Sunday, July 12, 2009
Petty Differences - John 17:11b-19
Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While 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. 13But 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. 14I 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. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
I love going to dinner parties. I love to mix and mingle with the other friends of my host, and find it fascinating to meet the other people whom my host knows from other aspects of their life. Imagine you are the one who has thrown a dinner party, with a rich variety of people there. You invite your neighbors, a few people from work, a few people from church, and a few relatives. These people are all important in your life and you’re deeply connected to each of them. The only thing is, they have no connection to each other. Imagine your surprise, when coming back through the dining room with a fresh batch of spinach artichoke dip, you walk into an argument taking place between your neighbor and your cubicle-mate over a recent sporting event. Your kids’ soccer coach is arguing with your sister over politics, and it seems your beloved pastor has just dumped the punchbowl over the head of your homeowner’s association.
To your party, you invited the people nearest and dearest to you, people who are important to you, people whom you love. Somehow, you assumed that because they loved you, they would also love each other. Not necessarily.
In the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus offers a simple, yet transformative prayer. He prays that all his followers will be one. Our text this morning is often referred to as the real Lord’s Prayer. What we commonly refer to as the Lord’s Prayer might better be called the Disciples’ Prayer, for it is how our Lord taught us to pray as his followers. But when our Lord paused to pray for us, after supper on that last evening but just shortly before the disciples fell asleep in the garden, he made one simple plea: make them one. May we pray.
There are differences among us – nothing all that earth-shattering in that statement. In Boone, we had a combined children’s choir with the First Presbyterian Church. On the Sundays when the choir sang at our church, the director would remind the kids that when we prayed, they needed to say “trespasses” and not “debts.” Presbyterians are hung up on who owes who, Methodists are hung up on who’s been on our property. It’s important to be clear about sin, and sin is tough enough without disagreeing over the words by which we wish to call it. Whether you ask forgiveness for your sins, debts, or trespasses, I think the sentiment is pretty clear – we’ve mucked up pretty good no matter name it goes by.
The differences among many Christian denominations are evident to many of us. Many of these differences have landed the starring roles in jokes and stories. No doubt, you’ve heard about the fundamentalist who asked his Methodist friend, “Can Methodists dance?” His friend responded, “Well, some can, and some can’t, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.”
Or, you’ve certainly heard about the difference between Methodists and Baptists, being that Methodists will actually say, “Hello!” to you when they see you in the liquor store.
Two little boys grew up side by side. One was Methodist, and the other was Catholic. One day, they decided to learn about each other’s church. The first week, they went together to Catholic mass. The little Methodist was mesmerized by what he saw, and he pointed and asked questions throughout the service. He looked at the beautiful windows and statues, and asked, “What do those mean?” His Catholic friend said those were images of the saints, and they reminded us all of the great people of the faith who have passed on before us so that we can follow their example. He saw candles in little red glasses burning in the entrance, and his friend told him that people lit those when they would pray, as a way of symbolically lifting their prayer to God. They had a good time together, and it was worth the experience.
The next week, they went to the Methodist service. During the passing of the peace, the little Catholic boy felt warmly welcomed, even if people were a little more exuberant than he was used to. Right before the sermon, the pastor stood in the pulpit and took off his watch. The Catholic boy asked, “What does that mean?” The Methodist just shook his head and said “Absolutely nothing.”
Or, perhaps you’ve heard about the Jehovah’s Witness who married the atheist. It’s sad, really, their kids run around knocking on doors for no apparent reason.
We recognize the differences and the distinctions between various members of the Christian family, and many of these differences give us a good laugh and nothing more. Yet, we must also recognize that there are genuine divisions in the family, many of them hostile and harmful. What’s worse, there are not only divisions among different Christian groups – many times the sharpest divisions can be found right within the same church.
When he prayed by flickering candlelight that night, after the dishes from the Passover meal had been cleared in the quiet calm before the calamity of Good Friday, Jesus prayed. Jesus prayed for us. Protect them. Make them one. Make their joy complete in themselves. Keep them set apart from the world. Sanctify them.
On the night before he met with death, Jesus prayed for us. Knowing these were his last hours, Jesus calls out to God, “I am no longer in the world, but these followers are mine are.” Leaving us behind, leaving us still in the world, Jesus pled on our behalf. Knowing the powers of the world – the powers of fear, hate, bigotry, pride – knowing their evil and destructive power, Jesus prayed for us. He prayed that we would not be torn apart by our own agendas, our fear of strangers, and our distrust for people not exactly like ourselves. He prayed that we would be one.
And yet, how we Christians continue to struggle. We struggle because evil is still in the world and it calls to us with its seductive song, luring us away from the journey toward sanctification and back into the doldrums of business as usual. Even in our well-intentioned attempts to resist evil, we blindly sin all the more as our zealousness in fighting sin lead us to name and squash the evil among us better than the Christian group down the street, calling it out and gouging the speck from one another’s eye before even addressing the plank in our own.
Those on the right condemn the left as “soft on doctrine and order.” Those on the left condemn the right for narrow-mindedness and judgmentalism. They both condemn the middle for going, either, too far or not far enough, but the middle condemns them both for being extremist and fanatical.
