One in Christ

+ A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on May 13, 2018 +

Texts: John 17:6-21

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

This month will mark an anniversary of an event that has impacted my life nearly every day since.
Twelve years ago, right as I was graduating high school and preparing to go to college, I signed up for my Facebook account.

social-network-connections_1010-422Twelve years of social media – which now includes Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Twelve years of scrolling through news feeds, reading articles, liking pictures, and so on.
And in true millennial fashion I must admit, I really do love social media – I love staying connected with friends and family even though we are spread across the globe. I love seeing my niece grow from afar and will never tire of seeing puppy pictures pop up in my feed.

But I also know that social media has its flaws and limitations.
I know that interacting with someone online is not the same as in person and passively seeing what is happening in a friend’s life only tells part of the story.
I also know that social media has become a favorite place to air political opinions and advocate for one’s own viewpoints.
And at its best, these platforms can be great forums for honest debate, but so often they turn nasty and divisive.
And because social media is a mostly tailored audience, we get to choose who we are friends with and who can see what we post.
In some ways social media has quickly become an echo chamber where we align ourselves with people who think like us.
I know I’ve done it – ‘why would I want to see this type of post on my news feed?’ I think as I silence an acquaintance from college or even end this digital friendship.
And before long we have only a silo of those who agree with us, who vote like us, who think like us, and we cut ourselves off from those who would disagree.
We end conflict by removing the voices that challenge us, and we form our own group where we can be safe and happy.

Now, social media has gotten a lot of flack for this kind of isolation recently – for creating a space where we only hear voices like our own – but I think this also reflects what happens in our in-person social lives as well.

51j0had5xqlIn their book, The Big Sort, cultural anthropologists Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing examine how people in the United States have sorted themselves in largely homogenous groups of like-minded people over the past few decades. How we like to live among people who have similar political, educational, ideological, and religious values as we do.
The authors also attribute this sorting to the rise of political gridlock, the polarization of our country, and our seeming inability as a society to have constructive conversations with people who disagree with us – we don’t have practice doing it.
For many people, the most politically charged and stressful time of the year is gathering around the Thanksgiving dinner table and having a conversation with our relatives who have radically different views than we do – people we wish would be more rational or educated on the issues or…would think more like we do!

And if you look at the church universal, this is nothing new.
There are literally thousands of Christian denominations in the world – thousands of divides, thousands of instances of cutting off other believers throughout the history of the church.
Now this isn’t to say that denominations are inherently a bad thing – some denominational divides help show a beautiful diversity in theology, history, worship, and more that are all part of the same body of Christ.
These differing perspectives can show an expansiveness of ways we can approach God.

But some divides are more…petty – deciding who’s in and who’s out – deciding who can be ordained and married or not – deciding what language should be used in worship.
And I get it – there are many denominations that I would refuse to be a part of because they don’t recognize my call to ministry because I’m gay, or they don’t want me to be married, or they say my female colleagues should not be pastors.
Why would I want to be a part of them?

But then I hear this prayer from Jesus today, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

How can we be one?
How can we ever think that these thousands upon thousands of denominations will ever form into one unified body?
Is that even something that we want?
Do we as a people who desire to be among those who agree with us really want a unified church filled with disagreement and debate?
Do we really want church to be more stressful than it is?
Do we really want to be united with those “other” Christians? With the ones we don’t agree with?
What about those pastors who preach that wealth is a sign of God’s love, or that people in the LGBTQ community are sick or are sinners, or those who use a perverted form of scripture to justify their white nationalism – what do we do with them?
What about those leaders whose politics we wish we would change, whose ethical actions don’t align with their preaching, whose love of money seems to outweigh their love of Jesus?
Do we really want to be one with them?

But yet again, we hear Jesus pray, “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.”

