This message was preached in front of the meeting of the Presbyterians of South Dakota earlier this week. Not necessarily my best work, but I thought I would share:
THAT THEY MAY ALL BE ONE
Who would have ever thought it? A Baptist pastor preaching in a Presbyterian meeting hosted by a congregation that is PCUSA, Methodist, and Baptist. Many of us may think little of such a thing these days, but it was not always so. There was a day when people were a little more zealous in defense of their denominational identity. Thank God we have heeded the prayer that Jesus prayed more closely when he prayed, “that they all may be one”. It wasn’t long ago that a story like this would have reflected real life concerns, instead of just being a good joke poking fun at our differences. Here it is:
A Baptist preacher and his wife decided to get a new dog. Ever mindful of the congregation, they knew the dog must also be a Baptist. They visited kennel after kennel and explained their needs. Finally, they found a kennel whose owner assured them he had just the dog they wanted.
The owner brought the dog to meet the pastor and his wife. 'Fetch the Bible,' he commanded. The dog bounded to the bookshelf, scrutinized the books, located the Bible, and brought it to the owner.
'Now find Psalm 23,' he commanded. The dog dropped the Bible to the floor, and showing marvelous dexterity with his paws, leafed through, and finding the correct passage, pointed to it with his paw.
The pastor and his wife were very impressed and purchased the dog.That evening, a group of church members came to visit. The pastor and his wife began to show off the dog, having him locate several Bible verses. The visitors were very impressed. One man asked, 'Can he do regular dog tricks, too?'
'I haven't tried yet,' the pastor replied.He pointed his finger at the dog..'HEEL!' the pastor commanded. The dog immediately jumped on a chair, placed one paw on the pastor's forehead and began to howl.
The pastor looked at his wife in shock and said, 'Good Heaven's, he's Pentecostal!
Back about 1918 it was a pretty radical idea in this small little town, this interdenominational cooperation among churches. There may have been a few United Churches, but even fewer that cooperated between three denominations. It still is a pretty radical idea for a lot of churches in a lot of places, even today.
Occasionally, as I was moving here, and even after I arrived, I have been asked about our set up here at United Churches. People who are not a part of this community are a little taken aback. What spurred that on (a clergy shortage during and after WWI). How does it work? They ask. “It works”, I respond.
Then I generally use the same metaphor to describe our ministry here, and the importance of our being able to partner in ministry, “You know, when we get to heaven, we won’t be wearing t-shirts that say BAPTIST on one, METHODIST on the other, and PRESBYTERIAN on the next. We won’t even be wearing shirts that say LUTHERAN, ANGLICAN, PENTECOSTAL, ORTHODOX, or CATHOLIC. We will simply be known as believers in Jesus, children of God, born of the Spirit. So, why not start practicing a little more of the kind of community we are going to have in heaven here on earth, even if it is in our own strange and flawed little way.
And so, that is what we do. We live as a body of believers, blending denominational labels and traditions, in order to spread the gospel more effectively, and also in order to give witness to the one faith, one baptism, and one Lord that we share through our shared faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
“That they may all be one”. This is the prayer that Jesus prayed. It is not a prayer that only manifests itself in federated churches. It is a prayer that as Christians, whether we cling to denominational labels (Lutheran or Assemblies of God) or political labels (progressive or conservative), theological labels (liberal or evangelical) or geographical labels (west river or east river, city or country) should pray. We should be able to be able to fellowship, partner with, encourage and pray for congregations that come from different parts of the Christian family tree, or as a presenter put it in our last meeting, have different middle names. We can treasure and love our own denominational family like close relatives, and embrace our brothers and sisters in other denominations like they were our extended family.
When I was a pastor in Colorado, I saw a very simple and clear demonstration of this, that gave a very clear witness to Christian unity beyond denominational boundaries. You see, the school in town, the historic school that was once the high school, then the elementary school, and then sat empty, was coming to the point where the school district wanted to sell it. There was no doubt, a lot of work to be done in the facility, but it was still a nice space. There was a church in town that needed a building, because it met in a place that was really a residence with a sanctuary built on top of it. So, an agreement was made to sell the school to the church for $1000. The school board met, and someone came in at the last minute, offering $5000 for the building, when the deal was done. The people of this little church was devastated. Then the superintendant of the schools, a Lutheran, stood up. He offered $7000 for the church, and it was sold to him. He then signed over the deed to the Assemblies of God church for $1. People in town, believers of all stripes, were rather proud of that moment. It showed what many churches practiced day to day. That was that the church was bigger than denominational boundaries and what buildings you met at in that small town. The body of Christ was the believers of whatever stripe. And they stood together. Jesus’ prayer was answered through their cooperation. The prayer “That they may all be one”.
