Sunday June 2nd, 2019
Psalm 97; John 17:20-26
“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one” John 17:22
These were some of Jesus’s final words as he prayed for his disciples in the upper room, shortly before he was arrested and crucified. Jesus had just celebrated Passover with his disciples and washed their feet, giving them a vivid object lesson on servant leadership. And then he proceeded to pray for his disciples as well as for those of us who believe in Jesus because of the word of their testimony, praying they we would all be one, just as Jesus and God the Father and Holy Spirit are one. With less than 24 hours left on this earth, Jesus prayed for us, that we his disciples would all be united as one.
Different Types of People
A friend of mine used to joke there are two types of people in this world: people who categorize people into groups, and people who don’t.
The reality is that many of us love categorizing people into groups. We categorize people by the color of their skin, their country of origin, gender, personality type, occupation, height, weight, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, age, sexual orientation, hair color, eye color, political party, and the list could go on and on.
And then of course we categorize people into groups by faith and religion. There’s religious vs. non-religious, religious vs. spiritual, there’s the religion or faith you grew up in and then there’s the religion or faith you chose for yourself. There’s Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many more. Within Christianity there’s Catholic vs. Protestant, Mainline vs. Evangelical, Charismatic vs. Reformed, and all sorts of denominations and non-denominational churches.
Even within our denomination, the United Methodist Church, there are all sorts of ways people could be categorized. There are people who prefer contemporary worship and others who prefer hymns. There are those who want to keep things the same, and others who want things to change. There are people who attend big churches and those who attend small churches, urban and rural, there are socially progressive churches, and theologically conservative churches.
A United Methodist Church?
At the moment, as the United Methodist Church, we’re struggling to stay united. It’s no small feat to stay united when our denomination is made up of over 12 million members in 136 countries around the world, people of every age and stage of life, people of so many different language and cultural backgrounds, beliefs and perspectives.
Currently, the debate over whether to allow same-sex weddings and clergy who are in same-sex marriages is threatening to split our denomination. It’s been a topic of intense disagreement for quite some time, but it seems like things may be coming to a head. At the special session of the General Conference held in February, to the relief of some and the chagrin of others, the General Conference passed The Traditional Plan, which strengthened prohibitions against same-sex weddings and clergy who are in same-sex marriages.
However, this past week at our Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference which was held here in Baltimore, the clergy of our conference voted to ordain an elder and commission a deacon, both of whom are in married to people of the same sex, once again resulting in celebration by some and distress by others.
And so what does it mean to stay united in the midst of such drastically different beliefs and perspectives? What would it look like for us to be “one” as Jesus prayed?
A Big Hairy Audacious Prayer
The reality is that if our dream is just to keep the United Methodist church together, then our vision falls short of the prayer that Jesus prayed for us. Because Jesus didn’t just pray for unity within a particular congregation or denomination. He didn’t just pray that all of the United Methodists would stay united, or even just that all of us at Hampden United Methodist Church would get along. He prayed that all of his disciples, of every church and denomination, would be united with each other, throughout the world, across all of the boundaries of race and class and gender and orientation and philosophy and doctrine and political beliefs. Jesus prayed that all of us as his disciples would be united as one.
Now that’s a big, hairy, audacious prayer. How can we possibly be united with Christians of other churches and denominations when it seems like we may not even be able to stay united ourselves?
And would it even look like to be united as one? What could we possibly unite us across all of these boundaries? What could we possibly come together and agree on?
Jesus’s first disciples who were sitting there listening to his prayer, numbering about 120 at that point, probably thought the same thing. Jesus had invited an incredibly rag-tag assortment of individuals to follow him. There were fisherman, former tax collectors, prostitutes, people who had been delivered from demons, people who had been blind and lame, rich people and revolutionaries, men and women, old and young. How could they possibly become united as one?
But you see, what united all of Jesus’s followers together was not that they all agreed on everything or had exactly the same political or ideological perspectives. They didn’t all have the same personality type or a common set of life experiences. No! What united them together was that each and every one of them realized their utter need for and dependence upon Jesus.
Jesus loved them individually and specifically, and when he called them to follow him, they answered that call. Not because they were perfect or had it all together, not because they were righteous or religious, but in fact it was the opposite. They recognized that they were sinners who were in need of a savior. They knew that they needed Jesus.
That’s what united them together, that’s how they became one. They recognized their need for Jesus.
We Need Jesus
What if this was how we categorized people? What if instead of seeing people as rich or poor, black or white, Catholic or Protestant, liberal or conservative, what if we saw each and every person in this world as someone whom Jesus loves, someone that Jesus died for, someone to whom Jesus has extended the offer to receive God’s grace and mercy?
And what if we looked at our fellow believers, not as people who we agree or disagree with doctrinally or theologically, but instead as a fellow sinners who have recognized their need for and dependence upon Jesus? What if, rather than categorizing other Christians by the way they worship, what if we celebrated what we have in common — that we have all responded to Jesus’s call to follow him because we realized that we cannot do it on our own?
This is what we remember and celebrate when we partake in Holy Communion. We celebrate the fact that God’s grace and forgiveness is available to all. We celebrate that Jesus gave his life for each and every person in the world, all we need to do is to acknowledge our need for Jesus.
This is why in the United Methodist Church, communion is available to everyone who loves Jesus, everyone “who earnestly repent[s] of their sin and seek[s] to live in peace with one another.” We’re not invited to the communion table because we’re perfect or have it all together. We’re invited because we need Jesus.
When we kneel along the altar and partake of the bread and the cup, we recognize our common need and utter dependence on Jesus. As the saying goes, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” And I would add that it is also level at the communion altar.
“We” Rather than “They”
So how do we live this out? How do we live out the answer to Jesus’s prayer that we would become one?
One small step is to begin to try to use the word “we” rather than “they” when referring to other believers. Rather than talking about “those Christians” of that particular church or denomination, what if we talked about “our fellow members” of the Body of Christ? When talking with a friend or neighbor or coworker who goes to a different church or congregation, what if you thought of them as “us” rather than a separate entity?
What if we truly embraced our utter need and dependence on Jesus, and looked at our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as our family members who have also embraced their need for and dependence upon Jesus?
And so this morning I invite us to come to the communion table. I invite us to come, not because we are perfect or have it all together, but because we need more of Jesus in our lives. This morning there are believers all around the world gathering together to celebrate Holy Communion together, and this morning we join together with them, recognizing that we are all part of that same Body of Christ, that we are all sinners to whom Jesus has extended God’s grace and mercy. Let’s accept Jesus’s invitation and let’s acknowledge and our need and dependence on Jesus.