May 8, 2016, All in the Family – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Most of us have used Corelle dishes at some point. They are those nice, light-weight Corningware dishes that come in lots of pretty patterns, that look and feel like glass, only they are unbreakable – until they aren’t. If you’ve ever dropped a Corelle plate or bowl on a hard floor, you know that when they do break, they don’t just break. They shatter into a million billion smithereens. It seems to me sometimes that the church today looks a lot like that former dish – broken into too many fragments to count, shattered beyond repair like Humpty Dumpty.
A study done at Gordon-Conwell Seminary found that in the year 1900 there were about 1,600 Christian denominations worldwide. By the turn of this millenium, in the year 2,000 there were about 34,000 denominations. And by 2012, they estimated that there were about 43,000 denominations. 43,000 groups of Christ’s disciples who identify themselves at least to some extent as separate from all the other disciples of Christ in the world. It isn’t always a matter of some huge theological disagreement; often Christians separate themselves on matters that might seem trivial to us, the kind of music that is proper for worship, or the version of the Bible that they find acceptable, or because they follow a particularly charismatic Christian leader. Obviously there are a great many reasons God’s people find for building a little wall around themselves, segregating themselves from the one, holy, catholic (with a small “c”) and apostolic church, or there wouldn’t be 43,000 denominations – and counting – in the world today.
The one thing we can say with confidence, though, is that this shattering of the Body of Christ is not the will of God for his Church.
This morning we read a part of the prayer that Jesus prayed on his last night with his disciples. It’s often called his “High Priestly Prayer” because he is interceding for his followers. But this particular prayer, that he prayed on the night he gave himself willingly into the hands of those who wanted him dead, is specially important to us. First of all, as the prayer he offered up on that last night with his disciples, it teaches us what was uppermost on his heart and mind as he handed his ministry on to them. And second of all, it is important to us, because he wasn’t just praying for his twelve close friends that shared the Last Supper with him. He was praying for all of us as well: “I ask not only on behalf of these,” Jesus prayed, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” And that’s all of his people in every time and in every denomination throughout the whole world. Which means, that’s us; he is praying for us – (names).
But this important prayer is a little bit confusing, when you first read it, I think. There’s so much repetition that it’s easy to get kind of lost in the tangle of words: I in you, and you in me, and them in us. It almost reminds me of the old Beatles’ song “I am the Walrus” that starts with: “I am he as you are he as you are me And we are all together” and ends with “goo goo g’joob” Only the Beatles’ song is nonsense, and our Lord’s prayer is the voice of the Son speaking to the Father on our behalf. And his every word is true, and every word has meaning, and every word is important.
When we read this prayer carefully, it is very clear that Jesus’ desire for his disciples, for the disciples sitting around the table with him on that last night, and his disciples sitting here in the pews at St. Philip’s Church in Norwood, and all other disciples: his desire is that the Father would keep them together. It’s not a very long prayer, just the 26 verses of this one chapter of John, but Jesus prays four times that we will all be one. And one of those four petitions is that we will be perfectly one. On this last night of his earthly ministry, Jesus doesn’t pray that we will be powerful or that we will be smart or even that we will be good. He prays that we will be one, that we will be united.
And that makes perfect sense, because being a follower of Jesus Christ means being adopted into the family of God. Christianity isn’t a religion that you belong to by following certain rules and wearing certain clothes and abstaining from certain practices and observing certain rituals – even though that is EXACTLY what the world expects Christianity to be, because that’s how religions generally work. But John tells us, in the first chapter of his gospel: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” And Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” ” And Abba is an Aramaic term of affection for a father, like Daddy.