“That they may all be one”. This is a prayer that Jesus prayed and he meant it.
“That they may all be one,” Jesus prayed. When Jesus prayed this he prayed that the barriers that divide us might come down. That what formerly might have divided us, when we were in Christ, would divide us no longer. Christ prayed for those that believe that our ethnic backgrounds would no longer divide us. That we would know that when we prayed the Lord’s Prayer here, we also prayed it with Africans who prayed the prayer in Swahili, and Iraqis who prayed the prayer in Arabic, and Burmese who prayed the prayer in Karen.
“That they may all be one,” Jesus prayed. And when he prayed this he prayed for a church that had rich and poor in it. Where people with flannel shirts would be able to hold hands with people with starched shirts as worship closes, and that they would be able to join together as one body and sing, “I am so glad I’m a part of the family of God. And mean it. And when Jesus prayed this prayer he meant that we could look across a meeting of our church governing board and see someone who spoke a little different, had a little different education, and call them brother and sister.
“That they may all be one,” Jesus prayed. And when he prayed this prayer he prayed for a church where men and women partnered in leadership, teaching and serving, loving and governing his church. And he prayed this prayer having said to the leaders of the church a few chapters back that leadership was not supposed to be an office where you lorded authority over another because of your position like the world does. But leadership was an office of serving and offering grace and love on behalf of a Lord who is bigger than you could ever imagine, and as close as the breathe you see coming out of your mouth on a crisp winter morning.
This is the prayer that Paul echoed when he said, “In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.”
So, then, the question comes, how are we unified? What unifies us? What knits our hearts together where we become family, and empowers us to love one another when our differences go from being interesting to being annoying?
It turns out Jesus’ prayer speaks to this too.
Jesus prays for all of those who will believe in him. He prays for that we will be in Christ and thus in the Father, and united with what the Godhead is doing in the world, so that the world will know that we are God’s. Jesus prays that the world will see God’s love shining through our lives.
You see, friends, it is our unity in Christ that makes the difference. As we submit to the authority of the Father through covenanting to be obedient to God’s word, we find unity. As we focus on our shared values of Christian practice, we are brought together in unity. As we stand together in shared faith in the basics of the Christian faith, as articulated in documents such as the Apostle’s Creed, we find unity. As we are led by the Spirit to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and support the widows and the orphans in their distress, we find Christ knitting us together as one body.
Oh, sisters and brothers, we can get sidetracked. We can argue about which camp the kids go to, or which songs we sing. We can get bent out of shape about who gets to use what part of the building when, or whether 1 ply or 2 ply toilet paper is more appropriate for a church bathroom. We can get wound up about how to dress at church, and where we sit in the middle of a worship service. We can get caught up in so many things that are about living under the power of the flesh wanting what I want when I want it, and those things matter so little in light of the mission that God is trying to accomplish through Christ in the world.
We forget what Christ lived for and died for. We forget what God is doing through the Father, Son and Spirit, the three in one. We forget Jesus’ prayer for his followers everywhere, “That they may be one”
We forget why he came to this earth. Why he lived a sinless life. Why he died on the cross and rose again for our sins. We forget that Jesus rose in victory so that those that would believe would have the opportunity to spend eternity with Christ. We forget about the Spirit that was sent to comfort and empower us, to guide us and lead us. And we get distracted by all sorts of things that we have no business being distracted by.
So, I encourage you, brothers and sisters, today, to remember the words of Jesus, “that they may be one”. I encourage you to strive for unity among your brothers and sisters in Christ. To major in major things, and to not get stuck in the minor differences that the evil one would use to steal and destroy our unity as believers. I urge you, to unite under the banner of the gospel, to stand in allegiance with your fellow believers, to do the work of the gospel, and to keep the faith of the church, as the Spirit gives us power.
Jesus prayed “that they may be one”, because he knew our witness, our shared faith, our mission depended on it. What our Lord prayed, may he also give us the grace to live. Amen.