May 16, 2021, You Can Choose Your Friends, John 17 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
If you use Corelle dishes at your house, you know that they look and feel like glass, only they’re unbreakable – until they’re not. If you’ve ever dropped a Corelle plate onto 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 broken Corelle-ware – splintered into too many fragments to count, smashed beyond all hope of 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. Just a hundred years later there were about 34,000 denominations. Today there are more than 45,000 groups of Christ’s disciples who identify themselves, in some way, as separate from all the other disciples of Christ in the world.
Sometimes churches divide because of a theological difference that they feel poses an insurmountable obstacle to their continued fellowship. Sadly, this has happened recently in our own Diocese. Other times 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. God’s people have found a great many reasons, some better than others, for subdividing the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, which is why there are over 45,000 denominations in the world today.
And there is one thing we can say about all that with absolute confidence, and that is that this shattering of the Body of Christ is not the will of God for his Church.
This morning we read the long prayer that Jesus prayed on the night he gave himself willingly into the hands of those who wanted him dead. It is a prayer that has a deep significance for us as Christians. Because it was the prayer Jesus offered up on his very last night with his disciples, it reveals what was of utmost importance to him. And it is important for us, because 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 means all Christians in every age, and in every denomination, throughout the whole world. Which means, he is praying here for you and for me.
Jesus’s words can be a little bit confusing, when you first read it or hear it, I think. You might find yourself getting lost in the tangle of words: I in you, and you in me, and them in us. It almost makes me think of the old Beatles’ song “I am the Walrus” that goes: “I am he as you are he as you are me And we are all together.” The big difference, of course, is that the Beatles’ song is nonsense, and our Lord’s prayer is the voice of the Son of God speaking to the Father on our behalf. And every word of the Son is true, and every word has meaning, and every word is important.
And what Jesus’s words say is that his desire for his disciples – for the disciples sitting around the table with him on that last night, and for his disciples sitting here in the pews of St. Philip’s Church in Norwood today, and for every disciple everywhere: his desire is that we would have unity. In the 26 verses of this seventeenth chapter of John, in a single prayer, Jesus prays four times that we will all be one. On the last night of his earthly ministry, Jesus didn’t pray that we would be powerful, or that we would be smart, or that we would be theologically correct, or even that we would be good. He prayed that we would be one, that we would be united in our love for one another.
And that makes perfect sense, because being a follower of Jesus Christ means being adopted into the family of God. Christianity is not a religion that you belong to by obeying certain rules and wearing certain kinds of clothes and thinking a certain way and practicing certain rituals. Very often that is EXACTLY what the world expects Christianity to be, because that’s how religions generally work. But John wrote, in chapter one of his gospel: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” And Paul wrote: ‘You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”’ Abba is an Aramaic word that means something like Papa, or 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.” That is absolutely true. We don’t get to say that we like these brothers and sisters over here, but those brothers and sisters are not our cup of tea. 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 will probably disagree for as long as we are in the kingdom of this world, about points of doctrine and about the practical living-out of the gospel. We will disagree about things that are truly important. But we are still one family.
And when we really listen to Jesus’ prayer, the astonishing and scary thing is that it is our family unity that is our witness to the world. Jesus tells us that 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 and righteous as anybody’s business; we can vote the straight all-Christian ticket (whatever that means to you), we can recite whole chapters of Scripture by heart; we can even perform our Anglican liturgies flawlessly – but if we despise our brother or sister our witness to the world is broken. Jesus left us just one commandment, and it was this: love one another. “Everyone will know that you are my disciples,” he said to them, “if you have love for one another.” And he prayed to the Father, “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.”
I am sure that the vast majority of the thousands and thousands of denominations that have sprung up over the years have done so with an honest desire to more faithfully represent Jesus Christ in the world. We see the errors and the foolishness of other Christians and we separate ourselves from them, because we want to follow God more faithfully and more purely. And yet, by dividing the Body of Christ into more and more pieces we are in danger of shattering his image in the world like a mirror that has so many cracks in it his reflection can no longer be seen.
That’s why it is so important to actively demonstrate unity right here in our own little community. There are six congregations, and seven separate denominations represented in Norwood. But we show ourselves to be one family in lots of little ways. When we come together for fellowship or worship like our Community Thanksgivings or Lenten luncheons we witness to our neighbors that we are one family in Christ. When we work together with members of the other churches to serve our community with dinners or the Thrift Shop or the Lunch Program for Kids, or Neighborhood Outreach, we witness to our neighbors that we are one family in Christ. 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.”
The reason our unity is a witness to the world is that we are representatives of the God who is love: the Father who loves the Son, the Son who loves the Father, the Spirit who loves the Father and the Son, the God who so loves the world. 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 rolls. 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 just live like brothers and sisters. It sounds like so little – and yet truthfully, most of the time it’s almost more than we can manage.
But thanks be to God our Lord Jesus prayed for us, that the Father would make us perfectly one. We’ve all 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 behalf of his church? We aren’t left on our own, expected 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 pretending to be united, 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 members of Knapps Station Community Church and the Methodist Church, and the Free Methodist Church, and St. Andrew’s, and the Orthodox Church – 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 big, spreading tree in Madagascar, and the people who gather secretly in homes to worship in China – these are our brothers and sisters. And all the people of this Diocese of Albany, and all the people who have left the Diocese of Albany in recent days, we are all brothers and sisters. We are, all of us, children of one Father, who loves us. And as we grow in unity – and we can be absolutely sure that we will, because Jesus prayed that we would – as we grow in our unity, the love of the Father will be revealed to a world that is in desperate need of his love.