May 29, 2022: That We Might Be One

May 24th, 2022

Encountering the text:

The assigned Gospel for this seventh Sunday of Easter is appropriate for this time between the ascent of the Lord and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. We are at the conclusion of Jesus’s final prayer before he goes to the garden of Gethsemane and the events of the passion. It’s customary to read this portion of the Gospel as a part of Holy Week, as part of the narrative of Jesus’s final supper with his disciples. 

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the empty tomb, the resurrection and now the ascension. Jesus who was crucified now triumphs and sits at the right hand of God. We are still trying to figure out the meaning of all this, and as we await the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, it might be a good time for us to return to Jesus’s prayer. Note that this prayer has a future focus. Note that Jesus prays for his disciples and what they have ahead of them, but note also that Jesus is praying for us, his future disciples. The focus of his prayer for us in this section is a prayer that all of his followers will be united.

I wonder if Jesus prays this prayer because he realized that his disciples were not united. Sometimes we say that a crisis “brings this community together.” But you also know that a crisis can tear us apart, bringing pressure upon the community, a pressure that the community is unable to withstand. Fragmentation results. Throughout the Gospels, the writers have been quite candid in portraying the students’ petty squabbles, as well as the jealousy and the division among the disciples. Surely here at their final meal, there were divisions among them. 

Would all that change after Christ’s ascension? Of course not. Think of your own congregation. If your church is like most churches, unity in Christ has been hard to come by. We are not one. 

“I have never seen America less united,” someone said the other day. We would do well to ask in response, “Just when was that golden age when the nation was united?" American history is a history of factions and divisions including a murderous war amongst ourselves—hardly civil if you ask me. The church hasn’t fared much better.

“I can’t believe that The United Methodist Church is dividing," someone said. Really? How do you think we got The United Methodist Church in the first place? Through division stemming from the Protestant Reformation, followed by the Methodist breakaway from the Church of England, and so Methodism came to America.

“I’m not leaving The United Methodist Church,” I heard a clergyperson say. “My church left me.”

Separation and division have been ever with us. But so has Jesus’s earnest prayer that we are to be united. Jesus does not say in his prayer, “I know there are perfectly good reasons for their being divisions and factions among you. This is only human nature.” Rather, Jesus prays that all of his followers should be one. He makes no distinction between is deeply faithful followers and his more casual disciples. He says “all.” He says “one.” As we listen in on his prayer we know that he is beseeching his Father for all of us. He prays for “those who will believe in me” (17:20).

Immediately there are questions: Do we all have to get along no matter what? Are there any times when there are higher values than ecumenical or intra-ecclesial unity? Aren’t there times when a pastor must risk causing division and disunity in order to preach God’s truth and righteousness? Then there are some people who just don’t seem able—because of their personalities, or religious backgrounds, or whatever—those who seem incapable of ever becoming a part of a cohesive group.

Those are all appropriate questions, but we do well to remind ourselves that they do not seem to be questions of great concern to Jesus as he straight forwardly, passionately prays for the unity of all of his followers.

In listening in on Jesus’s prayer, we hear that our unity, our “oneness” is to be a witness to the world of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. No oneness and unity without love. If you have ever been part of a family or a marriage, if you’ve ever been a member of the church, you know that within the bonds of love there can be much disagreement and contention. In fact, some of our most serious arguments can be signs that we indeed do deeply love one another. If we didn’t care about one another, why would we take the trouble to stay and fight?

Perhaps in his prayer that all of his followers might be one, Jesus is giving us instruction in how to fight with one another in the church. We can have strong disagreements when our dissension is framed by our strong determination to obey Jesus and love one another.

The unity that Jesus prays for is akin to that deep, communicative unity within the heart of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As the church fathers said, “These three are one.” Because of who God is in God’s complete trinitarian unity, union, communion, and oneness are built right into the center of the universe. When we work for unity of the church, we are not attempting to achieve some impossible goal: we are moving with the grain of the universe.

I don’t know how much you want to explicitly go into specific divisions within your congregation. That sort of thing should be done with great care of course. However, it might be interesting for you to find a way to speak honestly within the context of this Sunday’s Gospel. Knowing that Jesus is one with the Father and knowing that Jesus prays—just before he goes to his cross—for the unity of all this followers, how then should we live?

