May 6, 2018

Easter 6  May 6, 2018  Psalm 133, 1 John 4:13-21, 5:1-5, 13;

John 15:9-17, 17:1,20-23        United

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Life imitates the gospel. By divine synchronicity some of us were observing National Day of Prayer last Thursday, and our theme was a close match with our theme today from John’s gospel – unity in the body of Christ. Thursday morning I joined fellow Methodists at Swift Memorial in Sagamore for their Day of Prayer service, then joined believers from other Bourne churches at the flagpole outside Town Hall, praying for our town, state and nation, with unity again our theme.

One pastor-brother-friend prayed aloud for unity. Another prayed we’d remember – our unity can’t be unity in wrong-doing or not-caring. Our unity needs to be unity in Christ and doing his will…

A distinction we all agree on… And yet the work of being and staying united in Christ has never been easy…

Many have been praying for our United Methodist Bishops, meeting last week in prayer and discussion about a way forward for our denomination that can keep us from splintering and dividing. I was pleased yesterday to read a letter from our Bishop, saying the council of Bishops have agreed on a plan to keep us from further division. Great news. But I was not entirely surprised to read the Bishops plan for unity still includes actually three options – each of which will be a hard sell for some Methodists…And I’m hopeful by nature, but…

I’ve been remembering officiating once at a United Methodist Charge Conference in Northern New York state at the request of our District Superintendent. There were only two congregants left in this tiny church. They sat on opposite sides of the church all through the meeting. The pastor said it was this way every Sunday. Two people in one church… sitting far apart. And yes, this is just one tiny church… but…

I’m also remembering a church in Boston I was once involved in, where a group of parishioners, part of the church leadership, picked up and left the church abruptly to start their own church a mile or two away. The pastor told me this was a pattern. Every five or six years, he said, someone in the church leaves and starts another church. Which, come to think of it, has been basically the pattern of church history… all over the world.

The First Letter of John where we’ve been reading for five weeks now, is addressed to first century churches going through painful schisms. (We have to read the parts of the letter we’ve skipped over to notice – one reason First John keeps saying “love one another” so often… is because not everybody was.)

We don’t know all the details, but we know there’s lots of hurting. Many of St Paul’s letters are also written to address church divisions and schisms. All the early church ecumenical councils – Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc – were good attempts to forge unity amidst division on the essentials of faith. Yet even with lots of prayer and discussions over several centuries, still the Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholic churches split  over different understandings of theology, language… and religious and political turf and power.

Later Protestants split from Catholics. Protestants have since splintered into thousands of denominations. We Methodists divided from our Anglican church ancestors because of Wesley’s irregular ordination of clergy and bishops. African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and AME Zion Methodists left separately in protests against segregation in some of our prominent churches. Wesleyans split off from us over slavery. (We both opposed slavery, but our opposition seemed lukewarm to them.)  Nazarenes split with us over racial and economic justice. (Again we were lukewarm in their sight.) Northern and Southern predominantly white Methodists split over slavery, rejoining only fifty years ago after a hundred years apart.

Some of these divisions were probably very necessary. Others were not. We’re still discussing which was which…. But… Church unity has long been elusive….

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Yet here’s Jesus, praying for all those with him – that they will all be one as he and God the Father are one. Here’s Jesus, praying not only for them, but also for all of us everywhere who will ever believe – praying that we will all be one – praying that we’ll all know his love as surely as he knows the love of God the Father. An astonishing prayer….

That doesn’t seem to have been fully answered yet… according to usual ways of reading history.

Yet I’m not hearing any ifs-ands-buts-or-maybe’s in what Jesus says. And Jesus assures us – whatever he asks of God the Father is given to him.

So I’ve been asking Jesus – Lord, did your prayer for unity take effect just as soon as you prayed? (And we’re not seeing our unity because we don’t have eyes to see?)… Or could we be, as so often seems to be the case in John’s gospel – in a both-and-kind-of-time-zone – here-and-now-already fulfilled – and also still yet-to-be fulfilled? Our oneness in Christ already real but only partly visible… mostly in small ways… that seldom make it onto the world’s or even our own radar screens?

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And the more I ponder… The more the Word reminds me… John’s gospel has its own language system. We have to abide and reside in John awhile to notice all of his linguistic particularities…(For example–) John’s gospel is where we learn “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whomever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life… Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…” And John’s gospel is also where we hear the ruler of the world is the devil and the whole world is in opposition to God and Jesus. In John, God’s people and this world are usually portrayed as opposites – night and day, dark and light.

Yet…  John’s gospel is also where all our contradictions and divisions may yet be reconciled and resolved in Christ…

So maybe… all our questions about unity and the lack of it in Christ’s church… are all good questions… Questions that can’t help but arise… in a close reading of the word of God…

So too, the answers to all our questions abide and reside… in the Word of God who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth… All our best answers are from Jesus, God’s living Word, who speaks with us still… Reminding us of some of the ways in which we are already one:

One in love, already. One in the love of God the Father and Jesus the Son… One in love for one another…

One already in mission and purpose with Jesus… One in living to give glory to God, as we make God’s reality known to all the world…(Even one in love for the world – since again, Jesus prays we’ll be united with him and one another in making the love of God known to all the world.)

One, already, in sharing together in the life of Jesus in this world…

One, already, together in life eternal, that’s already begun in Christ…thanks to what Jesus has prayed for us and done for us, already.

Perhaps we’re one, already, also, even in our differences and disagreements – at least when we give divisions and disagreements to God for resolution. We’re very close to unity already whenever we give all our disagreements and divisions to God, for transformation into blessings… or to simply pass away… as we continue to grow and mature in Christ into the perfection in love… First John speaks of…

Hopefully we are already one… in knowing our need of God’s grace…Our need of Christ’s ongoing prayers for us… Our need to pray with him, as he prays for us…

So let’s pray again together with Jesus – for those two believers in that tiny little church in upstate New York – pray they will be sitting closer together in prayer. Pray with them for others to come, worship and love God with them… and with us…

Let’s pray for all the church everywhere… that we all come to appreciate the unity we already have in Christ. And become ever more patient with each other’s different understandings of Jesus – who he is, and what he’s saying to us…

Let’s continue in prayer with Jesus and one another – that all our differences and disagreements will all be dealt with in love – as we ask God to teach us to love one another more and more generously and inclusively…

Remembering we never pray for unity alone – because

Jesus our Savior and Friend himself – has prayed for us and prays for us still –

That we may all be one for God’s glory.

A prayer our gracious God is always happy to answer….

Thanks be to God. Amen.