a such a polarized time as this one? Perhaps the gift we can give society, and as witness to God’s love, is that we can at the same time celebrate oneness of identity, even in differences and disagreements in expression.
That by starting from our oneness in faith, we can live together with disagreements and differences without being disagreeable and divisive … That by celebrating our oneness found in our shared call to faith, we may know that our shared identity as the children of God is far powerful than our disagreements among us. … That in the power of the Holy Spirit through faith, it is possible to be unified on the great matters of God’s love that shape us as one people, even in our disagreements and differences on lesser matters.
That’s the hope, and the Good News, proclaimed in our First Reading this morning from Acts. Commenting on the reconciliation between Paul and Silas and the jailor who oversaw their imprisonment, scholar Angela Zimmann writes: “The jailer appears to have nothing in common with Paul and Silas, but at the end of the story the Holy Spirit has built a bridge across this ideological and social gap. In our turbulent culture where the use of social media exacerbates the divides between people and our body politic is resorting to ad hominem attacks against opponents (much like Paul and Silas’s accusers), the reconciliation between prisoners (victims) and jailor (perpetrator) through the power of the baptismal covenant points to a larger narrative beyond seemingly intractable polarizations. In short, if these three can break bread together, then there is hope for us and those with whom we disagree ideologically.”
Hope is found, in the larger narrative of God’s love revealed in Christ, announced in the waters of baptism. As a gift of grace, God’s reconciling word leads us beyond seemingly intractable polarizations, to oneness found in God’s covenant with God’s people.
Receiving this oneness as a gift of grace, delivered to us in the water and word, in the bread and cup, let us arise as Church and forth. As one, may we go forth in our unique ways, with our individual talents, passions, and contributions. As one, may we each announce God’s love to the world, in the unique and special ways we have been called.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
*After preaching this sermon, a parishioner explained another possibile reason for burning the organ. She shared the 19th century German story “Granite” by Adelbert Stifter in which a grandfather tells a grandmother to destroy a treasured bowl after the grandfather destroyed the varnish of the bowl washing his grandson’s feet. The grandfather ordered the bowl destroyed because it was causing a rift in the family. To be charitable to those German immigrants of a century ago, did they in fact burn the organ because it was causing a rift? Did they burn the organ to eliminate it as a distraction to oneness?