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May 25, 2014

Barbara Lorbach

John 17:20-23


A rabbi said that a town with two Jews would need three synagogues:

  1. The one I go to
  2. The one you go to
  3. And the one neither one of us would be caught dead in

Do you think this could be true of Christians? In the scripture lesson from John, Jesus prays for those he has shared his life with as well as for those who will come to know him—that includes us. He is asking God to help us do something.


MESSAGE

20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I 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 motto of the United Church of Christ is “that they all may be one”—John 17:21. The Message version of John 17:21 says, “The goal is for all of them to become one heart and one mind.” How’s that going for us? The story of 2 Jews needing 3 synagogues really sums up how difficult it is for humankind to be one—to be unified. We don’t even come close most days.

How do we live together? How do we worship together? How do we get from “you” and “me” to “we.” This is what Jesus prays for. The primary focus in this text is unity in the body of future believers. In today’s increasingly polarized world, this may seem to be a pipe dream, or at the very best something that is more easily said than done. We separate ourselves from each other according to theology. We separate ourselves from each other according to race. We separate ourselves from each other according to social standing. We separate ourselves from each other according to geography. We separate ourselves from each other according to gender, sexual orientation, appearance, age, politics and the list goes on. With so much out there that divides us, how are we ever to achieve the kind of unity for which Jesus asks?

It helps to understand that the unity for which Jesus asks is not based on who we are, but on who God is. Jesus here does not pray for unity without also acknowledging the fundamental character of God: first, that God is one with Jesus Christ, and second, that God loves God’s people in the same way that God loves Jesus. The unity for which Jesus prays is not dependent upon our ability to overcome division, but God’s constant love for us in spite of it.

There is a “we” of faith precisely because of the way in which God relates to each of us, not because of the way in which we relate to each other. Jesus is not praying for some enormous expression of faith in which all of us believe the same things without variance. We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not. We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not. To become a follower of Jesus is to be a part of a greater whole. The Apostle Paul said it this way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.”

We live in an “either/or” world much of the time. And as our choices have grown, in some ways so have our divisions. My grandparents could not imagine the choices I make in a day’s time—about the places I can eat, the TV shows I can watch, or the fact that I can access information about the rest of the world in an instant. And now there are so many options that people “church shop” when looking for a faith community. Yet here we are with this prayer of Jesus asking God to help us be one.

The United Church of Christ has been in the midst of this struggle for a long time but as a denomination we are young—only 57 years old. And we come from unions of earlier Protestant traditions—Evangelical and Reformed and the Congregational Christian Churches. Each of those was another union of two earlier traditions. The four traditions are part of the immigrant history of the United States of America, of people coming to a New World seeking religious freedom. Part of our history is not so good when it comes to the treatment of indigenous peoples of the Americas, but we’ll leave that for another time.

Let’s do a little more UCC 101:

  • The Congregational Churches came into being as a result of the Pilgrims of Plymouth (1620) and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay (1629) unifying in 1648.
  • The Christian Churches sprang up in the late 1700s and early1800s in reaction to the rigidity of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches of that time.
  • The Reformed Church traces its beginnings to German settlers in Pennsylvania (1725) and later grew with immigrants from Switzerland, Hungary and others.
  • The Evangelical Synod of North America began with German immigrant pastors in Missouri in 1847 and as a direct result of 1817 union of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany.

And yes—I know that’s about as interesting as watching paint dry, but it seems important to know about this UCC. We are not just the liberal church that breaks the boundaries, we’ve always been the church that speaks for justice. We serve God in the co-creation of a just and sustainable world as made clear in the story of Jesus.

So the motto of the UCC is from John 17—“That they may all be one.” Has anyone figured out the title of the message today as printed in the bulletin? Yep—GISS is “God is Still Speaking.” That is the UCC slogan like Nike’s “Just Do It.” Slogan or motto—our ministry is the creation of a just and sustainable world where everyone is welcome at the table. So when we sing “Draw the Circle Wide”, it’s not just a pretty song for our church family, it is the call of justice God has asked us to follow. There’s lots to do and God goes with us. Let’s go together into the world that we might be the reflection of “that they all may be one.”