Here in the ELCA, we may actually feel fairly good about our work to be a unified body of Christ.
Our denomination is the result of so many mergers of Lutheran bodies in this country throughout the decades.
And in the past few years we have formalized relationships with six other Protestant denominations we call our Full Communion Partners that say that while we are still separate church bodies, our differences do not divide us.
Even still, our formal ecumenical relationships only align our denomination with a small percentage of Christians worldwide.
And even within our congregations, there are disagreements – if I were to ask each of you what the future of Holy Cross might be – or what the future of the church here in Factoria might be – I imagine I’d get a multitude of answers and perhaps a spirited debate.

I think it’s also important to recognize that there really never was a point where the church was fully united.
The Book of Acts and St. Paul’s letters show schisms and divides in the earliest days of the church.
And often unification was through forced conformity or the kicking out of so-called heretics.
So really, what is Jesus praying for when he asks that we all may be one?

I think that he is praying that all his followers will continue to be led and inspired by his example, that we would continue to partner with him as we follow his lead – to care for the marginalized, to challenge those in power, to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless.
I think Jesus is praying that despite our divisions or differences of opinions, we will continue his work on Earth and be united in our common mission.

detail0Jesus isn’t asking that we all believe exactly the same thing, or worship exactly the same way, or speak the same language – that’s not what unity is.
Our unity does not come from doctrinal agreement, but from the love of God we have experienced through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Our unity doesn’t come from common worship or heritage, but from following Jesus’ example and partnering with Christ in continuing his work.
Our unity comes from our common teacher who shows us how to live out God’s love in word and deed on earth – a common guide whose love for the whole world inspires us to service in Jesus’ name.
Our unity comes from our one Lord Jesus Christ, who stands above anything else in this world – who stands above all the ways we as humans attempt to divide ourselves – above political or national allegiances, above culture or race, above sexuality and gender, above time and place – Christ is the one who makes us one.

Throughout his ministry on earth, Jesus has shown us how to be one – how to love our neighbors as ourselves, how to feed, and house, and clothe.
Here at the end of the Easter season, Christ has shown us how to live into his resurrection life – how to break down barriers and uplift the marginalized.
As he ascends into heaven, Christ has taught us how to love as God so fiercely loves us.
And as he sends again his Holy Spirit at Pentecost, he sends us each to be that love in the world.

Soichi Watanabe, “We are One in Jesus Our Lord”

And while we may like to think that this prayer Jesus is praying in today’s gospel is meant for those “other” Christians who think and act differently that we do, Jesus is praying for all of us, for all followers of Christ, so the world may experience Christ through us. His prayer is for us, too. We all have work to do to be united in Christ’s mission. It’s not an us verses them thing, this isn’t a prayer just for those who we wish would be better Christians in our eyes, but Jesus is praying that all of us may better emulate Christ’s work. He isn’t praying that all his disciples be more like us, more like the ELCA, more like Holy Cross, but that we all be more like Christ – that we all be better representatives of the God who has given us all birth, who deeply loves each and every one of us, and has proclaimed us all as beloved Children of God.

Image by Cerezo Barredo

And each time we gather to worship, Christ invites all people to this table – no matter our politics or nationality, our race or culture, our sexuality or gender, our wealth or poverty, our worship style or theology or our understanding of what we are about to eat. All people are invited to this table where all people receive the same piece of bread and bit of wine. All people come and receive the Body and Blood of Christ – and through this meal we are reincorporated into the one Body of Christ – reunited with Christ and all people who share this heavenly food across all time and space. Here we are one. And then we will all be sent out again and again – sent to be united together as the one Body of Christ as we become what we eat – living ambassadors for our Lord of Love as we continue his mission of love in the world.

And Christ is praying for us along the way – Christ is cheering us on, but also nudging all of us to do better. Christ, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, the creator of heaven and earth, the love of God incarnate who has modeled our way, is praying for us and rooting for us. And Christ has not abandoned us as he ascended into heaven but continues to partner with us as we make his love known in the world. Christ is the unifier among all people and walks with us as we join his ministry. And through his prayer, through his ministry, through his love, we are one in Christ.

May we all be one as we live together following Christ’s example.

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