So, when we say we are Christians, what we mean, or what we should mean, is that we belong to the enormous and ever-growing family of God. And we all know what being part of a family means. It means, first of all, that it’s not our choice. You know that old expression, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” We don’t get to say that we accept these brothers and sisters over here, but those brothers and sisters are really unacceptable. If the Father called them; if the Son gave his life for them; if the Spirit dwells in their hearts; then we who are baptized into the same holy Trinity are one with them. Like it or not. We can build our little walls and make clever names for our little denominations, but we are one. We can disagree – and we do disagree – and we always will disagree, as long as we are in the kingdom of this world – often seriously, about points of doctrine and about the practical living-out of the gospel, things that are truly important to us. But we are still one family.
And when we look closer at Jesus’ prayer, the astonishing thing is that it is when we show ourselves to be one family that the world recognizes the presence of the Father. It is in the love of his children for one another that God reveals himself in the world. And that means that we can be as holy and pure as all get-out; we can vote the straight all-Christian ticket; we can pound people with our Bibles day and night; we can even perform our Anglican liturgies flawlessly – but if we despise our brother or sister our witness to the world is broken. Remember a couple of weeks ago we read the one commandment that Jesus left for us, the one commandment that fulfilled the whole of the law, and it was this: to love one another. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” he said, “if you have love for one another.”
I would imagine that the vast majority of the thousands and thousands of denominations that have sprung up in the past century have done so with an honest desire to more faithfully represent Jesus Christ in the world. We see the errors and foolishness of other Christians and we separate ourselves from them, desiring to follow God more faithfully and more purely. And yet, in dividing the Body of Christ into more and more pieces we have often shattered his image in the world like a mirror that has so many cracks in it our reflection can hardly be made out.
That’s why it is so important to reach out in the little ways we do here. There are five – or six, depending on how you count them – congregations, six denominations in Norwood. But we show ourselves to be one family in lots of little ways. We join together every Thanksgiving for a Community service to give thanks to our Father as one family. We share lunch during Lent, inviting one another into our various church homes week by week. The pastors meet together every six weeks or so to pray together for our people. Here at St. Philip’s we open our doors to all our brothers and sisters for our Community Dinners once a month. And in turn, our Thrift Shop is blessed by many faithful volunteers coming in from the other congregations. Those things may not seem like the ingredients for a powerful witness to the world but the prayer of our Lord says otherwise. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Because the most important thing, if we look closely at what Jesus prays, every single time he asks the Father to make us one, he also says this: “just as we are one.” The reason our unity is a witness to the world is that we are witnesses of the God who is love: the Father who loves the Son, the Son who loves the Father, and the Spirit who loves the Father and the Son. If there had never been a world, if there had never been any people at all, there would still be love, because that is who our God is. Love is how our family does. And that is why we witness most powerfully to the world, not when we tell them how to live, or show them how much better we are, but when we live like brothers and sisters. It sounds like so little – and yet most of the time it’s more than we can manage.
But thanks be to God our Lord prayed for us, that the Father would make us perfectly one. We’ve had some experience with the power of prayer in our little human lives – can you even imagine the power of prayer when the Son of God offers prayers on our behalf? The Church is not left on its own, trying to do a giant ecumenical patch-up job. If you’ve ever tried to glue together a dish that has broken into many pieces, you know that you can never hide the cracks. No matter how carefully you try to place each piece in its proper place, the dish is never as good as new. But Jesus prayed to the Father that we would be perfectly one: not a lot of rugged individuals making a show of unity, but a real family, joined together perfectly in love, because we have all been adopted by the same gracious, loving Father.
Jesus prayed for us. And the Father will do it. And the couple that attends Knapps Station Community Church and the elderly woman that has attended the Congregational Church for decades, and the family down the street who are devoted members of the Free Methodist Church, and the guy who drives you crazy who goes to St. Andrew’s (I’m just making these up, you understand, for examples) – these are our brothers and our sisters. The people who gather to worship at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the people who gather to worship under a huge, spreading tree in Madagascar, and the people who gather secretly in homes to worship in China – these are our brothers and sisters, all of us children of the Father, who loves them and us. And as we grow in unity – and we surely will, because Jesus prayed that we would – the love of the Father is revealed to a fatherless world.