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Proclaiming the text:

I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.

Jesus leads his followers with one final prayer before he goes to his cross. In this last prayer, Jesus clearly takes is disciples to the heart of the gospel. This is one last word that Jesus speaks directly to his Father. And what does Jesus pray for? He doesn’t pray that his followers will not be led into temptation, or that we will always have smooth sailing in our discipleship, or that we will be successful in spreading the gospel. He prays that we will be united.

I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.

Jesus’s earnest prayer for unity among his disciples is a particular challenge in the present age. Gil Rendle, author of Quietly Courageous, the decade’s most helpful book on church leadership, says that most of us who lead the church today grew up in a convergent culture, whereas we now find ourselves leading in a divergent culture. A convergent culture is characterized by commonality, a sense of unity, common purpose, and shared values; a divergent culture craves variety and diversity and stresses generational, racial, and gender differences. Whereas a convergent culture urges individuals to hide their differences or to try to fold their differences into the larger group, a divergent culture encourages people to lead with their differences and to cultivate and express the ways they deviate from cultural norms.

Mainline churches like ours thrived in a convergent culture. As Gil says, “It isn’t difficult to lead people in the direction they are already going.” The questions and the answers are the same for everybody. We dream the same dream. Everybody wants to look average.

Congregational unity wasn’t much of a challenge when we could rely upon an already well-formed common identity and purpose. Rather than creating and inculcating a common, distinctive sense of mission, church leaders could rely on people’s desire to fit into the larger group.

At some point people stopped saying, “We’re here because my family has always been Baptist” (convergent), and started asking, “What can your church do for us?” (divergent).

Divergent leadership is complex because our organizations and institutions have become multifaceted in ways that are often experienced as fragmented and dissonant. Gil says that a question like “Where is the nearest Presbyterian church?” (convergent) has become “Why do you want to go to a Presbyterian church?” (divergent).

All of this means that it’s a challenging time to hear Jesus pray for us: I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me, and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.

Note that Jesus prays that his followers (that is, us) will be unified so that “the world will believe that you sent me.” Let’s be honest, our disunity is an impediment to our evangelistic efforts to witness to Christ. The world looks at us and say, “If Jesus is about love for one another, how come there are dozens of different Christian denominations, and thousands of bitterly divided Christian congregations?”

Gil Rendle thinks the major change from a convergent to a divergent culture is our society’s move from “communal” to “individual.” Divergent institutions tend to be a conglomeration of individuals. In a divergent age, advertising and technology encourage us to fulfill our individual needs by exercising individual preference.

“I’m trying to lead a church where half of ’em get their news from Fox and the other half from MSNBC,” groused a pastor friend of mine. “While I’m trying to preach the good news that can bring us together, they’re trying to pigeonhole my message into one of these two containers.”

The media identifies a plethora of segments and plays to our segmentation. We find ourselves living in the functional equivalent of gated communities in which personal preferences tend to outweigh a sense of common purpose. The subjective feelings of individuals, along with the fulfillment of individual desires, preoccupy a divergent culture.

Throughout my ministry I’ve preached the Christian necessity of racially, ethnically inclusive and diverse congregations. Yet I never succeeded in forming a congregation that matched my homiletical exhortation. It’s difficult to urge a church to violate its divergent expectations for individual fulfillment with talk of merging and converging those differences in one body.

Among our many divisions—political, theological, economic, racial—there are also divisions between the generations. When divergent Millennials say that they don’t want to be part of “organized religion,” what they mean is that they don’t want to be part of a congregation; congregations are the way that Christians organize. Even more troubling theologically, they may be saying they prefer a disincarnate God, Christ without a body. How do we entice people toward an incarnational faith, an embodied spirituality, when they believe their highest calling is to discover and to express their individuality apart from a group?

Political divisions between left and right, racial animosity, economic disparities, theological differences, the hope that a group of people like us could come together in worship and in service of the Lord without splitting up and eventually breaking fellowship with one another seems an impossible ideal. It seems crazy to think that this church or any other could be otherwise than divided.

