The audio recording of today's sermon can be found here.
Today’s Gospel reading from John recounts the final words of Jesus before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. In anticipation of his separation from his disciples, Jesus gathers them for their last meal together, preaches his final message to them, and concludes with a parting prayer – his farewell. In the prayer, Jesus asks God to unite his disciples and followers and make them all be one: “For you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…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…” (John 17:21-22). In his prayer for unity, Jesus envisions the relationship of the Father and the Son as the model and foundation for the relationship of his followers to one another. Just as the Father and the Son form a perfect and harmonious union, we, too, are called to be united with one another.
But if we look at the historical experience of the Church over the past two thousand years, we have fallen far short of this goal of unity for which Jesus prayed. Christian history is filled with strife and division. From the letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, we read about the various theological disputes in the early church, such as whether to keep Jewish customs like circumcision and dietary laws. Then, there are the many heresies and schisms that plagued the first centuries of the church: Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and so on. About a thousand years after the founding of the Church, the Christian world in the eleventh century suffered its first major division, when the churches on the eastern side of the Mediterranean and those on the western side mutually condemned each other. The eastern wing of the Church became the Orthodox, and the western, the Roman Catholic. Then, about a half century later came the Protestant Reformation, when the unity of the Church in the West was forever shattered, and countless different churches proliferated. You probably didn’t realize you were going to get a lecture on church history today, but that’s what you get when you hire a historian as your priest. I will restrain myself, though, and stop there – at least for now.
One of the most common questions that both Christians and non-Christians ask about Christianity – and it is often a stumbling block to faith – is why there are so many churches: Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox. The fact of the matter is we Christians have not done such a good job fulfilling Jesus’ prayer for unity. Even in our own denomination, the Episcopal Church, we have recently suffered tragic divisions over issues of gender and sexuality.
And I have to confess that I am no impartial observer of the divisiveness. I am symptomatic of the divisiveness. I am complicit in the divisiveness. Let me give you a very recent example. This past week, I went to my office as usual at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg where I teach. As I drove in, I saw all these people, mostly young teenagers, that I would ordinarily not see on campus. The boys were wearing monochromatic dress shirts with slacks, and the girls were wearing long dresses, some of them wearing head coverings. This was quite a change from seeing our students during the school year with their sweats, flip-flops, and even pajama bottoms. It turned out that the university had rented space to a fundamentalist Christian group that runs private schools and homeschooling, and they were holding their annual conference. In my initial response, my prejudices and biases immediately kicked in. I thought to myself: “They look and act strange. They hold onto values that contradict my own.” Quite frankly, I found their presence intrusive and inconvenient. Needless to say, I wasn’t thinking very positive thoughts. And I am sure that if they were to see me today in my vestments and our liturgy at St. Mary’s or if they had seen me this past Friday evening at our church booth for the Kansas City Pridefest, they wouldn’t think such positive thoughts about me.
If I could have it my way, I would prefer to avoid or ignore such people altogether. But here is the problem. They belong to the same Christian faith that I profess, and, what’s more, Jesus calls us to be one. How do we do that? How do we work for unity with people who are so different from us? For many of us, the issue of Christian unity is more than just an abstract theological problem. We have family, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues who belong to different and often conflicting branches of Christianity. In what ways can we achieve in our daily, personal interactions the kind of unity of faith envisioned by Jesus?
The technical term for working toward Christian unity is ecumenism. And I am no expert on ecumenism. But I would like to offer up some ideas and suggestions as we reflect on this challenge of Christian unity. To begin with, we can focus on what we share in common rather than what divides us. In spite of the variety of different expressions, there are certain basic, core beliefs and practices that define us as Christians. The great Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis, calls this “mere Christianity,” and it is the title of his book, which many of you may have read. The book explains the core of the Christian faith, our common ground with all Christians. This ecumenical vision is also central to the work of our current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry. He calls our church “the Episcopal wing of the Jesus Movement.” Whether you call it mere Christianity or the Jesus Movement, all Christians hold in common the core beliefs that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord, and that the Bible is the Word of God. Moreover, central to the practice of our faith are the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion; these are the core rituals that define and distinguish Christian faith. In a moment, Norah will be baptized, and in the waters of baptism, she will be uniting not only with our community of faith here at St. Mary’s but with the community of all Christians on earth and in heaven. Likewise, as we come up for the Eucharist, we will join countless other Christians around the world this day to unite with Christ through his Body and Blood. Sadly, in the midst of all our divisions and squabbling, we often lose sight of these common bonds of faith.
Another way to work for unity in our faith is to pray together. This past Thursday, we had a glorious Evensong and Benediction in celebration of the Ascension, and, following the service, several of us have accepted the invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to join him in the global prayer movement called Thy Kingdom Come. From Ascension to the Pentecost, which is next Sunday, we will join Anglicans around the world as well as with Christians from many other denominations in daily prayer as we seek to bring more people to come to know Jesus Christ. Through such movements of common prayer, we lay aside our differences and divisions, and unite and lift up our voices together to the throne of God.
Focusing on our common faith and praying together can promote Christian unity, but for the ultimate answer to the question of how we Christians can become one, we return to the passage from the Gospel of John that we heard earlier. It is here that Jesus himself points the way to unity. In the conclusion to his prayer, Jesus asks the Father that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Matthew 17:26). Love defines the relationship between the Father and the Son, and it is that same love that will bind together all of us. Perhaps the most eloquent and concrete definition of Christian love in Scripture is found in the words of the Apostle Paul in that famous chapter on love from I Corinthians 13:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13: 5-7)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, let us join together to work for the unity and oneness of faith for which Jesus prayed. Let us focus on what we share in common, let us pray together, let us love one another as Christ has loved us. In spite of our divisions, we are, in the end, one family of faith – children of God.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.