But Jesus’ prayer for us was that we would be one. Despite the strength of my argument and the passion of my conviction, too often I forget that at the other end of my opinion is a brother or sister with an equally strong opinion – a brother or sister for whom Jesus prayed when he prayed for me, a brother or sister for whom Jesus was willing to die, a son or daughter of God whom Jesus loves very much, a precious child created in the image and likeness of God, a person of inestimable and sacred worth.
Yes, there are differences among us, sometimes significant differences, and I don’t want to downplay those. But Jesus’ prayer for us was not that we would all be the same; his prayer for us was that we would be one. His prayer was that, despite the difference of our convictions, of our opinions, of our beliefs, of our theology, of our experiences with God and each other, that despite all these differences, we would be one. His prayer was not for uniformity; it was for unity. Jesus didn’t ask us to surrender the ways in which are fearfully and wonderfully and differently made by our Creator. No, Jesus invites us each to the table, with all those differences and distinctions fully in hand, and says, “Look around at my wonderful mixed-up family.”
Really, think about your own family, and the odd sociological experiment known as “The Family Reunion.” Does anyone here have a crazy aunt? How about weird cousins? Keep in mind that each of you are also someone’s cousin! When the whole family gathers, it’s a big table, and as you look around, you’re thinking, “I have GOT to be adopted!” As you look around the table, there are people with whom you disagree, there are people who you don’t even like, and yet, you’re still family.
Jesus reminds us in this prayer that we are in the world, but not of it. The powers of the world would want to use the differences of our opinions, convictions to drive a wedge through the heart of the Christian community. The powers of the world are very good at making comparisons, at sorting things out, and telling us which sort of things (or people!) ought not to be placed with other sorts of things (or people!). But Jesus prayed that we would be one. The world will tell us to divide and split along our differences, and we Christians have historically done a very good job of doing just that through the centuries.
However, Jesus prayed something different for us. Jesus prayed that our union with each other as members of God’s family would outweigh the differences among us. Jesus prayed that we would be one. Divisions are strong and they threaten to undo us, but the name of the one who prays for our unity is more powerful than the powers of the world. Though the powers of the world continue to threaten Christian unity, we do not belong to this world. We belong to God, each of us, and are knit together as brothers and sisters in the name of the one who prayed for us.
“I am no longer in the world, but they are,” he admitted. But friends, unlike Elvis, Jesus has not left the building. Jesus’ body is no longer here, but Jesus’ body is still very much here. This is one of the great mysteries of our faith. I want everyone to place your hands in your lap, palm-side-up. Take a good look at them. Study them carefully. Study the hands of the people sitting on either side of you, too. Now, take a good look at your shoes. Make sure you notice your neighbor’s shoes, also. Those hands you’ve studied are the hands of Jesus. Those feet are the feet of Jesus.
Wow. Seems like Jesus could have left his future presence in better hands than ours, doesn’t it? People with faults and failures and issues like ourselves, people who are constantly drawn back into the ways of the world, people who are prone to bickering and gossiping, people who are prone to divisions and strife, people who are prone to judgmentalism and fear – and yet, we’re exactly the ones he chooses.
In fact, it is because of our issues that Jesus chooses us. God doesn’t love us because we’re lovable, we’re lovable because God loves us. Jesus doesn’t choose us because we’re holy; Jesus chooses us to make us holy. Those hands and feet you have just studied are part of God’s plan of salvation for the world. As diverse and wonderfully made as those hands are, they still belong to Jesus. Those hands are not intended for division, they are not intended for harm, they are not intended for pain. Those hands are intended for healing and wholeness, those hands are intended to be joined with all other hands that belong to Jesus. The challenge is not to recognize our own hands as the hands of Jesus; the challenge is to recognize all those other hands as belonging to him as well.
Back in May, I was in Atlanta with about 2000 of my closest friends to hear Desmond Tutu preach. You’ll recall that he was the Anglican Archbishop in South Africa, and before, during, and after his tenure as Archbishop, he was a champion for human rights, earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work against apartheid. Here’s what he told our group: “Tell people who are used to being treated like rubbish that they are God-carriers.” It’s impossible to treat someone like rubbish when you first see them as a child of God, as someone who was created in God’s image. “If we took this seriously, every Sunday when we pass the peace, we wouldn’t quickly and politely shake a few hands and then sit down. We would bow graciously in front of each other, recognizing the presence of the divine in the person in front of us, allowing the God in me to greet the God in you.”
Friends, my hope this morning is that the God in each of us will recognize and greet the God in the other. That we will not treat people made in God’s image – fellow God-carriers, like rubbish. My hope this morning is that we Christians will not use our hands for harm or division, but for healing and wholeness. My hope this morning is that we will not shout at each other about whose feeble attempt to live out our Christlike-calling is most correct or that we cut ourselves off from other members of the Christian family. My hope is that we find the table set for each of us, and that we each take our place at it, and that our unity in Christ is strengthened as our divisions fade from memory.
My hope and my prayer this morning is this: that we be one, in the name of the One who continues to pray for us.