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May 28, 2017

A Definition of Oneness

John 17:20-27

 

Today’s passage from John comes after Jesus has announced his pending death to the disciples. Jesus then prays for himself, for God to glorify him in the coming trials and tribulations in Jerusalem. He asks for a blessing upon the disciples, asking for them to be protected and given strength. Then comes the next part- Jesus says “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word”- Did you know that you are mentioned in the Bible? At that moment, Jesus prayed for all of us who would follow along the way, from the first century, all the way to this moment, and into the future as well. This is an important prayer, for it mentions us, SPECIFICALLY. What is Jesus’ prayer? That we may all be one.

 

I find it comforting to know that as Jesus prepared to die for the sins of this world, he offered a prayer for the church of the future, for you and me, for those who would believe in him through the words of the disciples. Yet Jesus’ prayer for us to be one is both humbling because of our disunity and challenging as a call to accept the unity Christ prayed for us to embody.

Consider how many different denominations of Christian churches we have in this community of approximately 21,000. Seventh Day Adventist, Apostolic Faith, Assembly of God, Baptist, Baptist American, Baptist Conservative, Baptist Southern, Bible, Roman Catholic, Christian, Christian Independent,  Christian Missionary Alliance, Christian Science, Church of Christ, Church of God, Community Bible, Episcopal, Full Gospel, Lutheran, Methodist, Nazarene, Christian Fellowship, Heritage Christian, Joy Christian, Simple Faith Christian, Presbyterian USA, Quaker, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Unity AND Wesleyan. Then of course there are the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness congregations who felt it necessary to add to the message of scripture, who are in some way connected to Jesus.  There are at least 34 different churches who believe in Jesus Christ in one form or another in the city of Ashland, each with a smattering of inhabitants, some of them doing well, some hanging in, and some of them slowly fading. I wonder what would happen if somehow, we all gave up our own buildings, and just started worshiping together in one place like the SOU auditorium. Would we be able to make it through just one Sunday together without getting into some kind of theological argument?  I doubt it. I would imagine Jesus being frustrated with the section on churches in the yellow pages in our area  and with the different churches with different names and different styles of worship and service to God’s kingdom all doing our own things without spending much time together at all. We certainly aren’t a very good witness at being one.

 

Human nature seems to look for differences rather than commonalities. Wouldn’t it be nice if at least everyone in a denomination all got along together? But we know better, especially in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. We have been fighting for decades over interpretation of the Bible, on whether or not to embrace Gay, Lesbian, Bi Sexual Transgender and Queer persons or not. In 2014, when the denomination came out in favor of same sex marriage, a number of congregations left for the Evangelical Presbyterian church. Sadly all too often our differences become divisions, weakening the body of Christ and hindering our common ministry.

 

While addressing the frustrating divisions in the Corinthian church, Paul writes in First Corinthians 1:13, “Is Christ Divided?” It certainly seems that way with the Presbyterians and our 19 splinter groups, as well as with the Christian church in general.

 

There’s a story about four persons who were flying over the Pacific Ocean, and unfortunately their small plane had engine trouble and they had to ditch in the ocean. They survived the crash into the sea, and began swimming together. Fortunately, they were near a deserted island, and they crawled on shore. The four people were as follows- a German scientist, a French chef, and two Scottish Presbyterians. They began to organize their island, to form a society and culture as best as they were able. The French chef focused upon foraging for food, and founded a culinary institute. The German scientist began studying the flora and fauna of the island, and founded the scientific research institute.  The two Scottish Presbyterians, being led by their faith, felt it important to have a place of worship on the island, and so they founded the church- First Presbyterian church and Second Presbyterian church.

 

Why can’t we live as one? The Confession of 1967, from our Presbyterian Book of Confessions addresses this very issue: "The institutions of the people of God change and vary as their mission requires in different times and places. The unity of the church is compatible with a wide variety of forms, but it is hidden and distorted when variant forms are allowed to harden into sectarian divisions, exclusive denominations, and rival factions." It is sin creeping in that hides our unity in Christ and creates division.                                 

 

So what then are we to do with Jesus’ prayer to God, that all may be made one in him? First I think we need to define what Jesus meant by being one. Jesus was not talking not about uniformity-that is, what the dictionary defines as “being exactly the same, everywhere”, but rather unity-what the dictionary also defines as “oneness of mind.” We need to try to work for Jesus’ sincere desire to come together and look at our commonalities and find oneness of mind, rather than focus upon our differences. We need to realize that it is sin and evil that makes us look for and heighten our differences. So, we need to make a sincere effort to come together in Christian unity.