Except for this one truth: Jesus prays for us. Jesus, God’s Son, savior of the world, prays for us to his heavenly Father. And when he prays, what does he pray for?

I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me, and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.

Every time we have an argument in our congregation, whenever there’s a disagreement among us, anytime we seriously consider all the assorted reasons why it’s hard for us to be united, to love and to work as one, let’s all remember what we overheard this day when we listened in on Jesus’s prayer and take heart:

I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me, and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.


Relating the text:

In a sermon I preached a number of years ago to a divided congregation, I began by noting that division in churches is nothing new. “By my estimate, at least half of Paul’s letters are addressed to divided churches. Would Paul have talked so much about love and unity if his churches were actually of one heart and mind?”

Then I launched into a listing of the diverse gifts I had observed among the people at Northside Church:

Want somebody to pour oil on troubled waters after an acrimonious council meeting? Call Amanda. She can find some good in every person’s point of view—even mine!

On the other hand, if you want to see placid waters troubled, some issue put out on the table that most of us would rather avoid, then you know who is in charge of that! Homer, we all know that’s you!

Got some new initiative that needs someone to be the sparkplug that gets it up and running and pushes it forward? John Black is the person God has assigned that task in this church.

Need the floor mopped in the fellowship hall after the pipe broke on Christmas Eve? Now who in the world would undertake such a menial task at that time of the year? You know who—Betty Watson. We couldn’t have celebrated Christ’s miraculous birth without Betty’s mundane work with mop and bucket.

Lost your job and don’t know which way to turn? Fortunately, God has equipped a number of folks to help you through the hard times: Johnson, Matt, and Arthur. Just call them and you’ll be helped by their business gifts.

Down on your luck and don’t know where you’ll get $25 to get the electricity turned back on? Come to our clothes closet and ask for Sammie. She’s the one God has appointed to do that.

Alonzo, how many people’s cars have you got up and running without charging them a dime? More than you can count, right? Glad they didn’t come to me in their time of need. God has given you a gift for auto mechanics that God appears to have no intention of giving me! To say nothing of your open-handed generosity.

God has sent this church all the people we need to obey God’s call. The world puts before us a wide range of needs. People are hurting in all kinds of ways. So, the one Spirit gives us many gifts and then sets us loose in the world.

Let’s encourage one another to use the specific gifts God has given us to help others. Let’s honor the diversity of gifts and not put down anybody’s gift just because it’s not the gift that God has given to you.

I’m going to read you some scripture. Though it was written by Paul two thousand years ago to a church on the shores of the Mediterranean, I think it was written to you, the people of Northside Church on Summit Drive in Greenville:

“There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.

Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.” (1 Cor 12:4-12).

To be honest, a close look at my preaching shows that I, too, am a child of a divergent age. One of the greatest weaknesses in many of my moves from the biblical text to the preached sermon is that I neglect the communal, corporate intentions of scripture. I turn a text that addresses the whole congregation into an existential, subjective matter. That’s what happens in a radically individualized (“What’s in it for me?”) culture.

So my sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s great hymn to love, is transformed from Paul’s corporately derived and delivered word to a divided church to an exhortation for individuals to be more loving in their daily interactions or, worse, as instructions for a happier marriage.

Scripture tends to be communally concerned before it is individually so. Why do I so seldom preach from the letters of Paul? The epistles arise from essentially in-house, parochial, congregational concerns—urging the rich and the poor to share with one another in the church, pressing people to lay aside their differences and cease squabbling, advising a younger associate to utilize his God-given authority despite his immaturity, pleading for money to help churches in need. In short, Paul’s letters are occupied with just the sort of communal, corporate problems that vex pastors. It may be enough for most Christians to tend their own spiritual gardens without much thought for the spiritual growth of their fellow Christians. But not the pastor. Thus, in a divergent age, expect tension between the gospel’s essentially convergent concerns and those of an individualized, divergent culture.

This article is excerpted from the April, May, June 2022 edition of Will Willimon's Pulpit Resource. You can subscribe to Pulpit Resource through MinistryMatters here.

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