 

How do we do this? I believe passages of scripture can guide us in these efforts. A few passages come to mind. Paul struggled to bring people together in the many congregations he planted. These passages apply to us as a congregation, to other churches in our community, and to the warring factions in the Presbyterian Church nationally as well. Beginning with Paul’s call for a congregation to come together, he talks about how we all are members of one body, yet we members of the body do not have the same function. In Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to us. (Romans 12: 4-6a) We need to appreciate our differences, and realize that they can work together as one body. Some of us are ears, some eyes some arms, etc. Some of us worship at 8:00, and some of us worship at 10:00. Yet we are part of one body, and we have need of each other’s gifts, opinions and abilities. A wise person once wrote, “Sometimes you have to see people as a crayon. They may not be your favorite color, but you need them to complete the picture.”

 

As for considering our sisters and brothers from different congregations here in the Rogue Valley, In Galatians 3:26-28 Paul tells us, “You are all sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, (nor Baptist, nor Lutheran nor Foursquare, nor Presbyterian etc.,) for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When you drive by another congregation’s church, remember they are your sisters and brothers in Christ. Pray for their congregation, and give thanks for them. And my part will be to reach out to other pastors in our community and get to know them, hoping we can find some things in common and work together for Christ.

 

And as for our theological battles within our denomination, Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:3-5, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one spirit-just as you were called to one hope when you were called-one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Now that we have once again split on issues of interpretation of scripture and gay and lesbian inclusion, most churches left in the P.C.U.S.A. need to come together and work together- something Cascades Presbytery is working on right now as it reorganizes.  And hard as it may be, we PCUSAers must try to reach across the aisle to the Evangelical Presbyterians for the sake of Christ’s prayer, that all may be one.

 

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body, for we partake of one loaf.”  To summarize Paul’s teachings on Christian unity, he encouraged his followers to unite as one body, to celebrate our differences, to look beyond differences of race and culture, to focus upon finding unity in Jesus and our common faith in him, and upon the sacraments of baptism and communion. Easier said than done...

 

The evil one is so crafty, dividing us over interpretations of how we do and see things that could bring us together. If we cannot agree on everything, can we still find some common ground somehow? Can we be one, as Jesus prayed for?

 

Theologian Jim Jackson has a story about a call for unity, not uniformity in the church. “Many years ago a crop duster taught me an important principle. He said that any crop duster who consistently tried to spray more than 80 percent of the fields he contracted to dust, would sooner or later get his plane caught up in a power line and die. From him I adopted what I call “the 80% rule.” If I can go along with 80% of what is being said or done, whether it is in my home, at church, or in my neighborhood, I’m okay. I can live and let live. It is only when I start to agree with less than 80% of what is being said or done that I begin to have problems. I commend to you the 80% rule. Trust me, your agreement with your Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox fellow believers runs well over 80% when it comes to the essentials of Christianity!”

 

The 80% rule is a pretty good one for us to consider as we think about what it means to be one in our own congregation. Over the next year or so, we will be tinkering with our worship service, trying to find new ways to reach out to our surrounding community, and re considering what it means to be a church in Ashland today. We will be trying some new things. My guess is that you will find some things to disagree about, and some new things you like. You may like something new or long for the old way we used to do something and find yourself in disagreement with your sister or brother in Christ here. We may not have much that we agree 100% about with others in our congregation. Yet, we don’t have to think exactly alike.  Jesus is not telling us to be cookie cutter Christians, uniform in every detail.  We have different opinions about worship and Christian Education and fellowship times and how to do leadership because God gave each of us individual ideas and gifts. Being one is about unity, not uniformity. So let’s agree that we may not see things in the same way as others in the body see them, but we can find some common ground in our experimentations with worship, etc. Let’s focus on the things we can agree upon, listen to differing opinions, aim for 80% and work together as one body.

 

May Jesus’ prayer be in our hearts for comfort and in our ears as a challenge. Can we agree on most things, and let the other 20% go?   Can we as a church show our unity "so that the world may know that God has sent Jesus and has loved them even as God has loved Jesus"? Jesus Christ is the key, the source of our power, for he stands as the connection between the divine love of God for us. Our unity as Christians is meant to provide a message of hope to the world: that in Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. May we go from this place, united in God’s love, extending that love outward, and proclaiming oneness in Christ. Alleluia! Amen.

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